Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Managing soil and water in Burma's Central Dry Zone

ACIAR Graduate Research Officer, Jack Koci, recently travelled to Burma to understand research opportunities to improve land and water resource management in the Central Dry Zone (CDZ)...

A small scoping team from ACIAR recently met with stakeholders in Burma to determine priorities for improving agricultural productivity of smallholder farmers in the CDZ. Research into sustainable land and water resources management was identified as a high priority.  

Onion farmers preparing for harvest
Burma is one of the poorest countries in South-East Asia and has among the lowest social development indicators in the region, ranking 149 out of 187 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index.  The CDZ, located in the middle part of Burma, has some of the highest levels of poverty and food insecurity in the country.

Across the CDZ, rainfall variability is high, water-use efficiency is low, vegetation cover is sparse and the soil is severely degraded – eroded and of low fertility. Smallholders farming in these environments face considerable challenges in achieving food security, while land managers lack the resources and capacity to support sustainable agricultural development.

Land suitability mapping is one approach that would benefit both smallholders and land managers. This technique involves looking at the characteristics of the land and matching it to appropriate crops or other uses.
Salt crusting in the Central Dry Zone
presents a serious challenge for farmers

An example of its applicability is in managing soil salinity. Salinity is a particularly serious issue in the CDZ due to saline sub-soils, high evapotranspiration rates and restricted outward drainage of groundwater. In salt-affected areas, prevention is always better than cure. If high-risk areas are identified before they are used in agricultural production, interventions (such as improving drainage or planting salt-tolerant crops) can be put in place to minimise the impact.

On a field trip we visited several smallholder farmers to get a better understanding of the challenges they face. An onion farmer near Mandalay told us he was concerned that his yields were declining as a result of irrigating with saline groundwater. On a dryland farming system near Nay Pyi Taw, we saw how rising saline groundwater had left a crust of salt on the soil surface.

Researchers discuss farming challenges with a smallholder farmer
The biophysical conditions of the CDZ are similar to many Australian agro-ecosystems, such as the Murray–Darling Basin and the Burdekin in North Queensland. Australian scientists have good experience working in these environments and can offer their expertise in managing land in Burma.

Land suitability mapping will be crucial in enabling Burmese smallholder farmers to plan for and practise sustainable agriculture, to get the most from their land.

By Jack Koci, ACIAR Graduate Research Officer

More information:
ACIAR has a multi-disciplinary program in Burma covering crops (rice, legumes), fisheries and livestock production, and a socio-economic component designed to support the commodity-based components and provide capacity development:

AH/2011/054 Improving livelihoods of small-scale livestock producers in the central dry zone through research on animal production and health in Myanmar, led by University of Queensland

ASEM/2011/043 Strengthening institutional capacity, extension services and rural livelihoods in the Central Dry Zone and Ayeyarwaddy Delta regions of Myanmar, led by University of New England

FIS/2011/052 Improving research and development of Myanmar's inland and coastal fisheries, led by the WorldFish Center

SMCN/2011/046 Diversification and intensification of rice-based systems in lower Myanmar, led by the International Rice Research Institute

SMCN/2011/047 Increasing productivity of legume-based farming systems in the central dry zone of Myanmar, led by University of New England

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