SHWEBONTHAR VILLAGE, Mandalay Region — Aung Win points to the parched lands around Shwebonthar Village and explains why most of land here is of little value to him and other farmers during the dry season.
“Water cannot be supplied for traditional farming and there is not enough water for large-scale irrigation,” he said. “Although two tube-wells were dug here with government funding no water could be pumped up.”
At this time of year, the villagers here in Mandalay Division’s Myingyan Township, located in central Burma’s Dry Zone, rely on only one source of water: a village reservoir about 1.5 kilometres away.
“We have to drive a motorbike there and we can pick up two 5-gallon jerrycans with water,” said Aung Win, adding that the precious liquid is used by his family, his cattle and for his drip-irrigation vegetable garden.
The garden is small, comprising about 6 square metres of leafy vegetables growing in suspended plastic tubes that are fed by an efficient drip-irrigation system using disposed 10-litre water bottles. The humble garden will not raise his farm income, but the simple growing technique helps the food-insecure families in this impoverished area get by.
“Before I grew this garden we had to buy vegetables at the small market of the neighbouring village or from the vendors … We had to spend 300 kyat [US$0.22] for vegetables out of our daily household budget of 2,000 kyat [$1.50],” said Aung Win, who added proudly that his veggies were also grown without any pesticides.
His family is one of the 12 households out of Shwebonthar’s 90 resident families who uses drip-irrigation to grow leafy vegetables in plastic tubes, while another 22 use drip-irrigation to feed a small ground garden to grow fruiting plants such as eggplant and pumpkin.
Two types of water-efficient, irrigated gardens were introduced by international NGO Terres des Hommes Italy, which has implemented the project among some 1,400 poor farmers in 11 villages in Myingyan Township and 11 villages in Thaungthar Township.
As a result, their vegetable intake has risen 23 percent since the projects started, according to an annual report by Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT), a poverty reduction donor fund supported by 12 governments.
LIFT’s multi-year Dry Zone Programme brings together nine NGOs and UN agencies to improve livelihoods, food security and child nutrition among vulnerable families through agriculture and livestock development projects, vocational training, mother and child support, and hygiene improvement.
The projects serve dire needs in the Dry Zone, an area comprising townships in Mandalay, Magwe and Sagaing divisions where some 10 million people rely largely on rainy season rice and drought-resistant crops such as oil seeds and pulses. Incomes are low, some 80 percent of the families have high debts, and 40 percent struggle to meet food needs, according to a LIFT strategic resilience assessment of the area conducted by US NGO Mercy Corps.
Government polices have failed to improve livelihoods, market access for agriculture produce is poor, while desertification and increasingly erratic rainfall due to climate change are pressuring farm incomes, the report says.
Erratic rains and water shortages
The Terres des Hommes projects greatly reduce water needs for vegetable gardens; a 6-square-meter garden would normally need 40 gallons per week, but the drip-irrigated ground gardens require half, while the suspended gardens take only five gallons, local villagers estimated.
Yet finding even such smaller amounts of good quality water remains a challenge in dry season, according to Khin Mar Oo, a project manager. “Locals like this growing method but … we cannot get good quality water if we dig wells or create reservoirs, and underground water in this area is acidic,” she said.
In rainy season, she said, Myingyan Township’s poor communities are vulnerable to erratic weather linked to climate change, which can bring droughts, sudden downpours and even flooding, which reduce quality and quantity of crops – or wipe out a whole harvest.
“After suffering a very severe drought five years ago, some locals died from starvation and 80 percent of local people turned into migrant workers,” Khin Mar Oo said of Myingyan Township, adding that the last decade had brought more erratic weather.
In 2015, an unusually heavy monsoon caused massive flooding across much of Burma and in parts of Sagaing and Magwe regions tens of thousands of acres of paddy were destroyed.
Khin Mar Oo said only a coordinated, comprehensive response involving authorities, aid organisations and communities could address the Dry Zone’s urgent problems.
Maung Naing, a farmer in Myingyan Township, said he was happy that the drip-irrigation project was now providing additional income and vegetables, adding, “I could finally set up a grocery shop next to the house, as a Myanmar saying goes.”
Maung Naing said, nonetheless, that the economic future of the village remained dire. “We have a series of problems … even if we get enough water resources there is also a labour shortage in this area. All of my three children are now working in Mandalay,” he said.