Myanmar Central Dry Zone: Crop Yields Drop Due To Salinization

By Henrylito D. Tacio

Davao, 4 April 2017. It is known as Central Dry Zone and covers 13 districts and 57 townships. The region of Mandalay, Sagaing and Magway is home to 11.5 million people or 27% of the total population in Myanmar. With an average population density of 99 persons per square kilometer, it is the third most densely populated in the country.

“The topography is generally undulating,” explains Dr. Amy Soe, of the Department of Agriculture Planning, which is under the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, on why the region is called as such.  “Most of the local streams are dry for much of the year with water flow limited to rainy periods.”

Myanmar farmers can turn to irrigation strategies to tackle salinization.

Myanmar farmers can turn to irrigation strategies to tackle salinization.

The average rainfall is about 650 millimeters per year.  No wonder, the region’s agricultural systems are complex; farmers cultivate paddy and non-rice crops (pulses, oilseeds, cotton, tobacco, and vegetables, to name a few) and raise livestock at the same time.

Most of the people are dependent on the southwest monsoon, which starts in mid-July and lasts until October.  “Over the last decade, there has been a higher frequency of lower amounts of rainfall occurring annually,” Dr. Soe reports.

But what’s even more alarming is that the soils, the primary source of farming, are being blown away by strong winds and eroded during an intense rain.  The continuous farming of the land has resulted in soil salinization, as what Dr. Soe’s study found out.

The study – done in Mandalay, Sagaing and Magway – was conducted with support from the ELD (Economics of Land Degradation) Initiative and the Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia (EEPSEA).

In Myanmar, irrigation plays a crucial role in crop production.  But once water is misused, it may result to salinization.  “Salinity is a common problem in dry regions where the rainfall is too low and irrigation is practiced without proper drainage,” Dr. Soe explains.  “Such irrigation practices can lead to accumulated salts in the root zone, which give negative impacts on soil properties and crop productivity.”

More often than not, salinization takes place among rice fields.  It takes about 3,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of rice, reports the Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Mandalay, Sagaing and Magway have come under study in what is called the Myanmar Central Dry Zone.

Mandalay, Sagaing and Magway have come under study in what is called the Myanmar Central Dry Zone.

“Water quality is usually associated with both the salinity and sodium content of the water,” Dr. Soe says.  “Sodium present in irrigation water can adversely affect soil structure and the growth of the crop.”

Farmers know it well.  Generally, they get to know the soil condition through the texture and color.  “At the time of rice planting until harvesting, they observe that some parts of their farms have white salt crust.  This results to the stunting of the crop’s growth.  Later on, the leaves of the plants turn red and the proper yield cannot be fully attained.  In some cases, the whole crop turns dry before harvest,” says Dr. Cho Cho San, who is with the policy and planning unit of the agriculture’s Department of Planning.

When this happens, farmers may abandon their farms, according to a study conducted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

But there are some farmers who try to solve the salinity problem by adopting various conservation measures.  Among them are the following: application of organic and chemical fertilizers, using farm yard manure, intercropping, mulching, no-tillage cultivation, crop rotation, and appropriate drainage.

While 90% of farmers know that their farms are degraded due to saline water that comes from irrigation water, the study showed, 80% of them believed there are no policies and programs that can curtail land degradation, particularly salinity problems.

The study said: “Even though the farmers noticed that their soil had a salinity problem that leads to lower soil fertility and reduced productivity of their crop, they lack knowledge on how to combat the problem and what appropriate measures can be taken to reduce the soil problem in their farms.” 

To solve the salinity problem, the study suggests seven policy recommendations.  Among these are: feasibility studies to be done before irrigation systems are constructed; soil and water management action plans be included in soil and water salinity monitoring in all levels; urgent and effective action on highly affected alkalinity and salinity areas; and establishment of water user groups and farmer organizations.

The study also urged the government to address low crop productivity in salinity affected by area by instituting programs such as the introduction of salt-tolerant varieties and promotion of appropriate agronomic farming practices.

In addition, the study recommends that other irrigation-induced land degradation problems like waterlogging and acidity should be addressed. 

“The existing capacity of government extension services need to be strengthened because they play a critical role in diffusing new technology and practices to farmers,” the study urges.

All these should be heeded before it’s too late.  “If problem is not solved, the salinity condition will worsen when associated with climate change,” Dr. San points out.  “The present study found that there is considerable crop loss and benefit loss for the farmers and agricultural sector which contributes to 34% of country’s gross domestic product.”

Dr. San further says: “In local level, from the experience during this study, farmers find the other option such as going abroad, or moving to urban areas for making new livelihood.”