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Modernization of irrigation system operations:
institutional development and physical improvement

Indra Lal Kalu

Team Leader, TA Team ( CADI/APTEC), IMT Project


Improving irrigation system performance is now perceived as a more pressing need than developing new irrigated areas, after large budgetary allocations have gone for decades into expanding irrigated acreage. In most developing countries, investment in irrigation has not produced the expected results. The actual irrigated area turns out to be much smaller and crop yield and cropping intensity fails to increase appreciably. Whether to further invest while hoping for the best has become questioned. Instead, planners have started to give priority to the improvement of existing irrigation systems. In Nepal, several irrigation systems managed by farmers for centuries perform better in terms of crop yield, equity and farmers' satisfaction than most agency-managed systems. Also, the irrigation service fee (water tax) collected by the latter is very low, resulting in reduced budgetary allocations for operation and maintenance. This, in turn, has caused deferred maintenance and reduced irrigated areas.

How to break out of this vicious circle is a common concern for both planners and concerned officials. Some advocate improving management; others emphasize physical improvement. Various approaches have been implemented in Nepal. Some experiences on the modernization of irrigation system operation are presented in this paper.

The modernization approach

Modernization has been felt as a need at all times. Yet, modernization is different things to different people. An FAO conference defined it thus:

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

In the same line, Perry (1995) grouped three basic elements for successful irrigation performance: defined water rights; an infrastructure capable of providing service as embodied in the water rights; and assigned responsibilities for all aspects of system operation.

But in the early 1970s and 1980s, these concepts were not acted upon and several irrigation development projects were implemented, including command area development, with the belief that physical improvements would automatically lead to better performance. Various improvement works like rehabilitation and development of the physical system, construction of tertiary or field channels, drains, service canals and link roads to markets were undertaken. But as soon as the projects were completed, operation and maintenance were neglected and the system soon reverted to the conditions prevailing before the projects were started. In some projects, field channels were demolished, gates were stolen or broken, drainage ditches were again converted to fields, the systems were ruined and became dysfunctional. For instance, in the first stage of the Sunsari-Morang project, in all outlets gates were fixed and a complex five-day rotational water distribution policy was recommended, but the farmers used to the free use of water did not co-operate and broke or damaged the gates (Singh).

Similarly, in the Marchwar lift irrigation project, proportional distributors were introduced to comply with the farmers' practice in adjacent chatis mauja, the old acclaimed farmer-run irrigation system in Nepal. At some outlets, capacity was less than 5 l/s, which farmers did not find useful to soak their paddy fields for land preparation, so they started to breach the canal (Euro Consult/East Consult). In the design of the structure, beneficiary farmers were hardly consulted, and the design reflected the engineers' wishful thinking rather than the farmers' needs; besides, operation rules were not properly taught to the farmers or even to the staff. Although most of the physical improvements did improve performance, few were accepted and the others were demolished or broken.

To improve irrigation management, the Department of Irrigation has implemented irrigation management transfer projects with financial support from the Asian Development Bank and USAID and under cost-sharing arrangements with the water user associations. Molden and Makin (1997) consider management transfer in itself as modernization in that it is a means to attain enhanced system objectives.

The project seeks to establish sustainable and effective rehabilitation and improvement of the physical system. Once a branch or main canal is rehabilitated, it is turned over to the local water user association. The detailed implementation procedure in Phase I is presented in Figure 1 (appended).

In the second and third phases, rehabilitation activities play a major role and involve significant costs. The rehabilitation is provided as an incentive for water user groups to undertake management responsibilities. The basic purpose of rehabilitation is to bring the system back to functional status so that the farmers can operate, maintain and manage it themselves. In order to be demand-driven and cost-effective, the water user association has to bear 26 percent of the total rehabilitation cost. A subproject management committee is formed, with some six water user association representatives under the chairmanship of the project manager, to partake in planning, design, tender, construction supervision and the water user association's contribution mobilization activities. The subproject management committee members assist the project staff in the march toward physical improvement. The project office prepares a detailed design and estimate of the proposed work, the committee members and the staff prioritize the works and classify them under the following subcategories:

  1. Emergency and flood damage repair
  2. Essential structure maintenance
  3. Catch-up maintenance
  4. System improvement
  5. System (hydraulic) calibration
  6. Service roads and field-to-market roads.

The estimated cost is fixed within the budget and then the members of the subproject management committee are given the choice to choose works for water user association contributions. In principle, contributions proportionate to irrigated landholdings are recommended. Then a memorandum of agreement and action plan are signed by the project manager and the water user association, based on which the activities are carried out. The action plan covers institutional development activities such as the various training programmes related to capability-building, e.g. water management, resource generation and record-keeping.

During the construction, the subproject management committee members are authorized to supervise the work, control quality and make recommendations in committee meetings. The impact of management transfer in one system is presented below.

Management transfer at the Panchakanya Irrigation System

The Panchakanya Irrigation System is a small (600 ha) gravity irrigation system fed by a spring. Due to deferred maintenance, the canal lining had broken at many places and heavy seepage used to occur and, because of dysfunctional gates, water control was not effective. The silting of the spring reduced the discharge in the source. Although the system was designed to irrigate 600 ha, it irrigated 267 ha only.

