Saturday, November 16, 2013

Learning to do irrigation, the hard way

Tomorrow I might be ready for our team to sign a irrigation project contract in MZ village.  Of course I could have said the same thing three weeks ago, and between that time and now I have twice been ready to cancel the project altogether!  It’s anybody’s guess then how tomorrow will go!

More than a year ago, before my time here, the project team was working with the community at addressing different development hurdles and analyzing which ones could be addressed to provide real economic growth for the community.  Irrigation water was named, and so a search for an appropriate water source began.  The community first took our team up the mountain to see the spring that provided “this much” (picture hands round and wide enough to hold a watermelon) water.  They reached the hillside spring and found that it was only “that much” (picture fingers curled around a golf ball).  Thus the team learned early on that this community did not excel in precision of measurements.

All the irrigation options were explored: the upper mountain spring, an electric pump on the riverside with power from a hydroelectric project, a diesel generator, and a nearby valley stream.  All four of the options were ruled impossible for one variable or another: shortage of supply, no suitable site for hydropower project, and generators are expensive to buy and maintain.  The last option, the nearby valley, was pretty much tossed aside by the people of the community, because although some had used that water by means of a dirt ditch, they were not unanimous in feeling it would be a worthwhile source to work for.

The idea of irrigation for the village thus went dormant, until this summer, when the shortage of winter precipitation caused people to think again about the need for irrigation.  This time the valley stream was the first idea to be brought back up, and it quickly, somehow ironically, gathered a consensus opinion from the community: we want that water back!

With interest gathered, I went for a first look at this valley in July.  It was the first time that I had really pondered what it would mean to do an irrigation project.  As I thought about it, these 3 essentials came to mind:

1- Everyone in community must have access.
2- Water supply must be adequate for all to be reached, for the full season needed.
3- The project design must be doable, affordable, and sustainable.

Unfortunately I did not take a minute to write these down at that point, to make sure I got them in the right order.  Then this happened:
We thought we should start with #1 on the list above, so we surveyed and worked with the community until we had ironed out a plan so that all fields of all residents would be included.  I took encouragement in this, because I have heard of many irrigation projects in this country falling apart on this point alone.  I also took encouragement in the fact that the community, once in disagreement about the worth of the project, had united in favor of doing it.  I believed that if the community thought it was worth the hard volunteer labor, it must be worth doing.  I also thought that they could best judge the amount of water the stream would supply, because they had previously used the water coming in a dirt ditch, and thought that this was worthwhile.  Restoring this water source with plastic pipe would only increase the amount that reached the fields. 

My encouragement came from the social development potential I was seeing, but in the next step I made a mistake.  What I should have done next was carefully surveyed the actual supply and demand of water for irrigation.  I should have worked out point #2 before doing anything else.

Instead of getting specific data about the irrigation water supply and demand, I went on to surveying for project design, in other words: how could it be built?  I visited the valley four separate times, each time with a new design question.  I measured, thought, and planned carefully how to make a flood-resilient checkdam, how to minimize and clean out silting in the pipe, how to hang the pipe from a suspension structure to take the pipe across a 37-meter valley, and how to install pressure relief valves to keep the water flow moving well.  It wasn’t that I was engrossed in the fun of construction design.  It was actually rather stressful to face all these technical questions and have to research answers, because I had very little experience in addressing these matters.  So then why didn’t I realize sooner the importance of answering points #2 before moving forward?

I don’t know.  Like I mentioned above, I found encouragement in the development between the people in the community, and in the absence of any real experience calculating water supply and irrigation demand, I let the community and my staff woo me into thinking it would all be alright. 

Everything was looking alright, until I stumbled upon the right questions at the wrong time.  By chance, I asked some men in the village if they had any figures on amount of water needed for any sample size of wheat field.  One man said he has run a petrol generator water pump for 90 minutes to irrigate a field that he sows 6 sers (roughly 93lbs) of wheat seed in.  I broke that down and realized that with the 2.5” pipe from the pump he was irrigating over 36,000 liters per jerib.  At that rate, our project would require 2,781,000 liters to reach everyone one time, and with our current trickle of a flow rate that would require 128 days!

