Understanding how irrigation water infrastructure works for sustainable livelihoods and ecosystems

The project

This research addresses the need to better understand how small scale irrigation infrastructure can contribute to securing sustainable livelihoods and ecosystems in rural areas of Africa.


Smallholder irrigation holds considerable promise for enhancing food security and reducing poverty for sub-Saharan Africa’s rural population. High level policy organisations such as World Bank and FAO, see improved productivity of smallholder agriculture as key to achieving including SDG 1 (No Poverty), SDG 2 (Zero hunger), with irrigation infrastructure central to achieving SDG 6 (Water for all). Because rain-fed agriculture is barely viable in semi-arid parts of Zimbabwe, the need for water infrastructure is particularly acute there.


However, there are inefficiencies and inequities in the ways in which irrigation systems work, with concerns about limited access and about depletion of ecosystem functioning (reduced river flows). In recent decades, there has been a strong policy focus on building institutions such as irrigators associations, and establishing water rights regimes. Conversely, there has been a relative neglect of infrastructure and its effects.

But the capacity of irrigators to distribute and use water effectively depends on their ability to control the water flow – and this is determined by infrastructure. For example, the form of water offtake structure, the size of storage facility, or the permeability of canals. Further, the operation of infrastructure is shaped by social factors, such as who dominates the irrigators association, who is represented, how funds are collected, and how conflicts are resolved.

Multidisciplinary approach

Engineering approaches to irrigation focus on designing optimal solutions, which often work differently than intended. Social scientists highlight power and the unequal social relations that shape the functioning of water infrastructure. However, relatively few studies take a combined socio-technical approach to understanding the functioning of infrastructure in irrigation systems and the effects that this has on livelihoods and ecosystems.

In order to take a combined approach, this research seeks to understand how irrigation infrastructure works and to identify the potential for positive social and environmental adaptation. It assumes that both irrigation infrastructure and institutions are, in practice, subject to processes of adaptation and improvisation by engineers, water operators and water users. Such processes of bricolage result in uneven outcomes but also provide opportunities for facilitated interventions and positive change.


The research is a collaboration between the Department of Geography, and Department of Civil and Structural Engineering (Water Engineering group), The University of Sheffield, Department of Water Management and Governance, IHE-Delft, Institute for Water Education, Netherlands and Department of Land and Water Resources, Midlands State University, Zimbabwe.


Tales from the Global South - contributors
Tavengwa and fellow Grantham Scholars at Tales from the Global South.

Along with other Grantham Scholars, Tavengwa was a speaker at Tales from the Global South. After working with a professional story teller, Tavengwa told a tale about how he became an engineer in irrigation water infrastructure. Fellow Scholar Suma Mani wrote a blog about this event and you can read it here.



Engaging and learning with water infrastructure: Rufaro Irrigation Scheme, Zimbabwe. Chitata, T.; Kemerink-Seyoum, J.S. and Cleaver, F. 2021. Water Alternatives 14(3): 690-716

Can the application of item response theory improve the quality of survey items for assessing human fingerprints on climate change? R. Mugandani, C. T. F. Murewi, T. Chitata, F. Chipepa, B. T. Mudereri, L. Mwadzingeni & P. L. Mafongoya (2021). Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, DOI: 10.1080/0035919X.2021.1964105

Transformations to groundwater sustainability: from individuals and pumps to communities and aquifers. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability Margreet Zwarteveen, Marcel Kuper, Cristian Olmos-Herrera, Muna Dajani, Jeltsje Kemerink-Seyoum, Cleaver Frances, et al. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Volume 49, 2021, Pages 88-97, ISSN 1877-3435, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2021.03.004.

Is the protected area coverage still relevant in protecting the Southern Ground-hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) biological niche? Perspectives from ecological predictions. Bester Tawona Mudereri, Tavengwa Chitata, Abel Chemura, Joseph Makaure, Concilia Mukanga & Elfatih M. Abdel-Rahman (2021) Perspectives from ecological predictions, GIScience & Remote Sensing, 58:3, 405-424, DOI: 10.1080/15481603.2021.1883947


A gendered lens to self-evaluated and actual climate change knowledge. Sammie, B., Mupfiga, E., Mwadzingeni, L., Chitata, T., Mugandani, R. (2020). Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-020-00641-6.

Analysis of potentially suitable habitat within migration connections of an intra-African migrant-the Blue Swallow (Hirundo atrocaerulea). Mudereri, B.T., Mukanga, C., Mupfiga, E.T., Gwatirisa, C., Kimathi, E., Chitata, T., (2020). Ecological Informatics 57, 101082. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecoinf.2020.101082.

Landscape-scale biogeographic distribution analysis of the whitefly, Bemisia tabaci (Gennadius,1889) in Kenya. Mudereri, B.T., Kimathi, E., Chitata, T., Moshobane M.C., Abdel-Rahman, E.M., (2020).  International Journal of Tropical Insect Science. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42690-020-00360-z.


Attention to Sociotechnical Tinkering with Irrigation Infrastructure as a Way to Rethink Water Governance. Kemerink-Seyoum, J.S.; Chitata, T.; Domínguez Guzmán, C.; Novoa-Sanchez, L.M.; Zwarteveen, M.Z. Water 2019, 11, 1670. https://doi.org/10.3390/w11081670

Can biophysical parameters derived from Sentinel-2 space-borne sensor improve land cover characterisation in semi-arid regions? Bester Tawona Mudereri, Tavengwa Chitatac, Concilia Mukanga, Elvis Tawanda Mupfigac, Calisto Gwatirisad, and Timothy Dube. Geocarto International, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1080/10106049.2019.1695956

Tavengwa Chitata


Professor Frances Cleaver

Lancaster Environment Centre, University of Lancaster