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Good Floods, bad floods: managing the negatives of floods while maintaining its many benefits

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The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) manages the "Testing Adaptation in Flood-Based Resource Management" project that seeks to support the integration of Flood-Based Farming Systems (FBFS) in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta of Myanmar. Funded by the European Commission and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the project works towards supported inclusive growth through in-country capacity building and research partnerships that support FBFS and help address some important cross-sectoral challenges that threaten to undermine food and livelihood security of some rural households in the delta..

What is Flood-Based Farming Systems?

Flood-based farming systems are those food production activities that rely in one way or another on the availability of water. Two of the most important in the delta are crop production and fisheries, although there are other activities such as poultry and livestock raising for which water is needed as habitat (ducks) or at least for drinking. While farming and livestock and poultry raising are managed by people, the water that floods provide to the landscape also supports a range of natural ecosystems that also naturally produce a range of materials that especially rural households use. In addition to fish, these include other food items, medicinal plants and materials for housing. Floods are also critical for maintaining soil fertility by distributing nutrients along with the water that settle in the soil. Floods also are key to recharging groundwater reserves that may be used (if water quality is suitable) by people to supplement surface water sources especially during the dry season. Flood-based farming systems are therefore complex and inter-related systems that rely on a range of services provided by floods.

Source: FAO
Source: FAO
Men wade along a flooded street at Kalay township, Sagaing division. Source: ABC News

When does a flooding become a bad flood?

People have for centuries adapted to the natural rhythm of rainfall patterns, river flows and floods. Delta's are in simplified terms, the lower part of a river as it moves towards the ocean. They are some of the most productive areas on Earth, in part because of the annual floods that often occur in these areas. Not surprisingly, some of the oldest human settlement have been in deltas due to their abundance of opportunities to find (e.g. fisheries) or produce (e.g. farming) food. There are however often costs as well as benefits to living in deltas, for example, when floods also damage houses and other infrastructure, damage crops and even cause the loss of human lives.

Managing floods to minimise risks to people

People have always attempted to adapt to these 'bad' aspects of floods, a simple example being the construction of houses on stilts, and the use of boats for transport when roads are under water. As technology has advanced, engineering approaches have been used to keep floods out of human settlements and to re-direct flood water away from settlements. These are all important strategies to lessen the hardships imposed on people by the negative side of floods.

Striking a balance: minimizing the risk to people without losing the many benefits of floods

While flood management is certainly necessary to improve the lives of communities adversely affected by heavy floods, altering the flow of water can also bring unintended impacts on the positive services of floods. Changing how water spreads across the landscape can for example change the availability of fish and other aquatic life used by people; important nutrient supplies for farmland can be reduced or cut off, and groundwater resources may not be replenished as fast. These are examples of trade-offs between attempts to reduce damage caused by heavy floods, and the benefits to people brought by floods. The overall challenge therefore is how people can strike a balance between flood regulation and maintaining the positive services of floods that support a diverse range of food production and livelihoods systems for communities.

Renewal of Wetlands - Source: Sciencing.com
Returning Nutrients to Soil - Source: Sciencing.com
Preventing Erosion and Maintaining Land Mass Elevation - Source: Sciencing.com

Working towards a balance

Helping to strike such a balance in the Ayeyarwady delta, where both the positive and negative aspects of floods are experiences by communities, is the primary objective of IWMI and its partners under this project. Sanjiv de Silva, the project leader, said that they felt current and future changes in flood patterns could be a key driver of both agriculture and fisheries, and these changes would be influenced by the investments in several sectors. The project thus emphasizes the importance of inclusive growth by recognizing the multiple uses of water, and by building partnerships to generate information to better understand trade-offs and seek solutions to how these can be managed. To this end, along with capacity building activities such as farmer training in cultivation practices including pest management, the project has increasingly focussed on analysing changes in flood behaviour in the delta using remote sensing data and collection of field data on inundation. Following discussions with the Department of Agriculture officials from several townships in the delta, these flood maps will be also developed into rice suitability maps to help DoA officials guide farmers on how to minimize crop exposure to flood damage. The development of these maps is also supported by the Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) research program led by IWMI. IWMI also works very closely with WorldFish, which works in the delta to support fisheries. A shared interest in how the productivity of water can be improved to enhance local livelihoods gave rise to the development of a rice-fish suitability map for the delta, were WorldFish built on the flood and rice suitability maps to identify marginal rice areas that could be suitable for rice-fish strategies. The project, together with co-financing from the WoldFish-led Fish Agri-food Systems (FISH) research program and the MyFish project (funded by ACIAR), recently commenced a pilot activity in the delta to test sluice gates built for irrigation drainage can be managed to improve the fisheries within irrigation systems.

Commencing in mid-2017, the "Testing Adaptation in Flood-Based Resource Management" project will continue its work up to the end of 2019. In addition to the maps referred to above, the project also developed 8 case studies that document changes in food production systems and rural livelihoods systems more broadly in the delta. Most of these were developed by working with Yangon and Hinthada Universities. These project outputs will available in the first quarter of 2019. 

For more information about the project's activities and plans, please contact Sanjiv de Silva (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).


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