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Modernization of farmer-managed irrigation systems in Nepal:
process and learning

R. P. Bhandari 1 and D. R. Pokharel 2

This paper is intended to highlight the changes in the modernization of irrigation during the last decade in Nepal, focus on observed performance, and show that there is room for improvement.


The Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, landlocked between India and China, occupies an area of 147 141 km2. The country is divided into 75 administrative districts and five development regions (Table 1). There are three parallel ecological zones running east to west: the Terai, the Hills and the Mountains. Nepal's resource base for agriculture is severely limited by topographical constraints. Only about 20 percent of the total land area is under cultivation. The predominant position occupied by agriculture in the Nepalese economy is due to the fact that about 90 percent of the population depend on agriculture, which contributes about 43 percent of GDP and 70 percent of total export earnings at nominal prices (Agricultural Perspective Plan, 1994). Although agriculture dominates the national economy, its contribution is rather declining. Nepal, once a rice-exporting country, has now to import rice occasionally to meet domestic needs. The identified reasons for the poor performance of agriculture are: inadequate provision of irrigation, production inputs, credit, market and extension of appropriate technology to support production growth (Agricultural Perspective Plan, 1994). Among these factors, irrigation has been identified as the key to accelerate, intensify and sustain agricultural growth (Sharma, 1994).

Table 1: Development regions & administrative districts

Development region

Number of admin. districts













Since time immemorial, farmer-managed irrigation systems have played a major role in the irrigated agriculture of Nepal. Before 1951, there were only three state-run or agency-managed irrigation systems in the country (Ansari, 1995). The planned irrigation development in the country, with the establishment of a state agency (the present Department of Irrigation), began only after 1951. At first, a lot of interventions were made in the farmer-managed irrigation systems under the banner of modernization and some new irrigation schemes were taken up. The mode of intervention was to take over the selected irrigation systems from farmers' management and treat them as new schemes, thus keeping farmers completely aloof. All of the capital cost was borne by the agency and segregation occurred between the farmers and the agency. Original farmer-managed irrigation systems became the agency-managed irrigation systems. Even after the planned involvement of the state in irrigation development, the irrigation development status is still led by farmer-managed irrigation systems (Table 2). Another reality is that the present irrigated area is merely 30 percent of the total irrigable area.

Table 2: Irrigation status

Irrigation system type

Area (ha)

Share (%)


406 986


Agency-assisted farmer-managed

332 130



292 546



23 955



1 055 617


Based on record compiled by Institutional Development Support Component, DoI, July 1997

The farmer-managed irrigation systems were built, operated and maintained by the farmers themselves with little or no help from state or outside agencies. They contribute substantially to the agricultural production of the country, have been managed well and, in general, give better yields. Usually, their infrastructure is simple and lacks provision for water control and management. In other words, they run on the tradition of self-help. The agency-managed irrigation systems, on the other hand, in spite of their recurrently increasing operation and maintenance costs, have not improved their performance. When they were taken over by the state, the old irrigation systems were thought to have much potential for increased performance, as they were rudimentary, lacked permanent structures, were susceptible to damage during floods and to silt problems and had high water losses. In consequence, farmers had to contribute much labour and resources to run these systems. This led the government to rethink its irrigation strategy. By the mid-1980s the government became aware of the importance and strengths of the farmer-managed irrigation systems for the country's agriculture. There was also recognition of the scope for improving the systems through their rehabilitation and the extension of irrigated area, which would be possible by minimizing water losses and improving management efficiency. Besides, the operation and management requirements (labour and cash) could also be reduced to a manageable level. With this realization the strategy on irrigation development shifted to the participatory approach. With the aim of streamlining government's efforts and investment in a sectoral approach, two specific projects, namely the World Bank/IDA loan-funded Irrigation Line of Credit (ILC) and the Asian Development Bank loan-funded Irrigation Sector Project, have been implemented. UNDP provided the technical assistance for both projects.

The Irrigation Line of Credit

ILC was initiated in FY1988-89 with a loan from IDA/WB. The project was launched to implement a sector programme in irrigation development in the Western Development Region on a pilot basis. Later, the scope of the project was extended to all three western development regions. The project was designed to support the following types of small and medium-sized subprojects:

ILC has now been succeeded by the Nepal Irrigation Sector project. The accomplishments under ILC are presented in Table 3.

