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The modernization efforts of the Kankai irrigation system

Suman Sijapati

Officer in charge, Kankai Irrigation Office,
Department of Irrigation, HMG, Nepal


The Kankai irrigation system is a large-scale1 irrigation system in the Terai region of Nepal. During its construction, no effort was made to involve the beneficiaries of the project and not much attention was paid to the water management aspects. Consequently, when the project came to the operation and maintenance phase, the system had many deficiencies. This article tries to explain some of the efforts that were made by the Kankai Irrigation Office to modernize the system. These efforts were mainly in the institutional development and water management aspects. The case of Kankai is a good example of how cost-effective software improvement programmes can substantially enhance system performance of an irrigation system.

Introduction of the system

The Kankai irrigation system was developed for the purpose of irrigating 8 000 ha of agricultural land in Jhapa, a Terai district located at the south-eastern corner of Nepal. Its command area is flanked by the Kankai river in the east, the Khrisna river in the west, the Mahendra highway in the north and the Indian border in the south. A detailed feasibility study of the project was completed in 1970 with the technical assistance of ADB. The construction was carried out in two phases. The first phase was initiated in 1973 and completed in 1981 with substantial delays and cost overruns. The second phase, to irrigate an additional 3 000 ha, started in 1980 and was completed in 1991, bringing only 2 000 ha of land under irrigation. Thus irrigation infrastructure has been developed for a total of 7 000 ha of land. The total cost of the project was NRs310 million, 63 percent of which came from an Asia Development Bank loan.

The diversion structure of the system is an ogee-type, concrete weir constructed at the debouncing point of the Kankai river. This 126m-long, 1.85m-high weir has been quite troublesome for the project since the beginning. Immediately after the weir was built, heavy silt deposition upstream and scouring of the riverbed downstream were observed. To prevent a possible failure of the diversion structure, the damaged launching apron was removed and in its place a depressed concrete stilling basin was constructed just downstream of the existing diversion weir. The structure still seems quite vulnerable as it suffers from aberration.

The canal system consists of a three-tier network of canals. The main canal length is 34 km with 74 km of secondary canals and 110 km of tertiary canals. The first 11.5 km reach of the main canal is lined with a design capacity of 10.15 m3/s; the other reaches are unlined and their capacity decreases from 7.25 to 1.75 m3/s.

The density of structures in the system is quite high. The canal network crosses many flashy rivers, hence many cross drain structures (siphons) have been built in the system. Steel gates have been built at all off-take points from the main canal and at all tertiary off-takes from secondary canals. The total number of such regulating structures is 322. Including all other subsidiary hydraulic structures, the structural density is as high as 0.2 per ha.

The command area consists of flat land (average slope of 1/800) with fertile soil. The soil texture varies from loamy to sandy loam. Alluvial soils exist in most parts of the command area. Brown forest soil is found in the northern part of the command while paddy soil exists in the southern parts.

After the completion of the second phase of the project, financial assistance from ADB ceased and in 1993 the Kankai Development Board, formed in 1973 for the implementation of the construction works, was dissolved. Since then, the Kankai irrigation office, under the Department of Irrigation, is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the system. Thus this office was left with many challenges of system operation and maintenance.

Need for modernization

In May 1992, some time after the project plunged into the operation and maintenance phase, at the request of the research and training branch of the Department of Irrigation, a baseline study of the project was carried out by the Nepal Administrative Staff College. The main conclusion of the study was that the performance of the Kankai irrigation system was not satisfactory. The main reasons for the low performance as outlined by the study were as follows:

  1. Water distribution by the irrigation system was not equitable. Farmers, especially those at the middle and tail reaches, were not getting timely and adequate water.
  2. Participation of the farmers in decision-making in the operation and maintenance of the system was almost non-existent. This left the farmers uninformed as to when the canal would be operated and when it would be closed for maintenance. Moreover, the farmers lacked a sense of ownership over the system.
  3. Farmer-agency relations in matters related to the operation of the system were not cordial.
  4. The respective roles and responsibilities of farmers and office staff were not well defined.
  5. Except in the case of a few enthusiastic farmers, the yield rates of paddy and wheat were far below what had been targeted.

