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Climate change is putting increasing stress on the livelihoods of people living in the world’s drylands. Smallholder irrigation has long been seen as a means of improving food security in areas with unpredictable rainfall, and is now being promoted as part of climate change adaptation strategies. The Ruti Irrigation Scheme in Zimbabwe was begun by Oxfam in 2009 with these objectives in mind.

This report examines the findings of two evaluations of the project and shows that the irrigation scheme has had more significant social and economic impacts than those measured by a quantitative study alone. However, the positive impacts for wellbeing have not been as extensive as originally hoped – having been affected by extreme weather events and the decision to reserve scarce water for use by sugar estates further downstream.

This suggests that while smallholder irrigation schemes can provide important local benefits, these are threatened not only by the usual difficulties associated with their implementation, but also by the greater challenges posed by climate change and the resource conflicts that are being exacerbated as a result. These are problems which require significant changes in policy and practice at catchment-wide, national, and international levels. 

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