Sep 3, 2020 6 min read

Revived water project brings new hope for Myanmar's Central Dry Zone

Revived water project brings new hope for Myanmar's Central Dry Zone
Farmer in Myanmar holding soil in hands. Photo: Madeline Dahm

Myanmar's Central Dry Zone is the most water-stressed region of the entire country. By addressing challenges of both water availability and water distribution, an irrigation project supports smallholder farmers in managing their water efficiently, collectively, and sustainably.

Myanmar's Central Dry Zone is the most water-stressed region of the entire country. Lack of rainfall, however, isn't entirely to blame. An irregular and inequitable distribution of water further exacerbates the region's parched reality.

The compounding challenges of both water availability and water distribution in the Central Dry Zone impede not only farmers' ability to cultivate crops, but also the nation's ability to cultivate a vibrant economy from the ground up.

These are the issues confronting one-fourth of Myanmar's population who call the Central Dry Zone home. For farmers and farm laborers in the region (about 80% of inhabitants), to lack water means to lack food, money, and security.

Due to limited and erratic precipitation, rain-fed agriculture is an unreliable growing method—yet the vast majority of cultivated land in the Dry Zone currently depends on it. Furthermore, climate change is projected to lengthen the dry season and intensify the water-related pressures that are currently threatening livelihoods.

Myanmar woman in the field. Photo: Madeline Dahm

A first attempt

In 2004, a pump irrigation scheme was posited as a remedy to these issues. The Government of Myanmar—spearheaded by Myanmar's Irrigation and Water Utilization Management Department (IWUMD)—made strong efforts to assist farmers in the Dry Zone by expanding irrigation systems, constructing canals and reservoirs, and implementing river-pumping and groundwater systems.

But no matter how extensive or advanced, the construction of infrastructure in itself could not guarantee farmers equitable access to water. Initially, issues surrounding the governance of the new schemes had been overlooked, meaning that vestigial laws dating back to Britain's Canal Act of 1905 remained in place.

While Myanmar's laws were eventually updated in 2017, they have not yet been translated into a practical integrated governance structure, rendering collective or sustainable water management impossible.

A new and improved system

This lack of institutional structures facilitating water governance has led to the disrepair of canals and water conflicts between villages. In response, the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT)—in collaboration with a number of implementing partners—began implementing the Pyawt Ywar Pump Irrigation Project, which has three main goals:

1. Rehabilitate existing irrigation infrastructure

2. Facilitate the institutionalization of participatory water management

3. Educate farmers about sustainable agriculture, water usage and high-value crops

This pilot project aims to define institutional guidelines for pump based irrigation schemes in the Central Dry Zone to empower farmers and IWUMD to work together to enhance equity and efficiency in schemes, thus increasing agricultural production. The project currently serves 893 landed households and 365 landless households across five villages in Myanmar's Central Dry Zone.

Community participation in water management. Photo: Petra Schmitter

Early successes

One and a half years in, the Pyawt Ywar Pump Irrigation Project is already having resounding effects. It has facilitated the participatory design of a multi-layer water user association (WUA) that increases communication and transparency between farmers and the government.

The WUA and supporting water user groups within the scheme result in improved records on water usage and better maintained water courses. The awareness created through working closely with farmers has also generated water champions, who efficiently operate the newly rehabilitated gates.

Those gates now provide water to fields where new high value crops like chili and bitter gourd are tested alongside traditional crops (e.g. rice, chickpeas) to diversify and improve farmer livelihoods.

Here's how stakeholders are benefitting from the project at all levels:

U Kywaw Win

Thanks to project trainings and follow-up home visits, U Kywaw Win is growing new crops. Crop diversification has made his plot both more profitable and more resilient to climate change.

Furthermore, for U Kywaw Win, as well as other farmers in the pilot project, the participatory nature of the new water management model has encouraged civic engagement for the first time.

"I voted for my farming sub-group representative, which I have never done before," he says. In this way, the project is including new people and new perspectives into collective water management, whose needs would otherwise have been neglected.

Daw Than Ngwe

Daw Than Ngwe attends all the agriculture trainings she can. Quite the innovator, she experiments with new crops and is involved in a demonstration plot for paddy and a new green gram variety, appreciating the financial and technical support offered to her by the project.

She describes how the project decreases inequality, stating, "Now, I really agree with the new structure. It's working better. Before, I would see somebody steal the water, and I couldn't do anything. But that hasn't happened since the new structure came."

To Daw Than Ngwe, the project promotes a more equitable distribution of water because it is managed collectively, instead of consumed for the benefit of the few. She has gone from feeling powerless in the face of inequitable water management to participating as an active contributor in her village's collective water governance.

Zaw Myo U

As the electrical engineer behind the rehabilitation of the Pyawt Ywar pump's infrastructure, Zaw Myo U has observed the project's progress over the years. After being asked about the efficiency of water usage, he responds, "When I first arrived, I could see how much electricity is being wasted.

Also, I saw how easily the canal could break and the water will spill out of the scheme and be wasted. It used to break sometimes 5 times a day, and we'd have to stop the pump, fix it, and then keep going.

Now I don't worry about it breaking." Zaw Myo U's work maintaining the infrastructure of the irrigation scheme enables the people in the Dry Zone to access both more water and more electricity with minimal waste.

Lasting impacts

The personal experiences of U Kywaw Win, Daw Than Ngwe, and Zaw Myo U speak to the initial effects of the revitalized Pywat Ywar Pump Irrigation project. And it's making waves across scales.

At the individual level, farmers are learning how to increase their crop diversity, which bolsters their resilience, increases profit, and helps the environment. They are able to grow more crops, thanks to the increased availability of water, which contributes to better food and financial security. Since they are empowered to participate in water governance, it is distributed more equitably.

Furthermore, the villages are paving the way for the next generation to manage their water responsibly. As farmer U Myint Aung says, "I have already seen some youth with the potential to become leaders. What I see from the youth from the village is that they have a new way thinking and the right way of thinking. They are creative, fast, and are learning by doing."

At the village level, improved communication channels and clarified expectations for water governance are decreasing both conflict and inequalities across villages. This is particularly important when one village is closer—and thus has easier access to—a pump than another.

Finally, at the national level, the project is supporting Myanmar's economic growth and democratic transition through sustainable and participatory management of common-pool resources.

Myanmar farm workers. Photo: Madeline Dahm

Looking forward

30+ years of IWMI's experience in irrigation management research suggest that these projects need continued support past the introductory and implementation phases. For newly introduced institutional structures, assistance over the course of several cropping seasons is recommended to build the trust and confidence that make new systems stick.

Nevertheless, stakeholders from the paddy fields to the district irrigation offices are feeling the potential for lasting change, not just in Pyawt Ywar, but throughout the rest of the country's Dry Zone.

"In this district there are a lot of irrigation projects, but they are all watching Pyawt Ywar," says U Myat Than, the Assistant Director of the regional IWUMD. "We want to be the role model. We can set the standard, take the experience from this project and pass it on to the next scheme."

This story was first published on the WLE Thrive Blog

Madeline Dahm
Madeline Dahm
Madeline is a science writer and photojournalist specialising in sustainable agriculture development and water resource management.
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