Understanding how irrigation water infrastructure works for sustainable livelihoods and ecosystems

Grantham Scholar Dr Tavengwa Chitata now works for IHE Delft, Institute for Water Education, Netherlands as a Lecturer/Researcher. At the Grantham Centre his research addressed how small scale irrigation infrastructure can contribute to securing sustainable livelihoods and ecosystems in rural areas of Africa.

On being a Grantham Scholar

“Being a Grantham Scholar has taught me leadership and communication skills which I wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to learn. Particularly, communicating to different audiences including policymakers and people outside the academia.”

The project


Smallholder irrigation holds considerable promise for enhancing food security and reducing poverty for sub-Saharan Africa’s rural population. Both the World Bank and FAO see improved productivity of smallholder agriculture as key to achieving SDG1: No Poverty and SDG2: Zero Hunger. Plus irrigation infrastructure is central to achieving SDG6: Clean Water And Sanitation. 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 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

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

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.

Outreach and awards

Multidisciplinary knowledge exchange and cake. At Internal Seminars and Cake – ISAC – the Grantham Scholars showcase their work in an informal setting. Tavengwa was one of the presenters who Centre Administrator Jana Green captured on camera for this write up of ISAC March 2022.

Tavengwa Chitata receiving award for his work in water science.
Tavengwa receiving an award for his work as a water scientist in 2019.

Tales from the Global South at the Festival of Social Sciences. Along with other Grantham Scholars in 2020, 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.

In 2019, Tavengwa was awarded the Outstanding Oral Presentation by a Young Water Scientist at the 20th Waternet/WAFSA/GWP-SA Symposium held in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Tavengwa Chitata’s publications


Cleaver, F., Chitata, T., de Bont, C., Joseph, K., Börjeson, L., & Kemerink-Seyoum, J. (2023). Knowing groundwater: embodied encounters with a lively resource. Water Alternatives, 16(1), 171-192.


Chitata, T., Kemerink-Seyoum, J. S., & Cleaver, F. D. (2023). Together Strong or Falling Apart? Coping with COVID-19 in Smallholder Irrigated Agriculture. International Journal of the Commons, 17(1), 87–104.

DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/ijc.1194

Chitata, T., Kemerink-Seyoum, J., & Cleaver, F. (2022). ‘Our humanism cannot be captured in the bylaws’: How moral ecological rationalities and care shape a smallholder irrigation scheme in Zimbabwe. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/25148486221137968


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


Professor Frances Cleaver

Lancaster Environment Centre, University of Lancaster