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The role of the World Bank & new opportunities

Hervé Plusquellec

Former World Bank Irrigation Adviser

The irrigation sector has been one of the largest recipients of public investments in the developing world. Seven percent of the World Bank lending, amounting to about 35 billion in constant US dollars, has been for irrigation. Lending for irrigation is now in decline: the annual lending for the sub-sector and the number of irrigation projects are about half what they were during the peak period 1975-85. Despite this decline, however, the World Bank and the regional development banks as well have largely contributed to the expansion of irrigation and to the share of irrigated agriculture in meeting the food needs of a rapidly increasing population during the last half-century. However, the role of the World Bank in the modernization of irrigation has not been as valuable as one would expect. This paper discusses the reasons for the slow progress in modernization in Bank-financed irrigation projects and explores some new perspectives for modernization by combining institutional reforms and physical improvements.

The evolving role of the Bank in irrigation

The world has changed tremendously over the past fifty years, and so has the Bank, in its membership, organizational structure, operation scope and development agenda. Projects financed by the Bank are now radically different from those financed in the 1950s, when there was little concern for policy frameworks, poverty alleviation, environmental protection or the privatization of inputs and services. The World Bank started lending for agriculture through large irrigation projects, in keeping with the prevailing emphasis on large infrastructure. In the 1950s and the 1960s, the Bank did not finance rehabilitation works of existing irrigation systems. Rehabilitation was considered the responsibility of the borrowing governments. Similarly, the Bank limited its contribution to the construction of the main and distribution systems, assuming that the farmers would contribute in constructing themselves the tertiary systems in addition to the on-farm development works. Experience invalidates that hypothesis.

The food crisis in India in the mid-1960s focused attention on the need to improve food-grain productivity and new technologies. The Bank began lending for agricultural research and extension, rural credit and the production of high-yielding varieties and fertilizers, either directly through specific agricultural projects or as components of irrigation projects. In the 1970s, under the presidency of Robert MacNamara, the Bank turned its energies to alleviating poverty. Irrigation projects became overloaded with rural development programmes, such as construction of rural roads, schools and health centres. Irrigation projects became very difficult to prepare and implement because of the number of sub-components and agencies involved. Since 1976, the Bank's internal regulations require that project preparation be upgraded to completion of detailed design and bidding documents for presentation to the Board to avoid delay in implementation and to reduce the risks of cost overruns. Post evaluations showed that many irrigation projects did not comply with this requirement and if they did, emphasis was on the structural design of infrastructure, not on canal operation and delivery of water to the users.

By the 1980s, it became evident that faulty policies seriously affected production in many countries. It also became apparent that competition for water was acute in many countries, water quality was seriously affected and water-related issues could no longer be treated separately by each sub-sector. In 1993, the Board of Directors of the Bank approved its Water Resources Management Policy, which encourages the adoption of institutional reforms, analytical frameworks for managing water resources, water conserving technology, decentralization of responsibilities to local governments, user participation and environmental protection. The water policy marked a turning point in the formulation of irrigation projects, which progressively shifted from the agricultural sector to the water sector.

In the early decades of lending for irrigation, the Bank financed specific individual projects or a group of subprojects which were all well identified. The attention now given to the recommendations of the water policy has contributed to shift the Bank-supported irrigation programmes to projects national or regional in scope. For example, some projects cover the entire irrigated area of a state in India or a province in Pakistan or even the entire multiple-year plan of a country, such as in Mexico. A "new-style" project typically includes two major components: an institutional component supporting the creation or strengthening of water user associations and reforms of irrigation and water agencies, and a physical component for rehabilitation or differed maintenance work. Depending on the needs of the project, financing of environmental studies, agricultural research or support services or creation of basin agencies are also included. The main focus is on the software recommendations of the water policy such as the participation of users or the legal framework enabling the setting up of water rights and water markets.

The scope and concept of modernization

The modernization of irrigation systems has different meanings depending on the background of irrigation experts. Modernization is not necessarily the conversion of an irrigation system to the state of the art in technology and management. It should be understood as any physical or institutional change which would contribute to an improved service to users, to a reduced deterioration of water quality, and to a reduction of government intervention in management.

The scope of modernization could therefore include a large range of activities:

This paper focuses on proper water control and water delivery, which are prerequisites to getting full benefit from water saving techniques at farm level and from the implementation of institutional and policy reforms. Application of volumetric water charges and quotas, implementation of water rights and active water markets, and demand management are reform tools which require confidence from the users in the water delivery service, and proper water control to provide that service.

The World Bank experience in irrigation modernization

Most of the irrigation projects supported by the Bank are gravity irrigation projects. This simply reflects the regional distribution of projects. Most irrigation lending - 50 percent of the projects and 69 percent of the money loaned - has occurred in Asia, where rice cultivation predominates. However, the Bank has financed sprinkler irrigation projects in water-scarce countries such as Morocco, Jordan and Romania and in Northeast Brazil and, on a smaller scale, drip irrigation in Cyprus and Turkey for example. The Bank has financed and continues to finance investments for water conservation at farm level consisting of lining of tertiary canals or conversion to low-pressure systems, for example in China, India, Chile and Mexico.

