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).
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.
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.