Qamata irrigation scheme: still waiting, still hungry

Under full production, the Qamata irrigation system could improve food security in the Eastern Cape, yet it continues to languish, says Orrock Robertsen.

Qamata irrigation scheme: still waiting, still hungry
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In 2007, Farmer’s Weekly published ‘Qamata: How deep is the rot?’, a 14-page exposé by Stephan Hofstatter on the state of the Qamata irrigation system. Forming the basis of the feature were documents leaked to Farmer’s Weekly that spoke of the “mysterious disappearance of funds and assets, officials indifferent to, or conniving in, financial mismanagement, protracted and tangled court battles and crippling community conflicts”.

In Hofstatter’s opinion, the issues besetting what should have been one of South Africa’s top irrigation schemes were symptomatic of what was keeping the entire eastern region of the Eastern Cape impoverished. In July 2009, Farmer’s Weekly published ‘Qamata: still on the road to nowhere’, a follow-up to the saga. It was written from the perspective of local farmers, as official comments from government were unobtainable.

PAC stalwart Clarence Makwetu, who was farming on the scheme at the time, summarised the general feeling: “Mismanagement, lack of finance and training have destroyed this scheme. We were just dumped here in 1997 and expected to perform miracles. Nothing is happening because it’s all about votes and lies.”

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View from the ground
Despite the scrutiny and bad press, little has changed over the last six years except the leadership. The only noticeable progress has been the planting recently of 800ha of maize. This, however, should be seen in perspective. The area comprises almost 4 000ha of land under irrigation, and the purpose-built Lubisi Dam, when full, can deliver 36 million litres of water per hour onto these hectares. Qamata has the capacity to be the food basket of the Eastern Cape.

Originally, Bilatye had 19 functioning 65ha pivots. ‘We now only have two,’ says Cimile.

The new guard
Over the past 20 years, half-a-dozen government departments have tried – and failed – to revive the scheme. Now it is the turn of the Chris Hani Development Agency (CHDA), which is mandated by Chris Hani District Municipality as a “development catalyst of key socio-economic and infrastructure programmes within the district”. “We have a five-year investment plan with CHDA, and the current 800ha is just the start of this plan,” explains Mfuneko Jungqe, chairperson the new Qamata Irrigation Scheme Secondary Co-operative (formerly the Qamata Irrigation Scheme Programme Trust). 

Lizo Mandlendoda, CEO of Dicla Training, appointed by the CHDA as ‘implementing agent’ at Qamata, concurs. “It will include infrastructure development. Target enterprises include the introduction of fruit with specific reference to lemons [and] high-value crops that will include maize, barley, wheat, paprika, soya beans, dry beans, lucerne and other vegetables,” she says.

“To improve income generation some value additions are included in the plan, including a feed mill that will be linked to [a] proposed piggery at Bilatye. Bilatye is an adjoining irrigation scheme to Qamata, where CHDA has invested into [a] 55ha maize project.” However, when Farmer’s Weekly asked for a signed copy of the plan to corroborate these statements, nothing was forthcoming.

Empty promises?
Khabalinjani Cimile, chairperson of the Bilatye Secondary Co-operative, has intimate knowledge of the Qamata irrigation scheme. “I’m aware of CHDA plans to join capacities between Bilatye and Qamata,” he says. “They say they’re going to invest in a thousand sow-strong piggery here at Bilatye that will be fed by produce grown at Qamata, but [I] have seen nothing [in] black and white to verify it.”

Due to lack of certainty of investment plans, the Biltaye community approached the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) for funding. The department promised co-op members a R34,9 million injection into the scheme in 2012, claims Cimile.

“We met with Minister Gugile Nkwinti last year November at [the] Chris Hani District Municipal chambers, where we demanded to know what was happening with this promised funding.  “He assured us that it was now just a matter of paperwork, and by 1 April [2015] we would have the funding. To date, we haven’t seen a cent,” he says.

Canals built to carry irrigation water are nothing more than overgrown concrete ditches.

Broken Trust
Currently, dozens of subsistence farmers utilise the lands of the scheme to grow their own produce. “These farmers gave
up waiting for government a long time ago. The problem now is that if we were to get funding to revive the whole scheme we’ll never convince these farmers to become part of a bigger operation and give up their small pieces. The trust has been broken,” says Cimile.

To rebuild this trust, one would assume that signed investment/development plans between CHDA and the Qamata and Bilatye co-ops would be openly discussed with communities surrounding the scheme. But it seems as if not one of the ‘interested and affected parties’ have ever seen one. Neither has Jungqe.

He also has no idea who is auditing the finances relating to the current 800ha, but insists that “profits of the maize project will definitely go back into the community”. He is, however, unable to say what percentage of the profit this will be, or how it will be divided. Cimile warns that the community at large is “extremely concerned over this matter”.

“I fear that if it gets worse people are going to go on a rampage and damage everything,” he says. But Thukela Mashologu, non-executive director at CHDA, says that the agency has a carefully thought-out ‘stakeholder engagement strategy’.

Farmer’s Weekly approached CHDA, through Mashologu, requesting any documentation that could confirm a development or investment plan between CHDA and the Qamata and Bilatye co-op. In response, we received a PowerPoint presentation entitled ‘Chris Hani Municipality, Stakeholder Meeting on CHDM, Economic Devlopment Zones’ compiled by Mashologu. It outlines economic development plans for the entire municipality, but does not include anything specific about current projects at Qamata or Biltaye.

‘Held to hostage by government’
Under full production, the Qamata scheme would make a significant impact on food security in the Eastern Cape. As it stands, however, the simple truth is that thousands of people live in impoverishment in the area while government and community structures continue to squabble. “We fail to understand why we’ve been ignored, by this government,” says Cimile. “I honestly don’t have solutions for us anymore. Being dependent on this government [makes it] impossible for us to become economically independent from them. We are their economic hostages.”

Email Orrock Robertsen at [email protected].