Digging deep for food security

Originally published on September 24, 2018.

As a born-and-raised member of the Vohintany commune in southwest Madagascar, Mara Soamihary has witnessed his land change from semi-arid to arid during his lifetime. The most tangible change? He used to be able to grow rice, a Malagasy staple. But with less reliable rainfall, Mara switched to growing cassava several years ago. “I tried my best to keep growing rice, but it just would not grow,” he laments.

Vohintany used to have access to an irrigation system. But, built before 1960 and poorly maintained, the irrigation system had not carried water to local fields for over 30 years. When Land O’Lakes International Development field agents visited Vohitany and listened to the needs of the villagers, it was clear that a functional irrigation system would transform people’s lives. Together, they set to work.

Funded by the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Office of Food for Peace, and in partnership with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), Land O’Lakes International Development is implementing an innovative food security program called ASOTRY. Meaning “harvest” in Malagasy, ASOTRY addresses the underlying causes of food and economic insecurity to improve household resilience in the Atsimo-Andrefana region of Madagascar.

With technical advisors from Land O’Lakes International Development, Mara was one of almost 400 villagers from Vohitany and seven surrounding communities who rebuilt the irrigation network, with technical advise from Land O’Lakes International Development. The crew worked about five hours each day, from sunrise to noon, to deepen the main and side trenches of the irrigation network, working by hand in the rocky, volcanic earth. “We were paid with food [an approach known as food-for-work], which we appreciated,” he said.

After four months, the villagers had restored over eight kilometers (approximately five miles) of irrigation channels. They also repaired a dam on the nearby Linta River, the irrigation system’s water source, and added vegetation to the banks of the channels to prevent erosion. The restored network now provides water to over 1000 hectares of crop land in eight communities.

More importantly, they can now grow rice again. Last season, Mara grew 1,500 kg of rice, and he was able to sell enough to pay for school fees for his children and grandchildren. He was also able to add zebu (local cows) to his farm and cover funeral expenses for a family member.

And, Mara was selected by his village to be responsible for controlling the flow of water from the dam to the primary irrigation channels, an important duty that requires him to be a fair neighbor.

While working to restore the irrigation system was very hard work, Mara says, “we were happy to do this, because the irrigation system is magical. And, we no longer have to eat cassava every day!”

In this arid district in southwest Madagascar, there are only two irrigation systems, and the system used by Vohintany is the most important. Ten communities are now benefiting from this infrastructure improvement, allowing 1,456 rural households access to irrigation. During the rehabilitation, 648 workers (292 of whom were female) worked daily on improving the Vohintany irrigation system.  

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