By Madeline Dahm

Myanmar is one of the largest countries in Southeast Asia, but it is also one of the poorest. 20 million people live below the poverty line, and rice is the foundation of every meal. Rice farming is a fundamental facet of rural economy, food security and livelihood in all of Southeast Asia.

Since the Green Revolution in the 1970s, farmers have understandably become more dependent on high-yield rice varieties. While these new varieties produce higher yields and help overcome environmental limitations (e.g., salinity and drought), they also require an increased use of chemicals, which brings new risks to people and the environment.

What’s more, traditional rice plants have nearly been phased out to make way for new high-yield crops.

Land productivity in the Ayerarwady River Delta is at the whim of the monsoon. As part of an international initiative in the Flood-Based Livelihoods Network, researchers of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) and the Australian National University (ANU) are trying to better understand the farming systems that revolve heavily around seasonal flooding to be able to advise farmers on how to optimize their production.

Follow the photos as they take you through the village of Mezali in Nyauagdon and the lessons on trade-offs between new high-yield varieties and traditional rice crops.

The foundation of every meal.

The Ayeyarwady River begins its journey in the high mountains of Kachin State, and flows wholly within the country of Myanmar. The river reaches the Indian Ocean in a 35,000 square kilometer alluvial plain: The Ayeyarwaddy Delta. Not far away from the densely populated metropolis of Yangon, the delta is widely agrarian and economically poor.

According to a study by Worldfish, the Ayerarwaddy Delta's incidence of poverty is significantly higher than the national average (74% and 25%, respectively).

Life in the Myanmar Delta Mezali Village

The Ayeyarwady Delta is prone to extreme storm events and flooding. Water levels change throughout the year, but many floodplains have been reclaimed as farmland. Dikes and canals keep out the water that would normally submerge the fields, allowing farmers to grow high-yield rice.

70% of Myanmar’s population lives in rural regions. However, rural people have started to migrate to the cities for two main reasons, according to Professor Nilar of Yangon University.

One reason people are migrating is the increased intensity of storms. General unpredictability of weather patterns results in large crop and financial losses, causing farmers to move away from agrarian lifestyles. In 2008, Myanmar was hit by Cyclone Nargis, causing major loss of life and economic damage, particularly in the delta.

The other reason is the pull of job opportunities in urban centers, accentuated as Myanmar becomes more open to the global economy than ever before.

According to the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT), 42% of households that were food insecure had a family member migrate in response.

Although some migration is occurring in pursuit of higher education, social mobility or higher professional pursuit, most people are moving out of necessity. This is especially prevalent among youth, who also aren’t very interested in working on the farm.

Out-migration from rural areas leaves farms with a labor shortage. This drives up the cost of the labor that remains.

Seasonal flooding and what it means for farms

There are 2 main cropping seasons- flooded (monsoon) and summer season. All of the flood crops are traditional varieties of rice that are well adapted to flooding because they can grow in deep water. In the summer, farmers mostly grow high-yield rice crops, and alternate with black gram, a high protein bean.

What is floating rice?

Floating (deepwater) rice compared to other rice breeds. Image courtesy of University of Texas at Austin: https://sites.utexas.edu/mecc/2013/11/17/climate-smart-agriculture-more-rice-less-methane/.

Floating rice, known by the locals as monsoon rice, is a traditional rice variety. It is well suited to growing in river and flood-prone areas. As water levels rise, stems can actually elongate at rates of up to 25cm per day while the panicle floats on the water surface.


What are the benefits of floating rice cultivation?

We asked the experts at An Giang University (AGU) and Australian National University (ANU):

It boosts biodiversity and flood-based ecosystems. Floating rice paddies create excellent wildlife habitats, attracting fish and large birds, which are also protein sources for delta dwellers.

It can be grown without the use of agrochemicals, which deteriorates the soil and kills fish—the most important source of animal protein in Myanmar—and is dangerous to humans.

