​Water project offers hope to farmers in Myanmar's central dry zone

Photo A labourer is seen hard at work as the second pump station in the Pyawt Ywar Pump Irrigation Project undergoes renovations. Photo: Madeline Dahm/IWMI

23 Aug 18Mizzima -  Taking shelter from the midday heat in a bamboo hut among the paddies and pulses of Myanmar's central Dry Zone, it is easy to drift back in time and imagine what life must have been like in the Kingdom of Pagan 1,000 years earlier. Then the farmer who has invited you there for tea pulls out his smartphone and a diesel water pump fires up in the distance, and the fantasy abruptly ends.

While the Dry Zone farmers of today are using techniques and working alongside irrigation schemes that are ancient in origin, the historical and climatic contexts that define their future livelihoods are dramatically different.

Covering 13 percent of Myanmar's land, the region is now home to around a third of the country's 52 million inhabitants, and according to the United Nations Development Programme, it has become the most food insecure region in the country. A 2013 survey found that 18 percent of households had inadequate food for consumption, and more than a quarter of children under the age of five were underweight.

Families that have been farming the land for generations have learned to adapt to blisteringly hot dry seasons and a southwest monsoon that brings a highly unpredictable mix of light rainfall events interspersed with dry periods as long as two weeks.

This has resulted in a patchwork of approaches, including individual farmers growing rain-fed crops like sesame, groundnuts and pulses bound for India, and taking advantage of temporary access to groundwater or alluvial soil along riverbeds. Although hydrogeological research is sparse, scientists believe that vast, unexplored aquifers suitable for agriculture and consumption may underlie much of the Dry Zone.

For those fortunate enough to have access to schemes put in place under a government mandate to irrigate 25 percent of cultivable land in Myanmar, a whole separate set of challenges exist. According to International Water Management Institute or IWMI, less than 16 percent of cultivated land in the Dry Zone currently has irrigation infrastructure in place. Canals are falling into disrepair, electricity costs for pumping remain prohibitively high for government and farmers alike, and the complete absence in many areas of a framework for these groups to work together and resolve conflicts in managing their most precious resource stand in the way of long-term prosperity.

A growing number of voices are entering the conversation to define future prospects for the Dry Zone, and among them is a consortium of NGOs, international research organisations and private entities led by IWMI working with Myanmar's Irrigation and Water Utilization Management Division (IWUMD) in Sagaing Region's Myinmu Township. Resources from a wide range of international donors are channeled through the Myanmar-based and UNOPS-managed Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT).

Myinmu Township is by no means the only place that LIFT has a presence, and its four-year Dry Zone Programme targeting six additional townships in Sagaing Region to the tune of $52 million is scheduled for completion this year. The fund's donors include Australia, Denmark, the EU, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the USA.


Situated 70 kilometres west of Mandalay in Myinmu Township where the diminutive Mu River feeds into the mighty Irrawaddy, a cluster of five villages make up just one of more than 300 pump irrigation schemes that the Myanmar government has put in place in recent decades in an effort to boost agricultural output.

Targeting 5,000 acres of farmland and named after the village lying nearest to the Mu, the Pywat Ywar Pump Irrigation Project represents a new way of thinking about water management in Myanmar's Dry Zone. This consists not only of rehabilitating canals and pumping systems that have fallen into disrepair, but also promoting community involvement to a degree that has not previously been seen and introducing high-value crops and best management agricultural practices.

For the consortium that has been on the ground in Myinmu Township since December 2016, the Pywat Ywar pilot project is something they believe can serve as a model for the wider region.

"It's about understanding and defining the step-wise approach any NGO or organisation should take to actually build a successful institutional structure, rather than saying this is the blueprint institutional structure that has to be applied throughout the central Dry Zone," IWMI-consortium project leader Dr. Petra Schmitter said.

Mizzima was recently hosted by IWMI for a two-day tour of the Pyawt Ywar pilot project, meeting with local farmers, village administrators and government officials, and witnessing some of the first meetings of water user groups that represent 893 households with plots in the irrigation scheme and 365 landless households working the fields.

According to IWMI, when the pump irrigation scheme was initiated by the government in 2004 to channel water from the Mu River to farmers of the five villages, little was done in terms of establishing an institutional linkage between the IWUMD and farmers.

With Pyawt Ywar village possessing the primary pumping station and feeding the other villages via two secondary pumping stations, concerns arose that the village at the head of the scheme would exert monopolistic control over the flow of water. When this was combined with a lack of framework for settling disputes and maintaining infrastructure – other than the vague definitions laid out in the colonial-era Canal Act of 1905 – misunderstandings and disputes became commonplace.

By 2015, just 950 of the targeted 5,000 acres were being irrigated, due to a combination of under-performing pumps, water theft, leaky canals and lack of a cohesive management structure.