Modernization efforts

Considering the weaknesses pointed out by the study, concerted efforts were made by the Kankai irrigation office to modernize the system under the name of joint management from the beginning of 1993. A history of modernization activities carried out by the Kankai irrigation office is presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Modernization activities

Jan 1993

Introductory workshop on joint management to sensitize the farmers to the aims and approach of the activities

Apr-Nov 1993

Formation of a three-tier water user association with 145 tertiary level, 17 secondary level and one main committees


The constitution of water user associations endorsed by the farmers' general assembly and registered at the Jhapa District Administrative Office

Jan 1994

Training on share system and operation and management organized for main committee functionaries and chairmen of secondary level committees

Jun 1994

The chairmen of tertiary level committees were given training on joint management, share system, operation and maintenance, and resource mobilization

Jun 1994

Flow control and measurement structures calibrated for all 77 outlets in the system

May 1995

Management responsibilities of two secondary canal systems, viz. S10 and S11, formally handed over to the respective water user associations

Mar-Jun 1997

Applied research on the economic use of water during pre-monsoon paddy cultivation on sample plots of the S3 canal system

Jun 1997

Management responsibilities of three more secondary canal systems, viz. S0, S9 and S12, formally handed over to the respective water user associations

Mar-Jun 1998

Applied research with field demonstration and training of the farmers on economic use of water during pre-monsoon paddy cultivation on sample plots of the S0 canal system

Jun 1998

Field training to tertiary level committee members on linkages between the different tiers of the water user associations

The activities carried out by the Kankai irrigation office are of three types: institutional development activities, efforts towards equitable water distribution and efforts toward self-sustainability. Each of these activities is described below.

Institutional development activities

The main change that was introduced by the joint management programme was a shift in the roles and responsibilities of the water user associations and the Kankai irrigation office, getting the former to participate in the operation and maintenance tasks, while the office saw itself more as a facilitator than as an implementer.

The irrigation office, in seeking the participation of the farmers, has carried out the following activities. From the beginning of 1993, an introductory workshop on joint management was organized to make the farmers aware of the aims and approach of the activities. Then, from April to November, with the assistance of the irrigation management project, the formation of the organization and selection of the farmer representatives took place. By the end of November 1993, a three-tier water user association representing the entire irrigation system with 145 tertiary level committees, 17 secondary level committees and one main committee was formed. In December of the same year, the constitution of water user associations as endorsed by the farmers' general assembly was registered at the Jhapa District Administrative Office. After completion of the two-year tenure as specified in the water user associations' constitution, elections were held to elect functionaries for the second term. The election was well attended by the users. Recently the general assembly of the users decided to extend the two-year tenure of the functionaries to four years.

The other main input from the Kankai irrigation office has been the training of water user association functionaries and beneficiary farmers on the share system, resource mobilization, record-keeping, and operation and maintenance of the system.

Efforts toward equitable water distribution

The main focus of the Kankai irrigation office has been on the delivery of timely, reliable and adequate supply of water to the farmers of the command area. The following were some of the activities carried out by the office in that direction:

Before the implementation of the joint management programme, "might is right" was the governing principle. During periods of water shortage, the farmers in the head reach used as much water as they wanted and reliability declined in the tail portions. Since many of the regulating steel gates were not working, reliability also varied with the topography of the command area, i.e. lower level canals could steadily draw a lot of water while supply was inadequate and unreliable in canals irrigating areas at a higher elevation. The water shortage in the tail portions of both the main canals (S10, S11, S12) and the extension area (S15, S16, S17-20) led to a complete disregard of the concept of equity in water distribution.

