Water User Associations foster inclusivity and better water management in Myanmar

Outcome story

IWMI’s work to support the Pyawt Ywar Pump Irrigation Scheme (PYPIS) in central Myanmar with a Water User Association (WUA) has helped communities withstand the combined effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and a local drought.

The Central Dry Zone of Myanmar is home to a quarter of the country’s population. About 80% of the people in the region are farmers or farm laborers, and one of the challenges they face is water scarcity. Reliance on rain-fed agriculture makes the region the most food insecure in Myanmar. Water stress, however, reflects not only a lack of rainfall but also irregular and inequitable distribution of water from previous irrigation projects.

IWMI has been closely involved in rehabilitating the existing PYPIS. Some of the work involved repairing the irrigation infrastructure, including pumping stations, distribution canals and sluice gates. It was important that the process was participatory to ensure farmers’ voices were heard, and to help them use water sustainably to grow high-value crops that could improve their incomes. This is particularly important among women and other marginalized farmers.

The design and implementation of a WUA provides an opportunity to improve water management, and to improve representation for marginalized members of the community, specifically youth, as explained in a handbook published by IWMI.

The principles explained in the handbook were included in the ‘five villages bless’ WUA established at the end of 2019. There are places reserved for women on the WUA Board of Directors, and all farmers, landless and landowners are free to join the WUA without discrimination. Democratic election of representatives to the WUA has brought new social groups of people, often previously marginalized, into water management, giving their perspectives a hearing they did not have before. The bottom-up approach to WUA formation has empowered young people. They can now have a voice in the WUA by being elected to positions of responsibility and see a future in more sustainable and productive agriculture enabled by a well-managed irrigation system.

The WUA helped give farmers a voice in managing PYPIS, improving inclusivity. IWMI researchers decided on a series of ‘workable outcomes’ for water management in workshops conducted with community leaders and the government. In 2020, these agreements had their first full year of operation through the WUA. There were fears that progress would stall with the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, farmers surveyed by phone and key informant discussions held in June and September 2020 revealed that the WUA coped well and the scheme was operated effectively despite the pandemic. Respondents reported fewer disputes among farmers and more interactions with their irrigation representatives.

Effective water management, along with IWMI’s capacity development, allowed farmers to expand their dry-season crops. Many farmers diversified into high-value crops such as fruits, spices and oilseeds alongside their staple rice crop. Most farmers were able to get a second harvest, with some getting three or four, and crop diversification was possible due to the availability of additional water for irrigation. This contributed to better nutrition and higher incomes. The total irrigated area doubled compared to the pre-WUA implementation period. Despite below-average rainfall during the 2020 monsoon, farmers reported they could access water when they needed it.

Local subcommittees of the WUA announce over loudspeakers when water will be delivered, and this is followed up with a phone call if necessary. The farmers have faith in the WUA representatives they elected. The WUA has also been able to reduce conflict between villages. All five communities must agree on open and transparent decisions about water allocations, leaving less room for arguments.

The strength of the ‘five villages bless’ WUA, founded on community commitment with a bottom-up approach, enabled it to adapt rapidly to disruptions caused by the pandemic. The value of the WUA to farmers was reflected in the observation that every single member of the association paid their fees, and they trusted the WUA to continue to manage water in a way that benefits all groups in the community, including women and youth. WUAs have great potential in Myanmar and elsewhere.

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