Table 3: Accomplishments under ILC

Subproject type

No of subprojects

Command area (ha)



25 995



3 119



4 730



4 210



38 054

* Number of tube wells

The Irrigation Sector Project

ISP was initiated in 1989 with a loan from ADB. The original target was to provide irrigation facilities over 25 000 ha of land through the rehabilitation of existing farm-managed irrigation systems and the construction of small and medium-sized irrigation schemes in 22 districts of the central and eastern development regions. ISP has been succeeded by the Second Irrigation Sector project. The accomplishments under ISP are presented in Table 4.

Table 4: Accomplishments under ISP

Subproject type

No of subprojects

Command area (ha)



46 371



11 211



57 582

Objectives of ILC and ISP

The overall objectives of ILC and ISP were to substantially boost agricultural production through the development and improvement of new and existing farmer-managed irrigation systems with the active participation of beneficiary farmers. The specific objectives could be listed as follows:

  1. establish a sector programme approach instead of the previous project-by-project approach;
  2. make the programme demand-driven instead of supply-driven as in the past;
  3. help develop, test and establish effective subproject selection criteria and implementation procedures which would provide the basis for operating the sector programme; and
  4. reduce the burden of the irrigation cost on the national budget, particularly for operation and management, through increased farmers' participation to cover operation and management costs in full as well as a share of capital costs.

Framework of intervention under ILC and ISP

Given these objectives, the projects followed specific steps in the process of intervention:

  1. Selection stage: formal demand, identification, survey, appraisal.
  2. Implementation stage: formation of water user associations, agreement, construction.
  3. Operation and management stage: commissioning, operation and maintenance, support to agriculture.

Some of the key points for selection are as follows:

The regional appraisal committee is formed at the regional level and has four members:

Regional Irrigation Director


Regional Agriculture Director


Regional Manager, Agriculture Development Bank


Regional Director, National Planning Commission


The approval co-ordination committee is formed at the central level and has five members:

Representative, Ministry of Water Resources


Deputy Director General, Department of Irrigation


Representative, Ministry of Agriculture


Representative, Agriculture Development Bank


Representative, National Planning Commission


The formation of the two committees intends to involve the line agencies and the planning agency in scrutinizing the process of irrigation development that will lead to the selection of the best potential subprojects.

Some of the key points for implementation are as follows:

Some of the key points for the operation and management stage are as follows: after completion of the construction work, commissioning work starts with joint inspection and recommendation for further consideration if some improvement works remain to be done; then it is the duty of the water user association to operate and maintain the system and approach other line agencies for agricultural support.

Key findings from ILC and ISP

Some of the key findings from the evaluation of ILC and ISP processes and performance are discussed below.

Selection criteria.

Economic viability and users' requests were the main parameters considered for the selection of a subproject. The main drawback of the selection criteria was artificially inflated requests and inflation of the command area.


Users' involvement showed in good construction quality control and a deepening sense of ownership. But in some cases, farmers' organizations faltered over problems of low-quality construction or of the contracting of business to elite farmer leaders or the people they favour. There have also been cases of farmers' organizations shifting their focus from system management to contracting, and conflicts arising over money matters.


The cost-sharing arrangements, as per the agreed memoranda, in many cases were compensated for by the contractor, or some elite leaders who could capitalize from the construction business directly or indirectly.

Design of facilities.

The project movers did a very good job in listening to farmers and taking their ideas into consideration. Headworks were properly placed, canal alignments usually followed existing lines, and turnouts were placed where the users needed them. In other words, the design of the facilities matched the needs. But the technology used could not be considered as simple as the capability of the users. Several systems used gated regulators that proved difficult to maintain. Many regulators became immovable due to lack of lubrication. Stone masonry lining was the most used lining and has proved difficult for farmers to maintain, as this requires skilled labour and cash resources. Most systems were over-designed and incorporated technology which is not easy to operate and manage. Too much lining was used. Not enough time was spent on determining the best places for lining based on seepage losses.


After construction was done, there has been a lack of follow-up activities, leading to dissension within the water user associations. In some cases, registration was felt important to receive programme assistance and later nothing more was heard about it.

Operation and maintenance.

