In Myanmar, limited groundwater resources must be used wisely to safeguard the livelihoods of thousands during the climate crisis.
As we mark World Water Day, experts and communities alike will be sharing messages on water scarcity under climate change, emphasizing the need to use this precious resource judiciously. ‘Don’t take more than you need,’ they’ll advise. ‘Turn off the tap when you’re done,’ they’ll warn. But imagine if your water source just kept on running, and if you had no reason to believe the supply would stop.
This is the situation for some 300,000 farmers in Myanmar’s Central Dry Zone, who rely on a particular hydrological phenomenon that makes groundwater continuously flow up through thousands of shallow wells. Until recently, the resource seemed endless. However, putting a plug in such free-flowing wells just 25 percent of the time could save about 22.5 million m3 of groundwater every year in the Ayeyarwady river basin. That’s enough water to produce 6,000 tons of rice and feed more than 40,000 people.
In a climate change era, it almost goes without saying that it is time to put a stop to the water waste. But the solution is not as obvious as one might think.
Groundwater under pressure
To find the best way to limit the free flow of groundwater, a new three-year project brings together the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the Myanmar Irrigation and Water Utilization Management Department; Aqua Rock Konsultants; CSIRO Land and Water; and the Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development, to understand groundwater usage in this part of the Central Dry Zone. This project is funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).
The area is known for its sparse rainfall and long dry season. To access water for irrigation and other uses, farmers here drill shallow wells and tap into shared groundwater reservoirs. A particular characteristic of these reservoirs, so-called artesian aquifers, is that the pressure within them causes the water to flow to the surface naturally, meaning that farmers and other water users do not need to spend money on equipment and fuel to pump the water up to the surface.
The problem is that with water constantly flowing and demand steadily increasing, groundwater pressure will eventually drop and the wells run dry. Already, about 40% of shallow wells have ceased to flow over the past 20 years, with poor flow rates from another 29% of wells, according to one report. Paddy production supported by such wells has declined by more than 30% during the ten years between 2008/9 and 2017/18.
Consequently, both farmers and government officials, including from the Groundwater Division (GWD) of the Irrigation and Water Utilization Management Department (IWUMD), are concerned about current and future availability of water. Preventing overexploitation of groundwater is a priority issue for Myanmar’s National Water Policy, and the IWUMD has highlighted the urgent need to introduce mechanisms to regulate flows from both private and public free-flowing wells.
No simple solutions
It is fast becoming clear that doing nothing is not an option. As the pressure in the underlying groundwater reservoirs decline, farmers may eventually be forced to resort to pumping groundwater. But, beyond the persistent concern of overexploitation, this comes with its own set of issues.
Poorer and more marginal farmers may not have the means to afford pumps and fuel, effectively preventing them from irrigating crops and producing food during the long dry season. This decline in agricultural productivity would have serious knock-on effects for landless laborers, who rely on a thriving agriculture sector to make a living.
On the other hand, simply putting a plug in the well is not a solution either. While installing valves that allow farmers to turn off currently free-flowing wells is important, it will not be enough. Equally critical is for farmers to better understand how and why this helps conserve the resource and how this could benefit everyone.
In parallel, institutional arrangements will be needed to promote collective efforts among farmers to address this shared problem. This will entail building understanding among farmer communities that their individual actions affect each other since they are all dependent on the same groundwater reservoir. Developing and enforcing common rules for how groundwater wells should be managed to reduce unused flows will be essential.
Starting with dialogue
Looking forward, it is vital to collaborate closely with farmers to achieve fair and viable solutions to these groundwater challenges.
We will start by understanding any reluctance to regulating free-flowing wells, and address farmers’ concerns through a targeted public information campaign, seeking to build motivation for restoring pressure in groundwater reservoirs in the region.
Addressing the concerns of women and other marginalized groups must be a top priority to ensure that new rules for managing groundwater do not disadvantage any group of farmers. Although women are key users of water, including for agriculture, household uses, home gardens and livestock, they have often been excluded from decisions on water uses in the past.
With these efforts, we may be undertaking the first transdisciplinary project in Myanmar that combines geophysical and social science methods to manage groundwater. Together, let’s build inclusive institutions and a shared understanding. We can foster sustainable groundwater use. The results could safeguard the livelihoods of thousands of farmers.
This project is carried out under the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) together with the Myanmar Irrigation and Water Utilization Management Department; Aqua Rock Konsultants; CSIRO Land and Water; and the Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development. This project has been commissioned and funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).
Sonali Senaratna Sellamuttu is IWMI’s representative for Southeast Asia and Myanmar; Jayne Curnow is the research program manager for social sciences at ACIAR; Sanjiv de Silva is a natural resources governance researcher at IWMI; Paul Pavelic is a hydrogeology principal researcher at IWMI.