Asia-Pacific Fishery Commission

Increasing the benefits and sustainability of irrigation through integration of fisheries: A guide for water planners, managers and engineers

Category APFIC 36th Session, Inland Capture Fisheries

Irrigation – a major contributor to the Green Revolution – has significantly improved agricultural production worldwide, with consequent benefits for food security, livelihoods and poverty alleviation. Today, irrigated agriculture represents about 21 percent of cultivated land, but contributes approximately 40 percent of the total global crop production. Many governments continue to invest in irrigation as a cornerstone of food security and rural development. Investments in irrigation often represent a pragmatic form of adaptation to changing climatic conditions. 

There is increasing recognition of the need to bring about changes across the full spectrum of agricultural practices to ensure that, in future, food production systems are more diverse, sustainable and resilient. In this context, the objectives of irrigation need to be much more ambitious, shifting away from simply maximizing crop yields to maximizing net benefits across a range of uses of irrigation water, including ecosystems and nature-based solutions. One important way to achieve this is by better integrating fisheries into the planning, design, construction, operation and management of irrigation systems. 

‘Water control infrastructure’ (WCI) forms the backbone of most irrigation systems. In this guide, WCI is perceived as infrastructure specifically designed and operated for the purpose of irrigation, and includes reservoirs, embankments, weirs, gates (including tidal barrages), canals and pipes. ‘Fisheries’ is defined as the exploitation of fish and other aquatic organisms. This term encompasses natural capture fisheries, enhanced capture fisheries and culture-based capture fisheries in a continuum. 

While irrigation provides opportunities for aquaculture, this guide does not explicitly cover this activity, because it is less dependent on the aquatic ecosystems modified by irrigation. This guide focuses on how to sustainably optimize and broaden the range of benefits from irrigation development - not only economic but also social and environmental benefits. It emphasizes the opportunities that fisheries could provide to increase food production and economic returns, enhance livelihoods and public health outcomes, and maintain key ecosystem services. The guide considers possible trade-offs between irrigation and fisheries, and provides recommendations on how these can be minimized.