Country Water Action: Farmers Rebuild Aceh’s Irrigation

The land reclaimed

New housing, new roads, and new infrastructure all over Aceh stand as evidence of a remarkable recovery from the earthquake and tsunami which devastated this region of Indonesia in December 2004. They are the results of a massive reconstruction effort following the disasters that transformed Aceh forever, but not only in destructive ways.

In the rural areas along the west coast where the tsunami wiped out entire communities, the lush landscape has revived, new villages have been built, and farmers are back on the land, planting their crops again in rehabilitated fields.

Reconstruction created opportunities to do things differently. The government recognized that reviving agriculture, which absorbs over half of Aceh’s workforce, is crucial to improving lives in one of the poorest regions of Indonesia. With support and encouragement from the international donor community, the government adopted innovative approaches, giving farmers and villagers a greater role in rebuilding their communities.

The Government of Indonesia established in April 2005 the Badan Rehabilitasi dan Rekonstruksi (the Board for Rehabilitation and Reconstruction for Aceh and Nias or BRR) to lead and coordinate the US$6.8 billion reconstruction program. One of BRR’s major tasks was the restoration of rural communities’ livelihoods. Emergency rehabilitation and reconstruction of irrigation infrastructure for some 100,000 hectares of agriculture land was one of the critical tasks.

ADB, through the $29 million irrigation component of the $294.5 million multi-sector Earthquake & Tsunami Emergency Support Project (ETESP) supported the rebuilding of damaged infrastructure for irrigation schemes. Farmers, in coordination with BRR, led the irrigation rehabilitation covering over 59,000 hectares, the first large-scale community-centered irrigation project in Aceh.

Tsunami aftermath

One of the small rural towns that felt the tsunami’s full fury is the coastal subdistrict of Leupung. Fifteen meter waves swept away everything in their path, burying the land in debris and taking a huge toll on lives. Out of Leupung’s population of 15,000 people, only about 1,000 survived.

Well on its way to recovery, Leupung now has a population of 3,500 living in new villages. Many relatives who had left Aceh returned to help rebuild. Community leader Pak Adnan lost his wife and children in the tsunami. Now like many other survivors, he has remarried and started a new family.

“When the tsunami came, it carried us against the rocks on the hillsides. In our village, all women and children died, not one of them survived,” Adnan said. “The good news is that thirty babies have been born in our village. They are our hope for the future,” he added.

After the disaster, the first priorities were shelter and basic services. Then efforts turned to getting farmers back on the land to provide food and earn a living. But recovering the land has not been easy. Clearing debris and restoring the fields has been an arduous, traumatic process.

Leupung farmer Muhammad Bahron said, “First we cleared and removed the debris of houses, wood, and trees. Then, we made field dikes to identify the boundaries of our land. We found human bones, the remains of tsunami victims. I held some of them in my hands. We have buried a lot of bones that we found.”

Community cooperation

In leading the recovery program, BRR adopted participatory irrigation management approaches that ensured that benefits flow directly to the local communities and helped build capacity and ownership at the local level. The participatory approach was an integral feature of the design of ETESP’s irrigation component with reconstruction works for the smaller canal systems assigned to be primarily undertaken by Water Users Associations (WUAs) through community contracts and for the larger main canals through contractors.  

In Leupung, farmers have rebuilt irrigation canals that were completely destroyed by the tsunami. With support and training from project staff, the farmers organized a WUA which managed construction contracts. The farmers participated in the design and planning of the canals and receive wages for work on construction. Profit from the contract is retained by the community for operation or expansion of the irrigation network.

However, the implementation of participatory approaches for irrigation was a challenge with no overnight solution. There was an initial lack of confidence and trust in WUAs capabilities among the officials in the irrigation agencies as well as a lack of understanding of participatory implementation on the part of the communities. Entrenched attitudes of government agencies and communities accustomed to top-down, “patron-client” relationships had to be overcome. Strengthening of WUAs were required and supported. Towards the completion of ETESP irrigation component, many agency staff have become supporters of the participatory approach.

Project manager Pak Samadi said, “The canals built by the farmers are much better quality than those made by contractors because the farmers have a sense of ownership and have responsibility for the maintenance of the irrigation network. I think it is quite appropriate for this approach to be implemented in the other parts of Indonesia, particularly for tertiary networks”.

Women also play a prominent role, particularly in Trienggading, where women participated in canal construction work. Darmawati, the woman vice-chair of the Trienggading WUA, said “Both men and women together should share responsibility to maintain the canals, so that water continues to flow smoothly to our fields”. Besides working on canal construction, the women of Trienggading take part in regular maintenance of the irrigation network.

The WUAs have then become the backbone of the struggle to recover the land, helping farmers to settle problems, such as land boundaries which were obliterated by the tsunami. With the land cleared, demarcated, and watered from new irrigation canals, Leupung farmers are now able to grow their first crop of rice in four years since the disaster.

Bahron said, “We are giving it our best so we can start planting this month. Growing rice is our main source of livelihood. We depend on rice for our food”.