By Rafiqul Islam
FENI, Bangladesh (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Elias Ali has been picking weeds and waste for hours from his paddy field in southeastern Bangladesh, preparing it for irrigation. Every week, he walks half a kilometer to collect the water he needs from private pumps.
Ali and fellow farmers currently pay 4,000 taka ($51) each per year to middlemen in exchange for irrigation on their one-acre plots in Feni district.
But water frequently seeps out of the earthen canals that supply the pumps, wasting significant amounts, Ali said.
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"The waste increases our costs, as pump owners also charge us for water that's leaked," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"When we experience a loss in crop production due to floods or droughts, we can no longer afford the high price of irrigation, which fuels tension between pump owners and farmers," he said.
Water is a precious commodity in Bangladesh – abundant during the monsoon from June to October, but scarce in the dry season from November to March.
Abul Hye Bhuiyan, a farmer and president of the Pathannagar Water Management Group, said many farmers simply cannot cultivate crops in the dry season due to the high cost of irrigation.
Sometimes they have no choice but to sell stored crops to pay for water, Ali said.
But Bhuiyan and Ali are hopeful. The Bangladesh government plans to install water meters across the Muhuri Project, a 60,258-hectare irrigation area supplied by the Feni, Muhuri and Milenia rivers, to reflect farmers' water costs more accurately.
The scheme is part of the Irrigation Management Improvement Project, a government-led initiative to modernize irrigation systems, including the Muhuri Project, from 2015 to 2019.
The scheme has financial support from the Asian Development Bank and the Bangladesh Water Development Board.
About 800 water meters will be installed, as well as new water pumps, with water supplied through underground pipelines.
Farmers will receive rechargeable smart cards they can use to pay for their water use, instead of paying a fixed cost to middlemen.
Humayyun Kabir, extension overseer at the Water Development Board, said around 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) of land would be brought under the irrigation scheme initially, with some 80 pumps due to be installed by 2017.
He expects middlemen to gradually remove their own pumps.
The board estimates the renovation will be finished by 2019, when all 60,238 hectares will be equipped with meters and pumps.
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Before launching the initiative, the board surveyed about 800 local farmers who own land in the project area.
They expressed enthusiasm at the meter idea, said Md Kohinoor Alam, executive engineer at the board.
Bangladesh Water Resources Minister Anisul Islam Mahmud said imposing a price on water would encourage farmers to become more economical in using it.
Bhuiyan said paying for the exact amount of water they use "will encourage farmers to think about how they could produce crops using less water".
That is particularly important in a country where water scarcity increases every dry season, explained Abu Taher Khondoker, former director general of the country's Water Resources Planning Organization.
The Water Development Board's Kabir estimated that once the meter system is operational, farmers will pay only 2,000-2,500 taka per acre of land for irrigation, instead of 4,000 now.
"They will no longer be at the mercy of middlemen unfairly increasing costs," he added.
The board expects the new scheme to benefit about 80,000 families. All farmers owning land in the Muhuri Project will be enrolled automatically, though they can opt out.
Minister Mahmud said that if the water meter scheme proved viable, it would be replicated elsewhere, such as in the Ganges-Kobadak Irrigation and Teesta Barrage projects.
($1 = 78.3000 taka)
(Reporting by Rafiqul Islam,; editing by Zoe Tabary and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)