Local Irrigation Management Boosts Water, Food Security in Bangladesh

Under local management, the irrigation system is better prepared to manage water flows.
Under local management, the irrigation system is better prepared to manage water flows.

By Karen Lane

A recent trip to southern Bangladesh showed that if you want to ensure water and food security, it’s also important that the right people are deciding how much water is needed, and when.

In the early September rainy season, there is water in all directions in the southern coastal areas of Bangladesh. But just as sometimes you can have too little, too much is also a problem. And sometimes, it just isn’t the right kind. All of the above take a huge toll on farmers in the region who depend on a steady flow of low-saline water to irrigate their rice fields, feed their families, and earn an income. 

A recent trip to the district of Narail, some 200 kilometers southwest of Dhaka on the side of the tidal Chitra River, showed that if you want to ensure water and food security, it’s also important that the right people are deciding how much water is needed, and when. 

These days, most farmers in the region pay around Tk20 (about $0.25) a month—or an in-kind rice donation—to belong to one of 102 Water Management Groups, all headed by local men and women, that report their needs and problems to one of 14 Water Management Associations which operate and manage the water regulator, pumps, and other parts of the system. 

When the irrigation system was built in the 1980s, it was overseen by the Water Management Board and, over time, fell into disrepair. 

“The river used to inundate the paddy fields because the regulator gates were broken. Now we can manage the flow,” Monirul Islam, an executive water engineer in Narail, told me.  Funds from the Water Management Associations’ operation and maintenance accounts are always readily available to fix problems.

Farmers can now telephone or drop by to the management office to let them know if they need the gates to be opened or closed to increase or decrease the water flow and, paying Tk60 ($0.75) an acre for water, they have an incentive to use the supply wisely. And, in pumping water only when needed, the energy bills have also gone down.

Moreover, the teams check salinity levels of the water three times a day, critical in an area where water and soil salinity has risen due to the climate change-induced increase in sea levels and the fallout from the devastating Cyclone Aila, which brought massive waves of brackish water into rivers and fields in 2009. If the saline levels are too high, the sluice gates taking water from the river into the irrigation pump and canals are closed down and, if needed, suitable ground water is pumped from elsewhere.

Managing water flows means farmers lose less of their crops to floods or drought, and can harvest when they are ready, being less fearful of flash floods. This translates into higher incomes. Monshi Hafizur Rahman, who belongs to the Pateswari Water Management Group, said he now reaps 80 maunds (around 2,960 kg) on each of his four acres of land, up from 20 maunds (746 kg) previously, more than doubling the income for his 7-member family.

Meanwhile, the Water Management Groups with their 25,000 members, 40% of them women, have found that more efficient, locally-led management of the water means they have some surplus funds that they are channeling in to help farmers in the region introduce more saline-resilient or higher-yielding rice varieties or other sources of income. In Gandharbokhali , the local Water Management Group this year spent $400 to lease land from the Water Management Board where, in a large square pond, they are now raising tilapia for local sale. The anticipated $700 in profit this year will be distributed to members of the group.

With no lack of ambition, Ahasan Habib, head of the group, said the aim next year is to buy seeds and fertilizer and provide interest-free loans so farmers, with the water they need for their farms, have even more opportunities to shape their own future.

Establishing and training the water management associations was part of the $43.4 million Southwest Area Integrated Water Resources Planning and Management Project funded by ADB and the governments of the Netherlands and Bangladesh. In the two contiguous project areas of Narail and Chenchuri, river embankments were rebuilt and strengthened to improve flood control, canals were re-excavated for better irrigation and drainage, and bridges were constructed to ensure easy movement.

Improved water and food security in those 57,000 hectare project areas —rice production in the two subproject areas has nearly doubled—recently prompted ADB to approve $63.7 million in further funding and cofinancing to expand the project to 84,000 hectares in nine more areas, home to 469,000 people.