Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 46, Fall/Winter 1999
Tools for Small Farmers

The man who farms water

by Brad Lancaster

"Having to support a family of eight, Mr. Phiri turned to the only two things he had, a three hectare family landholding and the Bible. He didn't use the Bible only for spiritual guidance or inspiration, he also used it as a gardening manual. Reading Genesis, he saw that everything Adam and Eve needed was provided by the Garden of Eden. 'So,' thought Mr. Phiri, 'I must create my own Garden of Eden.' Yet he also realized that Adam and Eve had the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in their region, while he didn't have even an ephemeral creek. 'So,' he thought, 'I must also create my own rivers.' He has done both."

[ALN Editor's note: This article was originally published in the April 1996 issue of the Permaculture Drylands Journal (PDJ), and was reprinted in PDJ in summer 1998 as part of their "the first ten years" issue. PDJ is a publication of the Permaculture Drylands Institute (PDI). PDI is currently undergoing reorganization under the auspices of the Permaculture Institute. Back issues of PDJ are available from the Permaculture Institute. For more information, contact:
Permaculture Institute, USA
Casa Las Barrancas Farm
PO Box 3702
Pojoaque, NM 87501
Tel/Fax: +1 (505) 455-0270
Our thanks both to the Permaculture Institute and to the author for permission to reprint this article.]

Meeting the water farmer

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While traveling through Southern Africa in the summer of 1995, I heard of a man who was farming water. I set out to find him without much of an idea of where I was going. Soon I was packed in a colorful old bus roaring through the southern countryside of Zimbabwe at about 30 miles per hour. The scenery was beautiful with rolling hills of yellow grass upon red earth and small thickets of twisting, sometimes umbrella-like trees. I faded in and out of sleep until nine hours later when we were in Zimbabwe's driest region. We crested a pass of low lying semidesert vegetation to see below us a vast high veldt prairie of undulating hills covered with dry grass and often capped with barren outcroppings of granite. Trees were sparse. I was reminded of the open grasslands of southeastern Arizona. In fact, all was covered by a wonderful expanse of clear blue sky, as one would see in the arid southwestern United States. The bus crept down into the dry grassland and stopped in the small rural town of Zvishavane. This was the area where the water farmer lived. As the sun was setting, I walked off to find a spot to lay my sleeping bag and went to sleep.

In the morning, I hitched a ride with the local director of CARE International. She took me to a row of single-story houses. One of these was the simple office of the Zvishavane Water Resources Project. There on the porch, reading the Bible, sat the water farmer.

As my ride came to a stop, he sprung up with a huge smile and warm greetings. Here at last was Mr. Zephania Phiri Maseko. When he learned of how far I had traveled, he burst into a wonderful laugh. He told me that lately visitors from all over the globe seemed to be pouring in almost daily. Nonetheless, each one is an unexpected surprise.

In the landrover bouncing over worn and eroded dirt roads toward his farm, Mr. Phiri was talking, laughing and gesturing-endless streams of poetic analogies and stories. The best story of all was his own.

In 1964, he was fired from his job on the railway for being politically naive against the White Rhodesian government. He was told by the government that he would never work again in any position.

Having to support a family of eight, Mr. Phiri turned to the only two things he had, a three hectare family landholding and the Bible. He didn't use the Bible only for spiritual guidance or inspiration, he also used it as a gardening manual. Reading Genesis, he saw that everything Adam and Eve needed was provided by the Garden of Eden. "So," thought Mr. Phiri, "I must create my own Garden of Eden." Yet he also realized that Adam and Eve had the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in their region, while he didn't have even an ephemeral creek. "So," he thought, "I must also create my own rivers." He has done both.

Plan of Phiri farm
Thumbnail link to site plan of Mr. Phiri's farm, ~17K

Learning to farm water

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His farm is on the slope of a hill facing north-northeast (providing good sun exposure to the site, as it is in the Southern Hemisphere). The top of the hill is a large, exposed granite dome from which storm runoff once freely flowed. The average annual rainfall is 570 mm (just over 22 inches). However, as Mr. Phiri points out, this is an average based on extremes. Many years are drought years when the land is lucky to receive 12 inches of rain.

