Irrigated agriculture has become an important focus of the Government of Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) for addressing poverty alleviation, food security and climate change. Most irrigation systems to date have relied upon surface water, limiting irrigation development to areas close to streams, rivers and reservoirs. To address this gap, a community-managed groundwater irrigation pilot trial was specifically established on the Vientiane Plain. This trial, believed to be the first of its kind in the country, was established to assess the technical performance, economic viability and effectiveness of the institutional arrangements. This paper first covers the approach followed during project implementation, including the means by which the system was sited, designed and built together with the newly-formed Groundwater User Group (GWUG). Second, it describes the monitoring conducted over two successive dry seasons of cultivation to establish the system performance. Finally, the key lessons from the trial are drawn out and discussed. To enable greater farmer adoption, all pumping costs and some maintenance costs were covered by the project for the first year of dry-season cultivation only. Farmers cultivated a mix of paddy rice and cash crops using a combination of irrigation technologies (furrow, sprinkler and drip). Diversification through cash crop cultivation was found to generate substantial profits (both with and without the project subsidy for pumping/maintenance costs), while rice cultivation was only profitable with the subsidy. Farmers cultivating non-rice crops generated actual profits over the two dry seasons ranging from USD 115 to USD 1,042 (LAK 0.9 to 8.5 million) per season. A financial analysis based on the data collected during the first year of operation reaffirms that the irrigation system would only be attractive to farmers if cash crops were cultivated. Farmers tended to over-irrigate relative to crop water requirements, indicating that water productivity could be increased considerably through more efficient irrigation application and wider uptake of water-saving
technologies. Financial viability of the system is ultimately dependent on the level of adoption by farmers, the type of crops cultivated and choice of agricultural practices. Improved fertilizer management and greater orientation towards more market-oriented crops would help increase farmer profits. During the first year of operation, the pilot trial was able to clear some of the initial doubts of the farmers about groundwater availability and irrigation costs. This was because the system was able to provide a reliable source of water at a relatively low cost, even during the peak dry season when alternative water sources, including minor canals and shallow wells, dry out. Levels of farmer adoption in the pilot trial were surprisingly modest in both years. Four farmers irrigated a total area of 1.52 ha in the first dry season and only one farmer irrigated 0.67 ha in the second dry season when the subsidy was removed. Farmers opted out of dry-season irrigation primarily due to a lack of household labor, often pursuing more attractive income-generating offfarm activities. Also, farmers’ engagement in alternative livelihood options and limited external technical support were further reasons for non-adoption of the irrigation system. Our results highlight that a detailed upfront understanding of farmers’ needs, traditional value systems and practices linked to cultivation and food security, existing livelihood options and socioeconomic status are as important as understanding the groundwater resource capacity and irrigation demand, in order to maximize adoption and ensure sustainability of the irrigation system. The development potential of groundwater for irrigation in Lao PDR is high and the lessons drawn from this study serve to provide wider opportunities for agricultural groundwater development in Lao PDR.