Everything begins with water, so goes an old adage. And harnessing low-tech innovations such as sand dams could help communities in drought-prone parts of the country prepare for the effects of climate change that now includes longer periods of drought and erratic rainfall patterns.

Rural parts of Zimbabwe in drought prone areas are the most seriously affected by a lack of clean drinking water for humans and livestock.

Lack of water threatens the food and nutrition security of local communities in drought-prone districts.

In these parts of the country, women walk miles every day to look for water and if they find it, the water is usually contaminated and polluted.

In most cases, water scarcity is causing conflict, stress and competition among communities for the dwindling resource.

All this has compelled non-governmental organisations, Government, funding partners and local communities to join hands to solve water problems in drought-prone districts using the simple but highly effective technology of sand dams.

Recently, Practical Action, an international NGO, launched a US$1,9 million project in Plumtree called the smallholder women farmers achieving sustainable livelihoods and food security through agro-ecology, solar gardens and natural resources management.

The project shortened to Planting for Progress Project (P4P) will benefit more than 2 640 households in Bulilima and Gwanda districts through water and energy projects to provide them with cheaper and reliable sources of water to improve crop productivity, food security and better adaptation to climate change.

One of the major activities of the project will include the construction of sand dams in selected areas in the two districts.

Zibanayi Kisimisi, a technical advisor for Practical Action, said they plan to introduce sand dams as a low-cost innovation technology that could help empower rural communities in Gwanda and Bulilima district to gain access to clean water for improved food security, health and income.

“Rainfall patterns are changing and in this dry land region, the rains can be intense over a short period of time,” he said.

“Because the land is so dry, when rain does fall, the bulk of water is lost to downstream rivers. Capturing this water using sand dams could help trap water which could be useful to improve livelihoods.

“It’s a better and effective way for local communities to adapt to climate change.”

The project funded by UKAid with Practical Action as the implementing partner, seeks to help local communities to survive droughts, enhance food security and improve livelihoods through improved access to reliable energy  sources.

Through the installation of solar systems to power irrigation gardens and abstraction of water from sand dams, local communities will make significant savings on energy costs while at the same time promoting a cleaner environment.

Sand dams consist of a concrete embankment built across seasonal streams that flow during the rainy season and run dry during the dry season.

When seasonal rains fall, water collects behind the dam underneath the sand on streams and rivers.

The sand acts like a sponge which filters the water that can be harnessed for up to several months after the rains have fallen through sand water abstraction methods or by simply digging a hole in the sand.

Water from sand dams is accessed by digging up holes and through installation of infiltration galleries that drain into shallow wells, where water is then extracted with either a solar pump, hand pump, or submersible electric pumps.

Water experts say sand dams provide a sustainable solution for water-scarce regions in the country which have seen many smallholder farmers relying on food aid and losing cattle to drought.

Sand dams, which are relatively easier to build and maintain, can survive for many years providing water to local communities.

There are particularly beneficial to low-income, disadvantaged households and women who have to walk several kilometres to fetch water.

When sand dams are built closer to their villages, it reduces time spent looking for water.

Sand can help build the resilience of local communities to the changing climatic conditions.

Experts say the dams can last for more than 100 years without major refurbishment.

The sand dams in Bulilima and Gwanda districts are expected to help communities adapt to climate change by ensuring water availability throughout the year for both people and livestock.

Proposed income-generating activities in this project include the establishment of solar-powered irrigation gardens and  plots.

Sand dams offer a cost-effective and sustainable solution to mitigating the impacts of climate change, giving hope to many people in the drought–prone Matabeleland region.

When harnessed full, they can transform livelihoods through water and soil conservation in the dry lands.