After the implementation of the irrigation management transfer policy in 1995, a water user association was democratically formed in two tiers, as shown in Table 1. A subproject management committee was also formed to represent the association for project implementation works such as signing the memorandum of agreement and the action plan, and decision-making on rehabilitation works.

Table 1 : Organization levels and number of members in the Panchakanya subproject



Members at each level

Total members

Main committee




Branch committee




To remedy the above-mentioned problems, clear the silt at the spring and improve the lining in the main canal, gates to control water delivery were installed by the office and earthwork was carried out by the water user association. Likewise, gauge plates were fixed upstream and downstream of cross regulators to monitor the flow in the canal. These gauges were calibrated and water measurement tables were prepared. The association nominated two of its members for water delivery, other representatives were trained to measure water by observing water depth in the gauges, and a manual describing canal operation plans was provided for the distribution of water under three water availability scenarios. A manual on canal maintenance was also provided and guidance on operation and management expenditure at Panchakanya was prepared and given to the water use association for the collection of an irrigation service fee. Various members of the association were trained on share system administration, canal operation and management, quality control and construction supervision, water measurement, record keeping and gender awareness. After the completion of rehabilitation works, the Panchakanya irrigation project was formally handed over to the water user association on 28 Nov 1998. Since then, the association has amended its constitution to increase resources, increased the irrigation service fee from NRs75/ha for paddy to NRs150/ha, and started to collect a Rs50/ha labour fee for maintenance instead of calling for labour contributions.

The general assembly also approved the request of the previously excluded tail-end farmers to become share members by contributing Rs500/ha as an appreciation fee to irrigate the area in lieu of the association's contribution done in the main canal improvement. These farmers then renovated almost two kilometres of canal by themselves. Now the association collects a general membership fee, a share membership fee and fees from official visitors. The present resource collection status of the water user association is given in Table 2.

Table 2 : Resource collection status

S. No


Amount (NRs)


General membership fee

@ NRs10/head

6 280


Share membership fee

@ NRs30/ha

3 830


Labour fee

@ NRs150/ha

61 075


Irrigation source fee


a) NRs150/ha for paddy


39 543


b) NRs75/ha for other crops


2 504


Income from sale of junk


22 680


Balance carried over


46 280


Visitor fee


4 055


186 248

Since the transfer of management, the water user association has been operating the system. By May 1998, its members had cleared the source and cleaned the main canal at the cost of NRs12 655. Improvement after implementation ( Neupane and Uprety, 1997) is as follows:

Table 3 : Impact of IMTP activity in the Panchakanya irrigation system




Water availability

750 lps

1200 lps

Irrigation cycle

12 days

3 days

Water duty

5 - 30 lps/ha

3.16 lps/ha

Project convenience efficiency



Actual irrigated area

267 ha

442 ha
(planned to extend to 600 ha)

After learning water measurement techniques, the association started to distribute water in proportion to the purchased share, thereby compelling farmers to report their actual irrigated area to report actual irrigated area. It also started keeping records of actual irrigated crop areas for each branch or outlet to allocate water. As the water supply is reduced in March-April for early rice, the association issues permits to grow early rice in limited areas.

The association seems to have accepted the improvement. It is now requesting the project office to demarcate the water source in order to fix water rights and do additional canal lining in the remaining portion of the tail. It has also requested to be provided with a detailed map showing branch canals to facilitate fee collection.

Looking at the progress made by the water user association in Panchakanya, it can be said that farmers readily accept simple rehabilitation works which they feel are needed. The association's involvement and commitment from the beginning compel them to undertake management transfer and better manage the system. Adequate capability build-up training should be provided, particularly on water measurement, to let farmers realize the importance of water for the control of canal operation. And an adequate time period should be provided for project implementation.

Summary and conclusion

The modernization of irrigation systems is essential to improve system performance. Before introducing new technology, its adequacy and practicality should be tested and users' preferences known. Institutional development (e.g. knowledge and skill) of the users should be advanced along with physical improvement to make the improvement sustainable and lasting.


Singh A.M. Water management at the Manichauri Secondary Canal Command, Sunsari Morang Irrigation Project, Biratnagar

Euro Consult/East Consult. 1996. A review on functionality of outlets, Marchwar Lift Irrigation Project

Neupane, R.R.S. & Uprety, D.P. 1998. Panchkanya irrigation subproject system: toward a complete turnover to WUA

Molden, D.J. & Makin I.W. 1997. Institutional change in support of modernization and management transfer, in Modernization of irrigation schemes: past experiences and future options, RAP publication 1997/22, FAO

Modernization of irrigation schemes: past experiences and future options, RAP publication 1997/22, FAO

Perry, C. J. 1995. Determinants of function and dysfunction in irrigation performance and implications for performance improvement, Water resources development, Vol11, No1

Figure 1. Irrigation management transfer implementation procedures for Nepal's Irrigation Management Transfer project

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