I went home dumbfounded, literally, because I had just found out how dumb I had been.  This was the first time that I considered canceling the project, because it seemed just plain impossible.  Then I got to work penciling out all the details and thinking of ways we could change this up.  I thought of restricting the field size per family that could be irrigated.  If no one could irrigate more than the average field size of all, that would reduce the irrigated land by 30%.  Not enough.  I took into consideration that spring flow rates are said to be much better, and made some calculations of what could be done with steady flow rates of 1L/second up to 5L/second (the max for our 2.5” pipe).  This brought the days needed down between 6.5 and 32 days.  An improvement, but much too big of a range, and too unpredictable!

The stress of this was getting to me, so I went to talk with one of my lead local staff on the weekend, and we formed a new idea.  We had not been able to built a hydroelectric plant there, and we had not been able to petition a neighboring villages to share their hydro power with MZ village, but perhaps we could petition for power only for day-time use, only for a pump?  We both thought this was a fantastic idea, because electricity here is mostly unused in the daytime hours.  Surely the other village would share their power for daytime use for our economic improvement project, right? 

We decided we needed an answer sooner than the start of the week, so we took off on our motorcycles the next day, to get an answer from the other village.  It was not fun to burn my weekend on this project, but I will admit that it was very fun to take this trip on my motorcycle!  The highlight was when we crossed the river by small raft!  Then we searched a couple villages for the boss man who could give us the answer we needed.  We had to climb into a high mountain village in the end to find him, he was there visiting a man who has just returned from the hajj. 

We sat down with boss man and the new hajji, and drank some tea and ate some chickpeas, raisins, and almonds.  We explained our situation and the petition of the MZ village.  My hope in this solution was quickly dashed when the boss man politely but resolutely denied our request.  Actually he fudged it more than anything, he said we could install a pump in his village and pump water to a ditch that would then flow back to MZ village.  A quick calculation told me that just the electric lines and cement for the ditch would cost more than double what we had budgeted for the project.  Thanks for the chai, hajji, no we can’t stay to eat the lamb you’ve slaughtered, maybe next time? 

Back down the mountain we rode, to the river that we would have crossed by raft again, but it was prayer time so the raft man had disappeared.  Probably for the best.  Balancing two motorcycles on a raft made out of just enough wood to hold four truck innertubes in a square was probably a bad enough idea to do once.  Home we went on the dirt road, which made me feel alive as ever.  Then I realized my cell phone had bounced out of my pocket, with over 150 contacts that were only saved on it.  Ahhhhhhhh.

Today I spent most of the day working with figures that I received from some reliable ag workers here.  I had asked them a few days before how much water was needed for wheat here, and one had replied.  I went to work converting acre-inch and gallons per minute figures to sers and jeribs and liters.  It was worth doing, because I’m encouraged by what I’ve found.  For example, alfalfa can be grown in Texas and Arizona on less than 16,000 liters per jerib; less than half of what the MZ farmer told me he was putting on his wheat field here!  I talked with my team about this, and they said, “well, how would he know what a jerib is?”  Yeah, we’re going to measure that field tomorrow.

Here’s the figures I am looking at now:
In the spring I estimate the valley stream can provide 4-5L/second, yielding enough water to cover everyone’s fields in 2.5-3.5 days, at a rate of 16,000L/jerib.  That’s doable, and will get them through the harvest of the winter wheat.  After that it gets harder to say what will be available for a second planting.  Right now I think the community would have to decide what their priority is for the summer: tree planting and domestic water (washing, animals), or irrigating a smaller section of their fields. 

So, tomorrow I go to MZ village, measure the one farmer’s field and see how many liters of irrigation he really applied, and head into discussions with all the white beards.  I’ll give them the good news that I think I’ve found for the spring season and first planting, and then call their attention to the careful planning and monitoring we will need to do for the second crop season.  If we can get some good negotiations started on this, and if no other crazy unforeseen events unfolds, we might be ready to talk project contract tomorrow, and have shovels in the ground on Mon or Tues. 

Or it might not happen, there’s really no telling what the next day will bring here.

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