It's surprisingly nutritious. According to AGU, floating rice is about 11% higher in protein than white rice, has about 5 times more Vitamin E (antioxidants) than white rice, and holds Vitamin B1, which helps convert carbs into energy and contains Anthocyanin (also high in antioxidants).

Flood-based production systems aren't just about traditional rice; they also present new livelihood opportunities for women. Involving women in small-scale aquaculture has been shown to boost household food security. Sales from surplus catch can boost income, according to a Worldfish study in Myanmar.

It has a natural adaptation to a flood-recession environment. The stems of floating rice are over a meter tall, and can elongate up to 25 centimeters per day in flooded conditions.

It can help maintain soil moisture in dry conditions. Although it is time consuming to clear, the thick straw left behind by the rice crop at the end of the season can be used as mulch for other crops in the summer, trapping moisture in the ground.

Its field spaces can be used for flood retention in the case of extreme flooding, and storage could potentially recharge groundwater in downstream communities. It also requires less modification of the natural landscape.

But the future of floating rice is uncertain. Why?

  • Low quality. The Floating Rice harvested in the Myanmar Delta is seen as too tough and gritty for human consumption; it is mainly used for animal feed. The seed quality is low compared to other regions, such as the Mekong Delta.
  • Low yield. Although Floating Rice can be sold at a higher price per basket than summer rice, summer rice yields are double that of Floating Rice.
  • Labor Intensive. Once the monsoon season is over, Floating Rice leaves a lot of residue in the fields that is time consuming to clear, detracting from the time available for starting the next crop.
  • Migration. The cost of labor in the fields is increasing as laborers head to urban centers and towns.
  • The Green Revolution. Farmers perceive modern varieties of rice as much more desirable due to their higher yield, shorter crop cycle, better taste and better market price.
  • Climate Change. As flood patterns change, the advantage of Floating Rice being suited for typical flooding regimes of the region could become irrelevant. There is less consistency in how fast water rises and the level of inundation.

Flood-based farming systems must adapt

Recovery and maintenance of flood-based agro-ecological farming systems in the Ayeyarwady Delta is a way to conserve natural resources for food security and boost climate resilience. Scientists at WLE and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) are already working with the Myanmar Department of Agriculture to study recent flood trends in order to advise farmers where, what and when to crop.

Calling in the experts

A few years ago, a team of rice researchers from Vietnam worked to address similar scenario in the Mekong River Delta. In three years, they brought floating rice back to the Mekong market. In collaboration with WLE, IWMI, and the University of Yangon, they are now guiding farmers in Myanmar through trainings and methods for recognizing the trade-offs between traditional and high-yield varieties thanks to the Mitsui & Co Environment Fund.

Their goal is to make suggestions on how to improve the cultivation of floating rice in the Ayeyarwady Delta region, and they believe that with proper seed selection and a shift in mindset, the people of the Ayeyarwady Delta can also enjoy the benefits of traditional floating rice varieties.

Check out the project websites: Supporting Flood-Based Farming Systems in the Ayeyarwady Delta and Promoting floating rice-based agro-ecological farming systems for a healthy society and adaptation to climate change in the Lower Mekong Region and Myanmar.

The Supporting Flood-Based Farming Systems in the Ayeyerwady Delta project is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, which is supported by the CGIAR Fund Donors, including direct support from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), United Kingdom: Department for International Development (DFID), The Netherlands: Directorate-General for International Cooperation (DGIS), Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (SDC), and other partners.

The project is also generously funded by the European Commission and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and is a part of the Flood-Based Livelihoods Network of Myanmar. The Mitsui & Co Environment Fund was also essential in making this collaboration happen.

Why are we running out of food in some of the world’s most fertile lands? Poor water management. See how communities are leading the charge to sustainably intensify farming in the major River Deltas of Asia: https://wle.cgiar.org/solutions/river-deltas
Photo Story by Madeline Dahm / IWMI & WLE

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