Water Man works a liquid miracle

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The Independent Online
"WE SEE progress through our eyes," said Seikichi Sugawara, "not through a report." And he emphasised the point by locking the thumb and forefinger of each hand into a pair of mock spectacles. The paddy-fields he could see through these circles were indeed in reasonable health, though infected by army worm at the edges.

"Water, water management, is the key," he went on. And as he spoke, well- managed water ran through the channels around the fields at the precise speed necessary to prevent the breeding of bilharzia snails. Within the fields, the water level could be raised and lowered according to a rhythm that sliced fatally into the life cycle of the mosquito. Its eggs could be stranded in the sun, he said, so they baked to death.

Behind Mr Sugawara, a snow-capped peak pierced the rainy season clouds. It might have been Mount Fuji offering a backdrop to the tending on the levelled plain below. But the country was Tanzania, and the mountain Kilimanjaro.

Well-intentioned international intervention has a chequered history in Tanzania. Too much has been taken for granted, too little adopted by the farmers who were supposed to benefit. But Mr Sugawara, expert on the rice cultivation for the Japan Inter-national Co-operation Agency, has the scent of success in his nostrils. He has seen ideas and methods promoted by his project adopted not just in the four villages he is working with directly, but copied by surrounding villages as well. After three years of battling with local farmers over water, "they are starting to understand", he exults. At first the farmers thought requests for financial contribution in exchange for the supply of water was a form of theft. "But this was what they really wanted," he goes on, and proffers his right arm in a representation of spoon-feeding.

Sist Kiwia, a farmer whose paddy-fields are part of the Kilimanjaro project, wanted to plant against the seasonal plan laid down for the four villages. No dice, said Mr Sugawara. Mr Kiwia might make some quick profits, but all the region's farmers would suffer if their practices were not properly co-ordinated. Mr Kiwia would gain more than he lost from being part of the project, so reluctantly he did as he was told.

The discipline on the project is partly a tribute to the powers of persuasion of Mr Sugawara and his Tanzanian and Japanese colleagues. But it also owes something to Tanzanian history. Julius Nyerere, the country's first president now retired, tried in the early years of his rule to collectivise farmers into ujamaa or co-operative villages. Farmers would work part of the time on their own plots, and part on a communal one, the proceeds of which would fund communal services.

Throughout the country, communal plots became overgrown wasteland. But Chekereni, one of the four villages of the Kilimanjaro project, was an exception. According to Zablon Sarakikya, a civil servant who also farms on the project, the ujamaa system has contributed to its success. The virtues learnt then are coming into play in rice cultivation. "Water management demands discipline. There are regulations everyone has to obey. There must be leadership, and farming must be carried out in a systematic way," he says.

But there are some Tanzanians who should probably be marshalling their forces and preparing to do battle with Mr Sugawara. The first group is the many thousands of farmers who grow rice Mr Sugawara's way, but deceived him by taking off water upstream on the River Kikuletwa - stealing water, he insists - and so interfering with the project's supply. Mr Sugawara's response is to prosecute them. Sixty-seven people have found themselves hauled into court so far at his behest. The courts will not fine anyone more than 9.000 shillings (pounds 9) for this crime, and the farmers' potential profits are several hundred times this figure. The government, conscious of its need for broader support, is dragging its feet on his demands for stiffer penalties, which would alter the farmers' profit and loss calculation.

Mr Sugawara's strategy therefore has changed. He wants to incorporate the rogue farmers into a much expanded project that could make a significant contribution to the rice needs of the whole country. To do this, he would need to build a canal taking water from a different point on the Kikuletwa, one that did not deprive the existing farmers of water. The plans are drawn up and costed, and the environmental impact assessed.

Unfortunately, 16 kilometres downstream, is the Nyumba Ya Mungu hydroelectric dam, whose power-producing capacity would be significantly diminished if the canal were built.

The government has spent months weighing the options. No one knows how much longer its deliberations will go on. Nor what gestures Mr Sugawara will use if their decision goes the wrong way.