Success despite Covid: hope from a water users association in Central Myanmar

A-water-user-group-ready-to-own-their-scheme-in-Myinmu-Myanmar-Petra-Schmitter-850-850x56_20201127-103132_1 The Water User Association discussing the scheme. Photo: Petra Schmitter / IWMI

26 Nov 2020 - Source: International Water Management Institute - By Marie-Charlotte Buisson, Petra Schmitter and Nyan Thiha

"Since last year, we had enough water and vegetables to procure a good income as long as I get water, so I will continue this year again." - By a farmer, May 2020.

The impact Covid-19 has had on farmers has been devastating. Harvest delays due to mobility restrictions, reduced availability of labor and variability in output and input price have resulted in food shortages and loss of income.

And yet, in the Central Dry Zone of Myanmar which is the most water-scarce, least food-secure region in the country, the land has prospered even during a spectacularly dry year. The Pyawt Ywar irrigation scheme supported by IWMI with funding from the Livelihoods and Food Security Fund (LIFT) from 2016 to 2019, has seen long-lasting impacts and continues to support farmer resilience, development of nutrition-sensitive agriculture and promoting crop diversity.

Harvesting of chilli in a pump based irrigation scheme in Myinmu, Myanmar. Photo: Petra Schmitter / IWMI
Exploring the background to the Pyawt Ywar scheme
In the past, the Myanmar government invested in 300 pump-based irrigation schemes across the region, but few met their potential. Over time, they fell into disrepair or were poorly maintained. To boost irrigation across the region, IWMI piloted a Water Users Association, so farmers could have a voice in managing the Pyawt Ywar scheme. Workshops brought farmers, community leaders and the government together to negotiate workable outcomes. By 2019, IWMI's engagement with the scheme had finished and the newly established water user association called "Five Village Bless" had 693 members.

After one season of implementation, where canals delivered water to two of the three pumping stations, a survey of users showed promising results with a decline in the number of disputes related to water allocation and an increase in farmers interacting with their irrigation representatives. 

Rice being irrigated in Pyawt Ywar Irrigation scheme. Photo: Petra Schmitter / IWMI

Managing a scheme through a pandemic

When Covid hit, it was assumed that things would grind back to a halt and progress would be lost. It was important for IWMI to see whether the water user association continued to be operational and supplied water in an equitable and reliable manner. Farmers confirmed it was. The newly established WUA had managed to deal with the disruptions from a global pandemic while operating an entire scheme for the first time. It was not only operational, but it was working well. Since then, the project has gone from strength to strength.

Using information collected from a small phone survey and key informant discussions in June and September 2020 in the five villages served by the scheme, we discovered that farmers with access to irrigation and solid institutional mechanisms have greener fields than ever.

Yet, Covid-19 measures didn't disrupt the WUA from delivering water to their users, which allowed dry-season cultivation to continue. All respondents agreed: the quantity and timing of water delivery improved between the 2019 and 2020 dry seasons. It allows more farmers to grow in the dry season, and it allows them to diversify the crops they grow in the dry season. In addition to green grams and sesame, which requires limited irrigation, farmers were able to grow papaya, lemon, or mangoes.

"Market price of paddy is high this year. Based on last year's experience, farmers believe they will get enough water. So farmers plan to grow more paddy in this monsoon season." - By A WUA representative, June 2020.

When IWMI checked in with the farmers, again, this time during the monsoon season, we found that three thousand acres were cultivated and irrigated by the scheme this season which almost doubled the irrigated command areas compared to years prior to the rehabilitation. While the majority of farmers grow paddy in the monsoon season, almost two-thirds of the surveyed sub-groups had a second crop, half had a third crop, and one fourth even a fourth crop.

Farmers now cultivate banana, chili, guava, honey melon, lemon, mango, papaya, and sunflower alongside their rice crop. And yet, despite this, the 2020 monsoon can barely be called a monsoon, the rains are below average, and it might even become a drought year. To overcome this additional challenge, the pump stations are now running all hours of the day, which ensures every farmer gets the water they need, in quantity and in time.

The WUA coming together to discuss water allocation schedules. Photo: Petra Schmitter / IWMI

How has the WUA been so impactful?

Continued progress through the pandemic was achieved in part due to a strong community commitment and a bottom-up approach. In addition, the WUA, set up by IWMI, proved how impactful it was, and it did this by adapting to the circumstances and delivering water services in a collaborative way. Additionally, Covid-19 measures didn't disrupt the WUA from delivering water to their users, which allowed dry-season cultivation to continue.

Our survey showed that farmers are satisfied with the quantity and quality of the water deliveries, and, because of increased transparencies, they've noticed a reduction in water conflicts and thus, they pay their fees. WUA representatives collected 100% of the last monsoon (2019) and dry season (2020) fees. This shows that farmers continue to value the service delivered and place trust in the WUA to deliver this service into the future.

"Canal representatives announced the water allocation schedule to farmers through a loudspeaker. So we know when we will get water. If we are not clear, we can use our phones to ask. With the water schedules, I see more discipline than before, so there are no conflicts." - By a farmer, May 2020

In addition, the WUA, developed a strong community buy-in, which enabled them to adapt to the circumstances and delivering water services in a collaborative way. Sub-group representatives inform the farmers about the water schedule and fee payment via phone call, and they also use loudspeakers which boosts communication and transparency. Information on operation and maintenance, in addition to water schedules, are also being posted onto the WUA's Facebook pages. This level of communication and information has only been made possible because the farmers knew, elected and trusted the sub-group representatives.

So, what does the future hold?
In a world impacted by Covid-19, farmers can see the scheme works. Canal rehabilitation and, more importantly, the establishment of the WUA in these five villages across the Central Dry Zone has made inhabitants feel more optimistic about the future. The Covid-19 health and economic crisis, as well as recent drought, could have caused optimism to fall. But not for the members of the "Five Village Bless" Water User Association. If this story shows us anything, it's about the importance of building and supporting institutions that adapt and independently manage these resources – serving the farmers and protecting them against shocks.

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