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Trends in irrigation-water management

Adapting institutional arrangements

The institutional arrangements governing irrigation-water appropriation and use have been established over the centuries in various countries under different environmental and social circumstances. Adapting to new pressures that call for higher water productivity and increased user participation and liability in cost recovery has proved difficult. With increasing competition for water, both within the irrigated subsector (between farmers) and with other economic sectors – principally municipalities, industry and hydropower - irrigation institutions are often not adequately equipped to adapt to changing circumstances and expectations. The competing demands from municipalities, industry and the energy sector are forcing transfers from agriculture to other, higher value, uses. Figure 4 earlier showed an example of this process at work in one district in China.

Irrigated agriculture has played a pivotal role in keeping up with global food demands in the twentieth century, but into the twenty-first century there is continued evidence of lacklustre performance in the public sector alongside a frustrated private sector. In many cases, distorted markets, ill-conceived incentives and institutional rigidity plague the irrigation subsector. Producers are seeking financial returns against tight margins for food commodities, subsidies for rainfed agriculture and varying degrees of competition for raw water from other sectors, and are also expected to maintain environmental integrity.

One troubling aspect is the continued expectation that the physical endowments of land and water equate to a ‘potential’ that needs to be realized, without parallel analysis of economic, financial, institutional and environmental constraints and without a realistic market analysis. This has conditioned the approach that many governments continue to take in implementing irrigation and water policies, irrigation institutions and in allocating public-sector budgets. There has been a dominance of supply-led approaches predicated upon large-scale irrigation infrastructure and governments have shown determination in continuing to play a role in operating public infrastructure for the supply of irrigation services. In many instances, there is a sharp discontinuity in policy, institutional capacity, investment between the provision of irrigation services and the promotion of agricultural systems. This applies to many of the key developing economies. It could be argued that if irrigated agriculture has its failures, it is in a large part because it has focused essentially on providing water and not enough on the productivity of the agricultural systems and their responsiveness to agricultural markets.

Increasing private investment in irrigation

Investment in large irrigation projects increased in the 1970s and then fell by more than 50 percent in the 1980s. It further declined in the 1990s. Most of the water-related infrastructure projects over the past forty to fifty years were financed by the governmental sector with significant intervention by the international development banks. Development costs for new irrigation lands have increased markedly in recent years; for example, costs have been increasing by more than 50 percent in the Philippines, 40 percent in Thailand and have nearly tripled in Sri Lanka. With declining crop prices, it is difficult to justify new irrigation development. Financial capability is lacking for new infrastructure as well as for modernizing present structure and ensuring system sustainability.

Recently there has been an increase in the private-sector financing of large water-sector infrastructure, and small-scale irrigation systems. According to the World Bank, 15 percent of the infrastructure is currently being financed through private funds, and this is part of a growing trend. Groundwater development has proved a particularly attractive target for private investment because of the private level of control it offers.

Reforming irrigation: modernization and empowerment

During the green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, making irrigation water available to farmers had a high priority. Governments had surface irrigation systems established and managed through public sector agencies. Some large-scale systems were poorly designed, with insufficient provision for drainage and consequent soil degradation. System management often failed to respond to the needs of users, in particular of smallholders and sectors carrying low social and political weight. Water-use fees were not collected or not applied to proper system operation and maintenance. Large rehabilitation needs emerged and as governments and international lending institutions found it difficult to raise funds for this purpose, it became clear that the economic and social context of large-scale irrigation needed to be reformed.

Reforming efforts focused on transferring responsibility for operating and maintaining irrigation systems to the farmers, organized in water-user associations. This highlighted the need for building and developing managerial capacity among stakeholders, while confining irrigation-system administration to the role of water-service provider. Empowerment alone may not be sufficient unless deficiencies in design and operation and/or upgrade of infrastructures are addressed. Irrigation modernization is a process of change from supply-oriented to service-oriented irrigation. It involves institutional, organizational and technological changes and transforms a traditional irrigation scheme from protective to productive irrigation. The modernization and transfer of some management responsibilities of government-held irrigation systems to water-user associations and service-providing companies have been carried out in several countries such as Mexico, China and Turkey and has proved beneficial in certain cases. However, governments have tended to be only half-hearted when enacting complementary policies and institutional reforms that are necessary to provide the appropriate environment for effective operation of the new irrigation management entities. The process of empowering marginalized stakeholders, including smallholders, and evicting political influence from irrigation management, is as yet not completed. Irrigation management transfer is complicated because of a number of factors. Firstly there is a need to promote poor stakeholders into equity with non-poor stakeholders and reconcile conflict between upstream and downstream users. Secondly, the transaction costs of water-user associations may be higher than under properly working ‘command and control’ management establishments. Finally, the apportionment of financial and operation risk and liability is difficult to make when a large-scale infrastructure is transferred to user associations or service companies not prepared for such responsibilities.