The World Bank has successfully financed irrigation projects in countries where modern design standards are the norm, such as in North Africa. Successful transfer of water control technology in individual projects has also been achieved in some countries which have not yet standardized their design. The Kemubu and Muda projects in Malaysia and the Lower Klalis project in Iraq are a few examples. However, some modern water control pilot projects have failed for various reasons:

Besides a number of modern projects mostly in water-scarce countries and a few isolated cases in other countries, the majority of projects are based on simplistic hydraulic design standards. The complexity of unsteady flows which are common in the operation of irrigation canals, the interaction between control structures, the impact of rigid or unreliable water delivery on farmer behaviour, the operation of canals at less than full supply are not always understood. The reasons for the slow adoption of modernization are extensively discussed in the World Bank Technical Paper 246 ( see its chapter 8: The debate on modernization).

The fundamental cause for the slow rate of technology transfer identified in that paper was a lack of knowledge of available technologies and a misunderstanding of the nature of irrigation. The recent research funded by the World Bank on the performance of irrigation systems strongly confirmed that hypothesis. There is an immediate need for major training in the concepts and details of the modernization of irrigation.

Adverse administrative and behavioural reasons for the adoption of modern designs are more difficult to address. The pressure from the World Bank management to reduce the time of preparation has further increased during the last years. The trend toward low cost rehabilitation and maintenance programmes is also not in favour of modernization. Economic pressures on the irrigation agencies responsible for the management of irrigation systems and contractual motivation for their consultants are still missing. Irrigation managers, engineers and others are still adhering to outdated designs and resisting to change in many countries.

The Bank-funded research study referred to above provides well-documented evidence of the benefits of modernization and should be a milestone in the dissemination of the advantages of modernization. That study should widely contribute to the rejection of some unfounded myths against modernization. Modern design, defined as a concept and not by the technology and equipment used, is not too sophisticated for developing countries. A number of low-cost changes can be gradually introduced without affecting the economic viability of a project. In many cases, the first step in modernization may be shifting from inadequate to rational design based on the understanding of simple but sound hydraulic principles, for example adopting the right combination of control structures at cross regulators and off-takes to limit the hydraulic sensitivity to inflow fluctuations.

The slow adoption of modern designs and the failure of some pilot projects should not overlook the progress which has been made in the dissemination of knowledge about modern irrigation. The World Bank has largely contributed to the transfer process through training courses, study tours, audio-visual programmes, conferences and workshops. It is encouraging that some countries located in the humid tropics, an environment considered by some experts not suitable for the adoption of arid irrigation technology, are now experimenting with new concepts: the Magat project in the Philippines, the Majalgaon project in Maharashtra and the High Level Pehur Canal project in Pakistan are encouraging examples of transfer of technology in countries with strong adherence to old design manuals in the past.

A comprehensive approach to modernization: the case of Mexico

The best example of comprehensive approach to the modernization of irrigation is found in Mexico. The Mexican government implemented a policy reform programme, including decentralization and price liberalization of its entire economy, in the late 1980s. To date, the management of over 3.2 million hectares in 80 irrigation districts has been transferred to 410 water user associations, and to 11 federations for the main systems. The national irrigation agency, CNA, implemented a massive training programme of the professional, technical and administrative staff of the water user associations and of the members of the boards of these associations. CNA also retrained its own reduced staff to its new role of advising and supervising the associations.

The reform of the Mexican irrigation sector was not limited to the institutional aspects. With the assistance of an international consulting firm, the CNA-designed standards were upgraded to address the problems of unsteady flow conditions in irrigation canals and operation at less than full supply. A training programme was implemented for CNA staff and private local consulting firms. Most remarkably, irrigation modernization was incorporated in the curriculum of Mexico universities to prepare the next generations of irrigation engineers.

Once the management transfer in Mexico was well advanced, CNA focused on the modernization of maintenance through the adoption of weeding chemical and biological treatment methods and the purchase of specialized maintenance equipment.

A project currently under preparation in Mexico will break new grounds in the process of modernization of irrigation systems with a bottom-up approach. Modernization is to be carried out at the initiative of water user associations, which are to contribute 50 percent of the investment costs.

The success of Mexico in transfer management, widely popularized by the World Bank, has encouraged the Turkish irrigation agency, DSI, to embark on a similar programme. As of the end of 1997, the management of about 1.2 million hectares had been transferred to 222 associations. The World Bank is providing financial assistance for the purchase of specialized maintenance equipment and, at pilot scale, for the conversion to drip irrigation of about 1200 hectares at the demand of two associations which would contribute 70 percent of the costs.

Possible scenarios for modernization

As discussed above, the formulation of irrigation projects has much evolved over the last decades. On the one hand, there is a risk that the importance now given to overall water resource management, institutional and regulatory systems, poverty alleviation, environmental protection and other issues during project preparation might overshadow the technical aspects for improving canal operations and water service to users. Dealing with all the policy issues with the challenge of currently decreasing financial resources for project preparation does not provide an environment favourable to the modernization of irrigation systems, which require an in-depth diagnosis of their functioning by well-trained experts as well as detailed studies of alternative solutions.

On the other hand, the "new-style" projects, which are now national or regional in scope, offer the opportunity to shift from the project-by-project approach to a global approach to modernization through training programmes, revision of design standards, involvement of the users in the decision process and financing of investment costs. The World Bank strategy to promote irrigation management transfer may also give a new impulsion to the modernization of irrigation systems. The user associations have a real interest in improving the physical infrastructure to provide better water service to the members and to reach financial sustainability. Large business-type associations with real decision powers on investments and water allocation policies may succeed if properly advised on the alternative solutions for modernization.

Institutional and policy reforms should be combined with a programme of modernization of the irrigation infrastructure. Irrigation management transfer is not an end-objective, but should be the beginning of a new era for irrigation. Irrigation management transfer programmes should be designed with that long-term vision.

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