May 16, 2015edge review

Engineers at work in Proximity Designs’ research and development facility, in Yangon, Myanmar (Alex Bookbinder)

As climate change makes life harder for Myanmar’s rural majority, one firm has practical answers

Were it not for the punishing heat and 100 per cent humidity, Proximity Designs’ manufacturing and research facility, in a nondescript industrial estate on the outskirts of Yangon, could be mistaken for an American start-up at the dawn of the computer age: a group of young engineers devising and testing prototypes, and a lean production crew churning out the fruits of their labour just metres away.

But while the by-the-bootstraps ethos is similar, the company’s remit is decidedly different. Founded in 2004 by a Myanmar re-pat and her American partner, it is a social enterprise whose activities run the gamut from manufacturing to microfinance to advisory services for farmers. It offers products and services uniquely tailored to Myanmar’s poorest: the estimated 70 per cent of the labour force employed in agriculture.

Accelerating climate change has already begun to pose challenges that Proximity’s products and services seek to help mitigate. According to Germanwatch, a climate-focused think tank, Myanmar was affected by climate-related events – such as cyclones, droughts and floods – to a greater degree than any other country on earth except Honduras between 1994 and 2013.

These extreme weather events have already left a deep impression on the nation: in 2008, the landfall of Cyclone Nargis in the Irrawaddy Delta killed nearly 140,000 people and caused an estimated US$10 billion in damage.

Intense floods inundate vast swathes of the country every rainy season, with the annual deluge anecdotally worsening as the years progress. Myanmar is the world’s seventh-largest producer of rice, and agriculture accounts for an estimated 50 per cent of GDP. To sit idly by and let a changing climate wreak havoc is simply not an option.

Diverse topography poses challenges that vary from region to region, but some realities are constant across the country. “When we were young, the [monsoon] weather was quite punctual, starting in April or May,” said Myo Myint, Proximity’s resident agronomist-in-chief and the head of its farm advisory services team.

This is no longer the case: since 1955, the monsoon has on average begun two weeks later and ended two weeks earlier. But this trend towards a shorter monsoon has become coupled with more extreme flooding and drought.

Across the semi-arid plains of Myanmar’s dry zone, life has long been defined by an existential struggle for water. Deforestation and increasingly unpredictable weather systems have made the region increasingly susceptible to drought, underscoring the need for reliable, cheap irrigation equipment. This is where Proximity comes in.

Farmers have historically had to carry water by hand, an inefficient and time-consuming task. Proximity has introduced an ever-growing line of inexpensive irrigation equipment, specifically designed for the realities of smallholders in Myanmar.

Its initial foray into the market was a metal, foot-powered “treadle pump” that, at US$40, significantly undercut the cost of comparable – and less efficient – hand pumps. Its best-seller is the “Baby Elephant”, introduced in 2010, a US$16 plastic suction pump that puts improved irrigation within reach of thousands who would otherwise not have access to it.

The company also markets a unique, gravity-fed drip irrigation system that has vastly reduced the cost of an efficient, water-saving technology that was once financially prohibitive for small-hold farmers.

A shorter, more intense monsoon isn’t the only climate-related challenge facing Myanmar’s farmers. In the lush, low-lying Irrawaddy delta, Myanmar’s rice basket, rising sea levels have forced rice farmers to contend with increasingly saline soil.

“With climate change, seawater is rising … which will push down the volume of fresh water, and this [fluctuates]. It’s almost like a tug-of-war,” Myo Myint said. “We have to adapt to the change.”

Normally, farmers in areas with brackish water can produce one rice crop per year, whereas those in areas with reliable fresh water are able to plant their fields twice. Nevertheless, due to the efforts of Proximity’s farm advisory services team, some of these farmers are now planting two crops a year – a critical buffer for food security in case one crop fails.

His team routinely tests water for salinity levels on behalf of farmers across the delta, who then advise farmers when to plant their paddy to maximise yields and reduce the chance of crop failure. He also stresses the importance of selecting the best seeds for survival in saline conditions.

As sea levels rise, the techniques taught by his team will become increasingly relevant as saltwater progressively intrudes into areas that have historically enjoyed reliable fresh water. “Doing something in brackish areas [now] is preparing for the future in those freshwater areas,” he says. “All our techniques are simple and affordable, and farmers can easily adapt.”

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