$6 Million Irrigation Project

February 2004


I was surprised, but I guess I shouldn't have been. When traveling along the Laclo River yesterday, I marveled at a new, local, 'improvement' to the irrigation project sponsored by JICA (Japan's international aid agency). JICA reportedly spent $6 million to ensure Manatuto with a permanent supply of irrigation water for it's rice fields. One could easily question many aspects to this project, including asking why so much money would be spent for a relatively small, arid area (there are only 10,000 people living in Mantuto, and about a third are involved in rice farming, but mostly for subsistence) for growing rice, and why they would work so hard to supply water all-year-round when the local tradition of grazing buffalo on the rice fields in the off-season will make this a difficult proposition. But I won't ask those questions. Instead, I'll just present a few photographs, and suggest the viewer keep two things in mind: few of the people who will use and manage this system can read, let alone process a complicated chart and map, and no one in East Timor, at least not in Manatuto, has any idea how to maintain and repair such a complex system.

The effort to train and prepare the water usage association was impressive, and fairly comprehensive, involving multiple classroom and field exercises. The people genuinely are grateful for the project (at least the half of Manatuto that gets the water--I may work with another quarter of the village to solve their irrigation water needs with $10,000), and the leaders in government are committed to using it well. Evidence of this latter, is that as soon as word got around that the 'marhinos' who have inherited the right to control water flow in the irrigation districts from grandparents and theirs before them, were not managing the water well, the sub-district and district administrators called the important people together and opened the canals back up. However, I've heard that the marhinos are out of a tradition.

I don't know how long it is expected for this infrastructure to last, but I've seen two very bad signs. In the field training, the engineer from Japan explained that both gates on the intake should always be even unless flushing sediment: I rode by the other day and one was open high, the other closed tight, and no one was in sight. Perhaps more disconcerting, the canal carrying water to the fields was dammed with palm leaves and sticks raising the water level so some farmer could get water to higher rice fields. Was this a field that was somehow forgotten in the original design? Or is there something else afoot? You can see the resulting devastation to the road in the pictures at the end below.

Enough, here are the pictures. -- mj

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    Consultant from the Philippines       Translator Elias       And More          
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    Gathered Under Foho Kili       Project Designer Explains       An Old Marinho       Spinning the Control Wheel  
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    Intake       Spinning the Wheel       Flush Gate       Undermining the Street  
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    Make-shift Dam       Palm-leaf Dam       Fun with Water