Equity in the roles of men and women in irrigation

Gender equity is a case in point. Women are among the main stakeholders in poverty alleviation, in food production in irrigated and non-irrigated agriculture, and in ensuring and dispensing nutrition at the household level. A majority of the poor, estimated at 70 percent, are rural people, and rural poverty has become feminized as men of productive age migrate away from impoverished rural areas to the more promising urban environment, or are forcibly recruited by warring factions, leaving behind the women, the elderly, the sick and the children. In rural areas endemically stricken by conflicts, whatever little infrastructure there was collapses or is wantonly destroyed and insecurity prevails, increasing the burden on women. Households headed by women are recognized among the poorest of the poor. Against a biased view that ‘women do not irrigate’, women are now recognized as actively involved in irrigation, often demonstrating high levels of skill (see Box 8).


A recent study in Dakiri, Burkina Faso, shows that allocating smaller plots to men and women separately instead of allocating larger plots to household heads has produced both higher yields and social benefits. When both men and women have irrigated plots, the productivity of irrigated land and labour is higher than in households where only men have plots. Women are equally good or even better irrigation farmers than men, and those who have obtained irrigated plots are proud of their increased ability to contribute to the needs of their households. Women prefer to contribute to their households by working on their own plots rather than providing additional labour to their spouse’s or to the collective plots. As they become economically less dependent upon their husbands, they can help support their relatives and increase their own opportunities for individual accumulation of wealth in the form of livestock. The effects of having an individual plot significantly improve the bargaining position of a woman within a household and are a source of pride in the household and the community.

Source: OECD/DAC, 1998.

Improving water-use productivity in agriculture

Improving water-use productivity is often understood in terms of obtaining as many kilograms of crop as possible per m3 of water – ‘more crop for the drop’. Financially astute farmers may prefer to target a maximum income per m3 – ‘more dollars for the drop’, while community leaders and politicians could be looking for maximum employment and widespread income generated through the crop and its derivatives – ‘more jobs for the drop’. In a broad sense, increasing productivity in agriculture involves deriving more benefit, or achieving more welfare, for every unit of water withdrawn from natural water bodies.

Technology permits accurate water application in the optimum quantity and timing for crop development. Drip irrigation for example can respond to existing soil moisture conditions by leading the required quantity of water to the root zone of the plant. Laser-supported land-levelling devices allow accurate bounded field irrigation. When such techniques are applied in water-scarce regions with high-value outputs their application results in profit for the farmer. The application of advanced technology is dependent on a level of investment and capacity as well as on an economic incentive to make it worthwhile. Most irrigation in the world was initially established to take advantage of otherwise-unused water. It should not be surprising that water-use efficiency makes only slow progress wherever water is cheap, either because it has no other uses and therefore a low opportunity value, or because it is subsidized. Actually improving efficiency can be a slow and laborious process that requires system modernization, therefore upgrading the technological environment and the knowledge and capacity of irrigation operators.

From the perspective of a national economy, a key goal for water-use productivity is to improve net economic returns per dollar invested in water use, favouring investment in the urban and industrial sectors. However, such a view may not adequately recognize the social and environmental benefits derived from agriculture.

Diversifying crops

Crop diversification, made possible by irrigation, has a beneficial influence on local food security in remote rural areas by supporting a longer growing season and providing a healthier, more diversified diet including fresh produce. At a medium scale, crop diversification strengthens the rural economy and reduces the uncertainty associated with the market vagaries that affect monocultures. In 1990 in Asia for example, cereals, pulses and other crops accounted for 66 percent, 8 percent and 26 percent of the total cropped area. By 1997, this had changed to 56 percent, 7 percent and 37 percent. Per capita cereal production nevertheless increased owing to higher yields. Irrigation systems designed for cereal cultivation often do not have sufficient regulation and the effective water control structures required for crop diversification. Diversification also calls for higher levels of management capacity, as it is not enough to produce a variety of crops: in addition to being produced, these have to be marketed. Policy and economic factors such as market incentives and availability of labour influence the crop choice of farmers. Availability of low-cost pumping technology has supported the expansion, under private initiative and finance, of diversified cropping systems.

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