As described in the subheading of design, the technology used for modernizing the farmer-managed irrigation systems is not simple, given the farmers' original lack of modern technological know-how and sophistication. The quality of de-silting and embankment improvement works carried out by the users was not good, but there was hardly any indication of proper maintenance of the newly added structures.

Cost effectiveness.

The projects did little to save costs. The reasons might be that little time was spent educating the farmers, that there were no rewards encouraging agency staffers to save money and, perhaps more important, that the farmers' contribution may have been borne by contractors or a few elite farmer leaders.

Water delivery performance.

In most cases, the water delivery is good. The reasons might be the good quality of the works and the existence of the newly constructed facilities.

Co-ordination with other line agencies.

Very little progress has been made, despite the formal presence of related line agencies through the provision of the regional appraisal and approval co-ordination committees.

Lessons learned

The irrigation sector programme took advantage of the strengths of the existing farmer-managed irrigation systems, such as strong organization and sense of ownership and ability to mobilize resources for operation and maintenance. But it could not capitalize fully on these strengths by providing user-friendly facilities with the least possible physical intervention.

The procedural framework for modernizing numerous farmer-managed irrigation schemes scattered throughout the country has been tested in the main, but there is room for improvement in execution. Control over the recurring and serious problems of artificially inflated user requests and inflation of the command area is indispensable to reach the programme goal.

The intended objective to change the traditional supply-driven programme to demand-driven has been partially achieved. The demand forms in many cases are coerced by the agency staff or contractors or elite farmer leaders, leading to a demand-created programme. In other words, on paper the demand is as per the set criteria and in the specified formats and sizes but the farmers themselves are still unaware of their own demands and of whatever else is happening within their irrigation system.

The tendency to build much more than is needed puts a question mark over the cost effectiveness of the programme. Besides, budgetary allocation on a district basis may not be the best way to select a cost-effective subproject and give it priority in implementation.

The long-term sustainability of the programme is in question, as the farmers do not demonstrate the skills necessary to maintain new structures or the ability to mobilize cash resources to purchase the materials required for maintenance.


The initial performance of the new strategy in modernizing farmer-managed irrigation systems shows encouraging signs as far as the procedural framework is concerned for such a great number of systems. Still, the formula "users' participation in agency programmes" should be reversed to "agency's participation in users' programmes" as the farmer-managed irrigation systems are the main users and the need for modernization is theirs rather than the state's.

For this, sufficient time should be given to the real users to learn about the programmes, to become familiar with the objectives and the conditions of support of their systems and to let them come up with genuine demands of their own.


Ansari N. 1995. Improving support services to farmer-managed irrigation systems in Nepal, National seminar on improving support services to farmer-managed irrigation systems in Nepal, RTDB/IIMI, Kathmandu

Gurung M. B. 1992. Concept, procedure & strategy of participatory management programmes for large irrigation projects under ILC financing, WRID, National workshop on participatory management in agency-managed irrigation systems in Nepal, DoI /IIMI, Kathmandu

Hemchuri et al. 1993. Evaluation report of the ILC programme in the Western Development Region, RTB/DoI, Kathmandu

Hemchuri et al. 1995. Evaluation study of the ISP, RTDB /DoI, Kathmandu

Nepal Agriculture Perspective Plan. 1995. APROSC & John Mellor Associates

Pokharel A. K. 1995. Improving support services to farmer-managed irrigation systems in Nepal, National Seminar, RTDB/IIMI, Kathmandu

Sharma et al. 1995. Impact evaluation of Sinkalama & ILC programmes, National seminar on improving support services to farmer-managed irrigation systems in Nepal, RTDB/IIMI, Kathmandu

Sharma et al. 1997. Development of participatory managed irrigation systems: lessons learnt from ISP, Workshop Proceedings: Evaluation of IMT process & performance, RTDB/IIMI, Kathmandu

Shukla et al. 1997. Participatory irrigation management in Nepal, Department of Irrigation, Kathmandu

Singh et al. 1997. Irrigation management transfer in the ILC pilot project, Workshop Proceedings: Evaluation of IMT process & performance, RTDB/IIMI, Kathmandu.

1 Irrigation Engineer, Research & Technology Development Branch, Department of Irrigation, Katmandu, Nepal

2Acting Chief, District Irrigation Office, Syanja, Nepal

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