When he began, it was very difficult to grow crops successfully let alone make a profit, due to the frequent droughts and zero equipment or capital for irrigation from groundwater. He spent time observing what would happen when it did rain. In small depressions and upslope of rocks and plants, the soil moisture would linger longer than in areas where sheet flow went unchecked. Thus began his self education in rainwater harvesting-and his work. Over a period of 30 years, he has created a sustainable system that provides all his water needs from rainfall alone.

unmortared stone walls
Thumbnail link to image of unmortared stone walls on Phiri farm, ~18K

"You start catchment upstream and heal the young before the old/deep gullies downstream," says Mr. Phiri. Beginning at the top of the watershed, he built unmortared stone walls at random intervals on contour (that is, along lines of equal elevation). These walls slow the flow of storm runoff as the water moves through the spaces between the stones. This makes the water running off the granite dome more manageable as it is directed to unlined reservoirs, which like everything else, were built with nothing more than hand tools and the sweat of Mr. Phiri and his two wives. The larger of the two reservoirs Mr. Phiri calls his immigration center. "It is here that I welcome the water to my farm and then direct it to where it will live in the soil," he laughs.

"The soil," he explains, "is like a tin. The tin should hold all water. Gullies and erosion are like holes in the tin that allow water and organic matter to escape. These must be plugged."

Mr. Phiri's "immigration center" is also a water gauge, for he knows that if it fills three times in a season, enough rain will have infiltrated into the groundwater to last for two years.

The smaller reservoir directs water via a culvert to an above-ground ferro-cement cistern that feeds his courtyard in dry spells. He has another cistern, shaded by a lush granadilla creeper, collecting water from his roof. Aside from these two cisterns, all water harvesting structures on the farm aim to infiltrate the water into the soil as soon as possible. Near the home is an outdoor wash basin from which all greywater is drained to a covered, unmortared, stone-lined, underground cistern where the water quickly infiltrates.

Water harvesting structures

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From the top of the watershed to the bottom, there are numerous water-harvesting structures such as check dam walls, gabions, terraces, swales and fruition pits.

The government had put in large swales many years ago throughout the region, but they had put them just off contour so that they'd stop sheet flow erosion and carry the storm runoff to a central drainage. The erosion problem was solved, but all the lands were being robbed of their water. So Mr. Phiri dug large "fruition pits" about 10' x 6' x 4' in the basins of all his swales. When it rains, the pits fill with water and the overflow runs into the next pit, and so on up to his property line. Long after the rain, water remains in the fruition pits percolating into the soil. Around the pits, thatch grasses are grown for erosion control, building and sale.

Mr. Phiri has also planted many thriving fruit trees along the swales to provide food, shade and windbreaks. They're watered strictly by rain and the rising groundwater in the soil. As Mr. Phiri explains, "I am digging fruition pits and swales to plant the water so that it can germinate elsewhere."

"I have then taught the trees my system," continues Mr. Phiri. "They understand it and my language. I put them here and tell them, 'Look, the water is there. Now, go and get it.'" Neither basin nor berm for holding water is put around them; rather, roots are encouraged to stretch out and find water.

A diverse mix of open-pollinated crops such as squash, corn, peppers, eggplant, reeds for baskets, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, peas, garlic, onion, beans, granadilla, mango, guava and paw paws, along with such indigenous crops and trees as matobve, muchakata, munyii and mutamba are planted between the swales. This diversity gives him food security, for if some crops fail due to drought, disease or pests, others will survive. The use of open pollinated varieties enables Mr. Phiri to collect, select and use his own seed from one year to the next.

Nitrogen-fixing plants abound. The pigeon pea is one example, and is also used for fodder and mulch. Mr. Phiri has found that fertilized soils don't take and/or hold water well. As he says, "You apply fertilizer one year, but not the next and the plants die. Apply manure and nitrogen-fixing plants once, and the plants continue to do well year after year. Fertilized soil is bitter."

The food and fruit Mr. Phiri produces is anything but bitter. He's been generous in his abundance, giving away trees to anyone who wants them. Unfortunately, as Mr. Phiri points out, the majority of the trees he gives away die when people do not implement rainwater-harvesting techniques before planting. He propagates his trees in old rice and grain bags near one of three open wells near the bottom of his property. Mr. Phiri describes the open wells with another analogy. "Water is like blood-it is always attracted to the wound. Gullies are wounds. Blood goes to the wound to coagulate and heal it. It does this with gabions and swales where the gully is filled with fertile soil." With this knowledge, Mr. Phiri anticipated that the water harvested throughout his land would seep into the soil and make its way to the wounds below; he dug his three wells at the bottom of his land.

