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Modernization of irrigation systems: a continuing process

Daniel Renault

ITIS Co-ordinator, IWMI

Improving irrigation water management, in order to increase productivity and minimize adverse effects such as salinization, is one of the main contemporary issues in the agricultural sector. A considerable effort is being made to improve irrigation operations and to reduce costs. Society in general and water user associations, particularly where they have to bear the cost of irrigation, are demanding that irrigation become more cost-effective. Hence water services have to be better matched with the cost of operation and maintenance.

Improving irrigation water management

Improved performance in irrigation water management can usually be achieved through three types of interventions:

Defining modernization

For many decades, modernization has been central to the concerns of the irrigation community, but the concepts behind it have evolved. It is now well understood that modernization is not limited to the introduction of modern hardware and software techniques, but is rather a fundamental transformation of the management of water resources. This transformation can include changing rules and institutional structures related to water rights, water delivery services, accountability mechanisms and incentives, in addition to the physical structures.

A definition of modernization that captures the current general understanding was put forward during a recent FAO consultation on modernization (Bangkok 1996):

Irrigation modernization is a process of technical and managerial upgrading (as opposed to mere rehabilitation) of irrigation schemes combined with institutional reforms, with the objective to improve resource utilization (labour, water, economic, environmental) and water delivery service to farms.

The need for a consistent framework for modernization

We hypothesize that success in modernization relies on internal consistency among key elements of water rights, institutions and infrastructure, and external consistency with the multiple uses of water within the basin. Consistency needs also to be found between the many objectives that might be assigned to modernization, such as:

Obstacles in the way of modernization

Successful modernization is not straightforward, and failure to achieve targeted performance objectives, in some instances, requires further investigation of the underlying causes. As far as the technology is concerned, significant hardware and software progress has been made in irrigation system operations in the past decade, including computer facilities, information techniques, measurements, and canal control concepts. However, the adoption of these techniques in the fields has, in general, been slower than expected. In developing countries, irrigation managers face many constraints that may explain the gap between the available and the applied technology, including:

Above all, one major bottleneck is often the lack of knowledge of possible choices for technical as well as other modernization measures. Their respective advantages and disadvantages and their ability to fit site-specific contexts must be further investigated and the results disseminated. This is one of the problems faced by designers and managers when confronted with the need for modernization. This may explain poor choices in the past which have led to disappointing results or a failure of modernization programmes.

What model for the modern irrigation enterprise?

It is clear for many that the irrigation sector in general has not reached the same level of effectiveness as other sectors, such as the industrial and service sectors. Hence modernization can be seen as a means to create and favour modern irrigation enterprises by introducing methodologies which have proved successful in other sectors.

There is a debate as to whether the irrigation industry would better benefit from an analogy with the industrial production sector or with the service sector.

Those in favour of service argue that irrigation agencies have often been deficient in defining and monitoring an appropriate service to their customers, and that this should be corrected to give more flexibility to water users in the management of the agricultural inputs. Furthermore, the introduction of intermediate-level partners (water user associations) between the irrigation agencies and the downstream users, highly increases the need for clarification of the service provided at each interface and of the responsibility at each level (delivery point, operation, maintenance, etc). Taking into account the management of the multiple uses of water within an irrigation scheme requires clarification concerning each specific service. Lastly, the notion of service becomes very important as soon as the water pricing policy is modified or merely introduced, where water was previously delivered free.

All these arguments, and many others in favour of emphasizing service in a modern irrigation enterprise, are fully valid. It does not mean, however, that we should forget about the industrial production analogy. In fact, the product delivered to users within a water delivery system is tangible, i.e. timely inputs of water. This product is the result of an industrial process from the source of water down to the delivery point. The quality of the delivered service fundamentally depends on the efficiency of the industrial process. We advocate here that both metaphors are valid. In both domains the irrigation enterprise can, and must, be improved to cope with modern agriculture as well as with the challenges resulting from water competition and environmental protection.

The role of the engineer in irrigation system performance is interesting. The huge development of irrigation projects in the 1960s and 1970s was made possible by the development of a strong engineering capacity. Later on, in many irrigation departments, administration completely disregarded engineering resources, and water management received little attention. State agencies are now often too bureaucratic rather than suffering from too many engineers. The phase of builders-engineers, which is receding, has not always given way to managers-engineers.

We advocate that modern enterprises in irrigation require a reengineering of their processes in order to cope with the new challenges faced by irrigation.

Reengineering irrigation system operations

The reengineering of the irrigation operation should consist of designing the most cost-effective answer to the redefined water service within the scheme. It should consider:

It is hypothesized here that the reengineering process should be spatially differentiated to lead to the best cost-effective solutions possible and to cope with the effective demand. This places the concept of flexibility of water service at the heart of modernization.

Flexibility in modernization

The concept of flexibility has long been discussed and advocated in the field of irrigation modernization. So far it has encompassed the notion of flexibility in water deliveries as opposed to rotational and fixed deliveries. Flexible deliveries can be proposed to users in different forms (on request, free access, etc) at a cost compared to a strict rotational distribution.

The flexibility in water service advocated here is broad in the sense that it encompasses the spatial variability of the service within an irrigation system. This means that the level of service might vary from one subsystem to another, e.g. some subsystems might choose strict rotation while others might ask for a more flexible access to water. The coexistence of different levels of service in a single system represents a technical challenge for the managing agencies which requires a strong reengineering of the whole process of operation.

This concept of flexibility leads to abandoning the homogeneous approach of irrigation systems that has so far prevailed. Instead, a heterogeneous approach of the demand and of the efforts (inputs) to operate irrigation systems is sought for a closer match of water availability to demand requirements.

These thoughts on modernization are meant only to introduce some of the rapidly changing challenges faced by the irrigation sector and to illustrate how the debate on modernization is still rich and lively. Although modernization of irrigation systems has been the subject of many large international meetings during recent decades - to name but a few, the 11th Congress of ICID in Grenoble in 1981, the 13th Congress of ICID in Casablanca in 1987 and the FAO international consultations on modernization held in Bangkok in 1996 - still the debate and discussions are continuing, e.g. the next ICID Congress in Granada in 1999 will focus partly on modernization.

Finally what matters is to realize that modernization is a never-ending process of adapting activities to current constraints and objectives. The agricultural and economic contexts are permanently evolving and so are the demands from society. What was modern and up to date some decades ago might now appear to be incompatible with current needs, and this is not only true of the technical aspects of irrigation. What might be considered new now is the increase of the speed of adaptation required to match a society which is evolving at an ever faster pace. Modernization is therefore a permanent and relentless process.

Modern management implies that the physical and institutional structures of management are adapted to the current environment, respond to the needs of society and are sufficiently flexible to cope with short-term evolutions.

We do hope that this ITIS 5 meeting in India will have contributed effectively to the debate on modern irrigation processes and modernization of irrigation systems operation, and we also hope that we made progress on some practical recommendations on important related matters such as: reengineering operations, evaluation and monitoring of performance, institutional approaches, and training and capacity-building.

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