Fighting Floods and Droughts in Ecuador’s Daule Rice Fields

Daule, in Guayas province, is Ecuador’s rice capital, surrounded by sprawling paddies where the starchy grain – a staple of Latin American diets – grows. 25 000 to 50 000 hectares are planted every year, allowing two to three harvests on a good year. But good years are scarce, and local residents have not seen proper rains for quite a while. For several years now, their rice fields have been alternatively flooded, or dried up by extreme droughts, destroying supplies and livelihoods. The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) funds a Disaster Preparedness programme carried out by AVSF, Agronomes Vétérinaires sans Frontières, to strengthen the resilience of the most vulnerable affected families.

Daule residents face both floods and droughts, a cycle expected to worsen given this year's El Niño phenomenon. ©European Union/ECHO/H. Avril 2015
Daule residents face both floods and droughts, a cycle expected to worsen given this year’s El Niño phenomenon. ©European Union/ECHO/H. Avril 2015

Daule’s rice crops depend on irrigation systems taking water from the Daule river. A normal rainy season guarantees a successful harvest. But if there are heavy rains, the river floods the paddies and destroys the whole crop, as it has happened in recent years.

In 2012, Ecuador experienced the worst rains registered in the country since 1970 with more than 100 000 people affected in the coastal plains. Daule was among the most affected cantons in Guayas province. Hundreds of hectares of rice crops were destroyed by floods, river overflowing and landslides. The excess rain also hindered crops trade due to the damage caused to the routes and infrastructure.

When droughts strike, local farmers, who do not have their own irrigation system or wells, struggle even more. “During a drought, we lose the crops due to lack of irrigation; and during floods, we lose the crops when they are submerged underwater for a period of time, or because we can’t transport the rice to markets because the roads are cut off,” says Fausto Ayala, a 62-year-old resident of Isla de Paz.

Droughts can be so severe that residents of Daule do not even have enough water for their own consumption. “It’s heart-breaking, living so close to the river and yet having no water for the fields, having to rely on rains for the harvest to yield,” he adds. “The little water we get when the small tank truck comes from the municipality, we save for drinking. But it’s not enough for the fields,” he says.

“Losing a rice crop due to floods means a drop of 70% of a modest family’s yearly income,” explains Carmen Guzñay, who coordinates the local Disaster Preparedness programme InunDaule run by Agronomes Vétérinaires sans Frontières (AVSF) and funded by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO).

The DIPECHO Disaster Preparedness project will strengthen the resilience of close to 250 vulnerable families holding small crop lands. The project will also support 16 key local institutions in Disaster Preparedness, such as the Union of Coastal Farmers’ Social Organisations, the National Weather and Hydrology Institute, or the Risk Management Secretariat.

AVSF bases its work on three approaches: agreement between parties, agro-ecology and innovation.

To achieve an agreement is fundamental to get stakeholders to understand one another and share perspectives. This is fostered thanks to a ‘role-playing game’, in which farmers and local institutions play each other’s roles to achieve common objectives such as the proper management of water resources, or ensuring harvests are saved. Local residents say these simulations have helped generate a ‘big-picture’ – a comprehensive approach of the problems affecting everyone in the Daule region.

“Putting farmers on an equal footing with local institutions allows them to communicate their needs and be heard,” Carmen Guzñay explains.

Through agro-ecology techniques, AVSF supports farmers with practical trainings on bio-consumable goods, like the capture and reproduction of efficient micro-organisms, production of natural insecticides, etc. The objective is to make the crops more resilient to extreme weather, and for farmers to have more regular, secure income.

Finally, innovative research is applied to identify the best coping mechanisms local communities have developed to resist to disasters. With this input, an economic strategy is drafted jointly with local institutions to ensure Daule residents are less vulnerable to natural phenomena.

Four months on, the project has gained overwhelming support from local communities. Many have participated in role-playing game sessions, and most have come out with ideas and solutions, to better resists the next drought or flood.

The above article was written by Ruth Silva, Information and Communication Assistant for Latin America and the Caribbean, ECHO, for EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) @ECHO_LatAm, for and was originally published here.