Wells of abundance

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The soil is his catchment tank. In times of drought, his neighbors' wells go dry (even those that are deeper than Mr. Phiri's), yet Mr. Phiri's wells always have water "into which I can dip my fingers," for he is putting far more water into the soil than he takes out.

Except for one well, which is lined with a hand pump for household water use, all are open and lined with unmortared stone. "These wells," explains Phiri, "are those of an unselfish man. The water comes and goes as it pleases, for you see, in my land it is everywhere."

Thumbnail link to image of Mr. Phiri and his banana plants, ~26K

In times of severe drought, Mr. Phiri will draw from these wells to water annuals in nearby fields. He uses a donkey pump, also known as an Egyptian Shaduf, which is simply a hand pump that uses an old tractor tire to pump the water. A crank opens and closes a bladder (the tire) like an accordion, creating the needed suction. A lush, natural wetland lies below the wells at the lowest point of Mr. Phiri's property. Here, Mr. Phiri practices aquaculture in a series of three reservoirs. As the smaller two dry up, the fish are harvested or relocated to the largest. It is also here that Mr. Phiri densely grows bananas! Dry lands all around him, yet here on Mr. Phiri's farm is a thick forest of bananas! Sugarcane, reeds, and grasses such as elephant grass are also grown on and leading up to the banks to hold the soil. His livestock benefits from the dense grasses, grown to sift the water as it enters the reservoirs. This prime fodder is reserved for his cows when in calf.

When Mr. Phiri began, he was forced to appear in court three times for violating laws that prohibited cultivation in wetlands. These were laws that had been around since colonial times. Finally, on his third court appearance he was able to convince the magistrate to come see his farm. Upon seeing Mr. Phiri's work, the magistrate dropped all charges on the spot.

Within the soil of the farm lie the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; the reservoirs are where they surface. The cycle of Mr. Phiri's Garden of Eden, starting to be noticed after 30 years of obscurity and sometimes scorn, continues to grow. Of the last three decades Mr. Phiri says, "Sure, it's a slow process, but that's life. Slowly implement these projects, and as you begin to rhyme with nature, soon other lives will start to rhyme with yours." He and the non-governmental organization he created, the Zvishavane Water Resources Project, are spreading his techniques. He has influenced CARE International in his region to the point that, rather than giving away food, they now implement Mr. Phiri's methods so that people can grow their own food.

He has also gone to schools where the teachers were striking due to lack of water and the harsh conditions in dusty, windscraped classrooms. He taught the teachers and students how to harvest the rainfall, and together they've turned the schools into lush gardens and now have no reason to strike. "Remember, children are our flowers," says Mr. Phiri, "give them water and they will grow and bloom."

Mr. Phiri's project is very much at the grassroots level (a big reason why it works), yet the Zvishavane Water Resources Project is always in need of funds. If you'd like to help, write to Mr. Zephania Phiri Maseko, ZWRP, P.O. Box 118, Zvishavane, Zimbabwe.

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Author information

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Brad Lancaster is a permaculture teacher and designer in Tucson, Arizona. You can reach him for comment by email at This article will be incorporated into an upcoming book that Mr. Lancaster is writing about water harvesting techniques.

Additional web resources

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Permaculture in Zimbabwe
This page from the web site of the Sixth International Permaculture Conference & Convergence lists three centers of permaculture education and design within Zimbabwe.

Introduction to Permaculture: Concepts and Resources
These pages from the Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) web site are an excellent starting point for learning more about permaculture design. Numerous links to other permaculture-related web sites around the world are included.

Rainwater Harvesting Campaign, Center for Science and Environment
The CSE is one of India's leading environmental NGO's. One of its focuses is on promotion of rainwater harvesting. Although its primary focus is on India, this web site offers much information that is pertinent to rainwater harvesting around the globe.

Harvest Rainwater Guidelines
This document comprises one section of the online Sustainable Building Sourcebook, part of the Green Building Program of the city of Austin, Texas, USA. It provides guidelines for sizing rainwater harvesting systems for urban dwellings. The site will be most useful to residents of the USA as the numbers given are not in metric units; however, the general guidelines and principles outlined may be useful to those in other geographic regions as well.

Bountiful Harvest
As this online document demonstrates, the author of this article knows quite a bit about rainwater harvesting himself. "Bountiful Harvest" is an article from the Tucson Weekly that chronicles the activities of Mr. Lancaster and others in harvesting rainwater from their homes in and around Tucson, Arizona, USA.

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