Khin Mar Oo, from NGO Terres des Hommes, discusses its projects in Myanmar’s impoverished Dry Zone and the challenges of communities there.
By Htet Khaung Linn / Myanmar Now
MYINGYAN, Mandalay Region - In central Myanmar’s Dry Zone, rural communities struggle to get by in the harsh environment, where drought and erratic rainfall is a constant challenge. The area, comprising townships in Mandalay, Magwe, Sagaing regions, is home to some 10 million people who 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 the 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 found.
Terres des Hommes Italy, an international NGO, has arranged drip-irrigation systems for vegetable gardens in 22 villages of Myingyan and Taungthar townships of Mandalay region. As a result, the local families can get fresh vegetables from their own gardens. Khin Mar Oo, Terres des Hommes Italy’s Regional Office Manager, recently spoke to Myanmar Now about the challenges the Dry Zone faces.
Question: Can you explain some of the problems of the Dry Zone communities?
Answer: Water shortage is a major problem for the agricultural sector in this region. Both the quality and the quantity of water are not good for agriculture. This region does not have enough water resources, while the water is so saline that even the animals cannot drink it. Fresh and clean water is available only in rainy season. The locals in this region have to depend on livestock and agriculture.
A severe drought in this region five years ago caused some deaths as villagers faced starvation. After this disaster, 80 percent of the local people migrated to other regions. Agriculture work is available only in rainy season. The Dry Zone area in Mandalay Region is worse than any other area, both quality and quantity of water in Myingyan and Nyaung Oo townships are very poor. Vegetables can hardly be grown in Myingyan. Even beans and sesame cannot be grown in some villages in this township.
Q: What work does Terres des Hommes do to alleviate problems in this region?
A: We started our (drip-irrigation) project in Magwe Region in 2014. It was expanded to Mandalay Region the next year. Our activities mainly focus on agriculture and water supply. In the agricultural sector, we help the farmers and the landless locals with finance and technical support to be able to grow nutritious vegetables. For water supply, we support digging wells and ponds.
Q: We have found that local farmers cannot scale up drip irrigation from their vegetable gardens to their farm fields. Why is that?
A: It is mainly because of capital investment. We also recognise this limitation. Although we provided technical support to them we do not have enough money to invest. Another problem is that they do not have much time to water these vegetable plants. They need more interest in continuing this agricultural method. But a local in Taungthar township was able to develop five gardens of vegetables by this method, while many others could cultivate only one for household consumption.
Q: How would a severe drought limit their possibilities to grow veggies with drip irrigation?
A: That is a good question. Some local people like our method, but they do not have enough water supply in terms of quality and quantity. We have found acidity in the ground water. We have a limited budget to drill well for underground water.
Q: What are the other difficulties for agricultural development projects in the Dry Zone?
A: The locals need to devote their time and interest to this project. They already have their own work schedules. They cannot attend all of our meetings as they depend on daily wages. Another problem is that NGOs need to cooperate with each other so there is not overlap in the activities, which confuses locals who listen to the ideas of NGOs.
Q: More migrants are leaving the Dry Zone. How does labour shortage impact regional development?
A: There is no human resources to fully start our project. Most of the remaining persons here are the disabled and the children. The adults have to do the entire harvest. As many local farm workers know they can earn around 6,000 kyats per day in Yangon without being tired, they do not want to work under the scorching sun in rural areas. The local farmers cannot give this amount as each basket of bean is worth about 4,000 kyat.
Q: How do the government and farmers cooperate with the NGOs on projects?
A: The Department of Rural Area Development is working together with our NGO. This department is giving training programmes in nearby villages. The situation is getting better… Magwe Region has seen the best development as they have a good cooperation among the farmers, government agencies and INGOs. They have got more market and better farming methods.