Coping with drought

Preparation for the inevitable

Long periods without rainfall can devastate families who are dependent on agriculture for their food as well as their income.  As climate change makes weather patterns less predictable, it is the poorest who are suffering the worst.

Practical Action has been working with agricultural communities around the world to cope with drought by helping to develop drought resistant crops, protect livestock and conserve precious water.

With a better understanding of the risks they face, and a range of skills to draw on, communities are able to prepare themselves to be able to cope in times of need.

When rain only falls during certain periods of the year, it is vital to conserve this precious resource to keep your crops alive.  Simple ways of making use of precious rain are in use all over the world and by making these technologies available to poor communities can transform their lives.

South Matebeleland, Zimbabwe

Tias Sibanda is Chairman of the Rainwater Harvesting coordinators in Ward 17, South Matebeleland. He is also one of the 100 farmer trainers. 

He cultivates 4.5 hectares of maize and also has a homestead plot of 2 hectares for sorghum. Before he was introduced to water harvesting techniques by Practical Action, he used to plant maize on the 4.5 hectares but frequently harvested nothing because of the drought. He was able to grow sorghum at h\is homestead, as the crop needs little water, but this provided insufficient food for himself and his family and they could only survive by buying food with the proceeds from selling livestock.

He was one of the first farmers in the ward to build contours for conserving rainwater. This led to a big improvement in food supplies: last year, he had two crops of maize, the first producing 1.5 tonnes and the second 0.75 tonnes. He retained all of this for food and sold nothing. As a result, he no longer had to buy food and has sufficient stocks at home to last until next season. He calculates that he has avoided having to spend money on food equivalent to 12 goats. With a goat selling at some Z$300,000 (about £17), this means that he saved over £200.

"Thanks to the water harvesting techniques shown to us by Practical Action," says Tias, "and with the contour field structures, we are now more ‘food secure’ and have no worries about soil loss. I am confident of further improvements in the future and, if the drought eases, would soon be able to sell some of my maize crop".

Thusitha Kumara, from Andaragasya in Hambantota, Sri Lanka

"Not even a drop of water must flow into the ocean without being useful to man" declared the Great King Parakramabahu in the 12th century. Rain water harvesting tanks are today playing a vital role in arid Hambantota, Sri Lanka, where long dry spells are common.

The system involves collecting rain in a tank below the surface of the ground, to be used for market gardening. The tanks are built using effective water conservation methods to reduce evaporation and can hold up to 15,000 litres of water. Efficient irrigation techniques are also used.

Thusitha Kumara, from Andaragasya in Hambantota is a father of three who earns his living from a small tea shop. He took up gardening to earn an extra income to help with the rising expenses of his family. But his efforts were frustrated by drought at least five months of the year, when he had to buy water at a cost of 1000 Rupees for 5000 litres.

When he heard about rain water harvesting, Thusitha was keen to install a tank in his garden. To use the water efficiently, a pitcher Irrigation method was introduced. Unglazed clay pots are used to distribute water by seepage action through the wall of the pot placed next to the plant below the ground. Water is topped up when required - usually once a week. This saves 90% of water over traditional irrigation practices. Around 6- 10 litre pots are sufficient to grow most of his crops.

Thusitha explains: “I chose perennial crops – guavas which are often marketed as "superfruits", being rich in vitamins A and C and pomegranates which have a good source of vitamin B5. These plants need to be cared for closely for two years but thereafter, plants can weather harsh situations. The pitcher method saves both water and time. The time factor is very important as I have to attend to my tea shop as well. I hope to reap a rich harvest of fruits in two years, and earn additional income as well as having fresh fruit to eat.”

You can download more technical briefs and manuals on similar topics at Practical Answers, the technical information service of Practical Action, or you can submit an enquiry to the Practical Action staff via the online form

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Pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa are often part-time cultivators as well, and they manage to make the most of irregular rainfall by harvesting rainwater, using traditional techniques. Will Critchley argues that these methods can sustain a delicate balance between cropping and pastoralism which is both environmentally and socially appropriate.


Run-off Rainwater Harvesting

Run-off rainwater harvesting developed in Sri Lanka to enhance rural livelihoods.


Seed Multiplication of Improved Open-Pollinated Varieties: Technical Guidelines

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