Enhancing biodiversity services in Southeast Asia irrigation systems: UN FAO and CSU project commences

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The Australian Water Partnership (AWP) is supporting its partners – the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN FAO) and Charles Sturt University (CSU) – to implement a project seeking to enhance biodiversity services in irrigation systems of Southeast Asia. This project will develop the tools, country-specific guidelines, regional lessons, and in-country capacities required to more systematically include biodiversity and ecosystem service considerations into irrigation rehabilitation, extension and modernisation programs.

Irrigation investment programs in the Southeast Asia region are collectively worth billions of dollars. The challenge of linking these to increased awareness of the benefits of multi-functional ecosystems provides the opportunity to apply considerable Australian expertise and technology to aquatic ecosystem management.

On 4–5 September in Bali, Indonesia, a project inception workshop was held as part of the 3rd World Irrigation Forum (WIF) to discuss and refine the overall project strategy, allocate roles and responsibilities and prepare a detailed work plan.

AWP CEO Prof Nick Schofield and UN FAO Regional Office for Asia Pacific Lead Louise Whiting welcomed participants, including representatives from UN FAO, CSU, the Indonesia Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Public Works, the Government of Myanmar Department of Fisheries, and the Government of Myanmar Irrigation and Water Utilization Management Department (Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation). Guests from the University of South Australia and the National University of Laos were also in attendance.

Nick Schofield and Louise Whiting (left of screen) with participants at the project inception workshop (4–5 September 2019, Bali).

Nick Schofield and Louise Whiting (left of screen) with participants at the project inception workshop (4–5 September 2019, Bali).

“It was beneficial to have the opportunity to hear from representatives from Indonesia and Myanmar to better understand their priorities for sustainable irrigation,” said Prof Schofield. “We were able to successfully workshop ideas to pave the way forward in each country, as well as identify key partners we can invite to work with us on various aspects of the project. Two clear case studies emerged which will form the basis for activities moving forward.”

Indonesia and Myanmar have identified on-ground case-study projects for the larger ‘Next Generation Irrigation and Water Management for the Asia-Pacific’ Program. The project activities will include developing materials for technical and policy guidance, and resource mobilisation (Phase/Year 1); Stakeholder consultation and buy-in (Phase/Year 2); and dissemination and capacity development at national and regional levels (Phase/Year 3).

Two supporting sessions were also held during the week of the WIF on ‘Enhancing biodiversity with fish-friendly irrigation in Asia’ and ‘Tools and approaches for coping with water scarcity in Asian agriculture’.

The session on enhancing biodiversity was held in recognition of the increasingly diverse demands for water from irrigation systems – highlighting the potential for the integration of fisheries and aquaculture to significantly increase local economies, food security, household incomes and livelihood diversity within irrigated agriculture systems, and mitigate impacts on aquatic biodiversity and aquatic ecosystems.

The interactive session included demonstrations of known mitigation measures, examples of fisheries and aquaculture already co-existing with irrigation, and discussions on potential opportunities to improve systems to increase such services. It enabled robust discussions among policy-makers and practitioners about policy and governance changes required for the systematic inclusion of biodiversity, fisheries and nutrition concerns into irrigation and water management policy.

The session on coping with water scarcity in agriculture sought to gather information to supplement a new UN FAO Water Scarcity Program for Asia-Pacific to bring agricultural water use to within the limits of sustainability and prepare the sector for a productive future with less water.

“FAO is working with AWP and a range of other partners to support countries in their efforts to tackle the challenges associated with worsening water scarcity. Key activities include hydrological assessment, demand prediction, demand management scenarios and allocation options for sustainable water use, taking into account water quality and climate change impacts,” said Louise Whiting.

Prof Nick Schofield speaking at the Inception Workshop (4 September 2019, Bali).

Prof Nick Schofield speaking at the Inception Workshop (4 September 2019, Bali).

Presenters came from three countries with extensive experience in tackling water scarcity—China, Egypt and Australia—with Prof Schofield presenting on the Australian Water Reform Journey and Dr Zhanyi Gao, China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower, delivering the keynote.

Participants learnt about accomplishments in addressing water scarcity challenges across Asia and globally; updated their knowledge and understanding on pathways to sustainable water scarcity management leading to workable solutions towards sustainable development; and exchanged experiences, debated views, and learnt from each other on how to reduce the water gap between supply and demand, while contributing effectively to food and water securities.

A paper on ‘Irrigation, fisheries and Sustainable Development Goals: the importance of working collaboratively to end world hunger and malnutrition’ was also launched during the session as part of a Marine and Freshwater Research special issue on Biodiversity in Irrigation systems. The special issue features ten research papers co-authored by national and global experts on irrigation and biodiversity. AWP supported several authors to present this work at the WIF.

“In response to the growing pressure on natural resources, many countries are expanding irrigation infrastructure to produce food, and building dams to secure water and generate power,” said Dr Lee Baumgartner from Charles Sturt University.

“In many instances this can create pressure for other food resources, such as fish, so we are glad to be partnering with AWP to develop practical approaches to generate win-win outcomes for both irrigation and biodiversity in both Myanmar and Indonesia.”

The conclusions and recommendations from the supporting sessions are being followed up with an action plan for the ICID National Committees to follow up in their respective countries.

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