Long before the consortium touched down in Myinmu Township in 2016, LIFT had already identified Myanmar's Dry Zone as a major stumbling block to the country's sustainable development, and in 2012 it commissioned a study of water management in the region that would identify the Pyint Ywar Pump Irrigation Project as a prime target for increasing investment in Myanmar's agricultural productivity.

When Colombo, Sri Lanka-founded IWMI in partnership with the German NGO Welthungerhilfe (WHH), India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and Myanmar's National Engineering and Planning Services arrived in December 2016 with funding of approximately $1.1 million, giving farmers an incentive to work together where none had existed before presented a huge challenge.

The first year of the project was dominated by rehabilitation of the pump irrigation scheme undertaken with the assistance of UNOPS and cost around $3.5 million. While canals lay dry, WHH and ICRISAT partnered with the local arm of the Department of Agriculture to recommend higher-value crops like bitter gourd, chickpea and papaya, and more than 90 training sessions were held covering topics from agricultural smartphone apps to DIY biofertilizers.

Meanwhile, IWMI and IWUMD along with elected village administrators, canal representatives and scheme managers had the unenviable task of convincing farmers with a history of distrust to come together and talk about the possibility of managing each other's affairs.

"It is only this year that the villagers are coming to the meetings. Before that we need to go the field and collect one by one. Now they are more understanding about the need to go by structure," Pyawt Ywar village administrator Kyaw San Win told Mizzima. Just outside of the tea shop where we spoke, a signboard at the entrance to the village bearing the pictures and mobile numbers of water user group leaders and a list of penalties for violations agreed upon by farmers had been erected two weeks earlier.

In one of the first tests of its effectiveness, the framework set up by IWMI and IUWD to put mediation in the hands of farmers appeared to be working. Several weeks before the media visit, a farmer from a village near the bottom end of the irrigation scheme had obstructed the flow of irrigation water out of a perceived lack of fairness. After a meeting with his water user group only increased tensions, the issue traveled up the chain of command to a coordination committee that was able to resolve the situation. When the farmer emerged from a canal in a soaked longyi to greet journalists and foreign project staff on the first day of the media tour, he had no complaints to register.

In fact, water had only begun to flow through the rehabilitated canal and pump system for the first time two months earlier, just in time for the monsoon crops, some of which were brand new to farmers and a direct result of training sessions held by WHH and the DOA over the prior year.

Unfortunately, delays in rehabilitation of the second pump station has left more than half of the scheme's total area without irrigation water, meaning that the full effectiveness of the new institutional framework would need to wait until the next cropping season to be assessed. Nevertheless, farmer U Myint Aung, who had increased his family's income by adding bitter gourd to his repertoire, told Mizzima that the consortium's presence in his village had been positive. Despite not being required to attend, he had become a familiar face at all the water user group meetings.

"We can request through IWMI to the government about our needs and we can inform them about our conditions, what we want, what we need," U Myint Aung said, while also expressing great hopes for the young people of his village taking on leadership roles as part of the new framework.


One thing that soon became obvious in visiting the Pyawt Ywar Pump Irrigation Project was that the work being done to increase the livelihoods of farmers was still in its infancy. Water had just begun to course through the canals in June, and according to the scheme manager elected to oversee the process, U Lwin Oo, only around 30 percent of farmers were fully up to speed on the full scope of the project.

"They cannot hand it over to us in March 2019. They still need to work together with us at least four or five seasons," U Lwin Oo said, referring to the scheduled pull-out date for the LIFT-funded consortium.

According to UWMI-consortium project leader Schmitter, her organisation has a proven track record across the world when it comes to participatory irrigation management, although the timelines are generally significantly longer. She told Mizzima that her biggest concern is that the situation will return to its previous state or become something even more problematic.

"They really still very much see themselves as competing villages, so this will take time. You can't overcome this impregnated challenge over one season," Schmitter said. "When the water arrived in 2007, it started creating inequalities between the villages and therefore also led to conflict. We are just very worried that the institutional structure that was set out with a vision and a purpose actually makes things worse than before when not all parties have the chance to equally benefit from the knowledge."

LIFT told Mizzima by email that there is currently no planned extension for funding beyond the scheduled March 2019 pull-out.

"The water user groups have started to work and the rules of water management are established and are being exercised. We are confident the capacity building measures of IWMI for water user groups and government staff have created the understanding that these rules are necessary to ensure all potential beneficiaries have access to water in the future," a LIFT spokesperson wrote.

Whether the Pyawt Ywar Pump Irrigation Project really is a model that can be applied to a region that needs all the help that it can get in bracing for the inevitable effects of climate change remains to be seen, but it is safe to say that the work being done has been more than a drop in the bucket.

IWUMD assistant director U Myat Than, who was set to retire and pass the torch to the next generation after 20 years of service, told Mizzima, "We want to be one of the role models, this irrigation project, because in Sagaing District there are a lot of irrigation projects, and they are all watching Pywat Ywar."

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