Bac Giang, Vietnam: 15 March, 2010: You know its Tet in Vietnam when Peach and Kumquat orange trees decorate every home, shop and public establishment. These flowery harbingers of the Lunar New Year are big business – and a cherished source of income for the women of Dinh Ke commune, a couple of hours by road from Hanoi. In Vietnam, families hang ‘lucky money’ packets on their trees at Tet, for these farmers, the tree itself is ‘lucky money’.
We are walking through fields ablaze with pink peach blossoms on specially cultivated trees that have no leaves so the blossoms can hug the branches in thick uninterrupted clusters. It’s the kind of high value produce that poor women farmers like Nguyen Thi Du and Nguyen Thi Lan, could never have dreamed of just five years ago.
Back then, water supply was erratic, their fields were improperly irrigated and drained and they didn’t know the first thing about raising horticultural produce. “We had no knowledge of seed varieties, soil conditions and growing techniques. We barely raised two crops in a year,” they recall, “now we do three and we are moving up the value chain with more vegetables and flowers.”
Designed to Attract Women Users
Both women are members of one of the 66 Water Users Organizations (WUO) set up with a grant of US$1.65 million from the government of Japan under the US$176.2 million Vietnam Water Resources Assistance Project (VWRAP). The project fosters agricultural diversification by modernizing the six largest irrigation systems in the country and promoting environmentally sustainable management of water resources in the Thu Bon river basin in the Central region. The grant was specially designed to attract women’s participation in agriculture water management through the introduction of a participatory irrigation management approach (PIM).
“We have designed the water users associations in such a way that women who have domestic and time constraints are still able to take part in meetings,” says Mrs Nguyen Thi Anh Tuyet of the Dinh ke commune Women’s Union: “We sent newsletters and other information to the communes specially inviting women to join. Now some 50-60 % of members are women, but it has taken time to change the mindset,” she confesses.
Indeed, of the 50,000 households in 18 hamlets which have benefitted from the WUOs across the province, only 9 % are headed by women. Reasons? Men do the night shifts when the water comes and tend to get elected as WUA heads as they are better known in the community. Nevertheless, these women farmers have taken the project to heart. “They have helped in construction of the office and in dredging of some 2500 mts of earth-filled canals. They stand in dirty drains and do both field work and water management work,” says Anh Tuyet.
Training Women Yields Results
Women participate in monthly village meetings where they discuss their water requirements for the month and well as some micro-credit support for raising poultry, cows and other high value crops. At a meeting attended by several dozen women in Dinh Ke commune the role of the Vietnam Women’s Union in catalyzing women’s involvement in teaching child rearing and other life skills was also apparent.
“Some 66 training courses on Participatory Irrigation Management have been carried out in the communes, six of them at the grass-roots level," says Mr. Luong Duc Hien, Chairman of the District People’s Committee. “We have held 26 training courses on improving and diversifying farm output which has raised the income of WUO members significantly,” he says, “while also helping to improve the capacity of WUOs on finance, administration and technical issues."
"Another important outcome is decreased conflict over water use thanks to coordination of irrigation schedules," he says. “Those at the end of the water line are assured of a supply same as those who live close to the source. This has helped us plan three crops a year where once we barely managed two.”
The WUOs are set up in a pyramidal structure with the ministry at the apex –“which sets the price and standards of water delivery" - down to the province, district and village level. It is a system that echoes the structure of other grassroots organizations in Vietnam such as the Farmer’s Union and the Women’s Union, organizations with which the WUO’s work in alliance.
For Than Thi and Nguyen, help has come from several sources, but “Women in our commune have played an important role in upgrading the irrigation system." They have proved greater success can be achieved by water user groups when women’s participation is encouraged from early stage of the project."