After the implementation of the programme, since the regular operation and maintenance budget would be insufficient for the renovation of the canal system to increase its capacity, the main focus went to making the best use of the available water. For this purpose, an annual operation schedule was developed in consultation with the farmer representatives. In order to cope with the acute shortage during the pre-monsoon season, the system of rotational supply every two years was adopted. Similarly, rotation of the water supply from secondary canals is practised to handle periods of water shortage during the monsoon season.

Efforts toward self-sustainability

In this direction the main work carried out by Kankai irrigation office so far is as follows:

The fee collection mechanism is slightly different in the turned-over parts of the irrigation system and in the parts that have not been turned over. In turned-over parts, the water user groups at the lowest level collect the irrigation service fee by themselves, whereas elsewhere, amins, collectors assigned by the Kankai irrigation office, do the job based on the office assessment verified with the concerned water user groups.

Figure 1: Collection of the irrigation service fee over the years at Kankai

As stipulated in the irrigation policy, the farmers in turned-over systems retain 50 percent of the fees they collect. The portions of that share going to the different tiers of the associations are determined by the associations themselves. The existing rule for the division of the fee is as follows:

The general trend has been of a continued increase in fee collections after the implementation of joint management and turnover of some secondary canals to the respective water user groups. In turned-over systems, especially S9 and To12, the respective farmer associations collect enough money to carry out cleaning and de-silting work on their own.

At the tertiary canal level. Labour for canal maintenance work is mobilized in variable amounts on almost all tertiary canals. The basis for such labour mobilization varies from place to place. In most cases, landholding size is the basis. In a few cases, the basis is the number of households. The mobilization process also varies. In most cases, farmers first decide how many labourers per household have to be assembled for the targeted works of canal maintenance. Based on this, they get together and start the canal cleaning works. Attendance is duly recorded. The work is done till the canal is back to fully functional status, which may take one to three days. In other tertiary canals, such as in SoT (1-10), the whole canal stretch is divided into various segments assigned to different groups of farmers depending on the size of their landholdings. The farmers are usually given one week to complete the cleaning in their respective sections.

At the secondary canal level. Resources are also mobilized for canal cleaning works at secondary level. However, it is not a regular process and it is not practised uniformly in all secondary canals. When the irrigation office had sufficient budget for it, it used to clean the silt from the canal. Since budgetary allocations have shrunk substantially, farmers can no longer depend on the irrigation office to get the work done in the same way. Thus, some secondary canal committees have started mobilizing labour on their own. In secondary canals, the labour requirements are very high. As a great many farmers are not readily available, the practice has been adopted of collecting cash instead, either through donations or as a fee based on landholding size (NRs25/bigha or 37.5/ha). At some places, the secondary canal committees insist on de-silting works in tertiary canals being carried out. In 1996, the S9 committee asked the tertiary level committees to clean all tertiary canals of their silt. For strict enforcement, water was not released into the tertiary canals until they were properly cleaned. Some tertiary canals did not receive water during the pre-monsoon season for more than a week as the respective farmers did not clean them on time. Similarly, the S0 committee makes sure that all tertiary canals in its area are properly de-silted before the water is delivered. In March 1998, the committee even distributed NRs500 to each of its tertiary canal committees for meals during the labour mobilization for de-silting works.

At the central committee level. The main committee also has its own sources of raising funds, e.g. through membership fees, fees from picnickers, renting of equipment, etc. Even though the members of water user associations claim that they will use their own funds to do canal maintenance work if necessary, so far these funds have been used mainly to defray administrative costs of the water user association office.

Results of modernization efforts

Even though it has proved to be a slow process, the modernization of the Kankai irrigation system through software intervention has started showing positive results. At the process level, involvement of the beneficiaries in decision-making is clearly visible. The water user associations' main committee meets every month to discuss the emerging issues and take pertinent decisions. The functionaries of the association participate in decision-making with the irrigation officials in setting work priorities and deciding on resource mobilization and allocation. The beneficiaries at the secondary and tertiary level also meet when necessary to discuss and find solutions at their own level. The active participation of the people in the annual general assembly to discuss the main issues and to maintain checks and balances within the organizational structure indicates greater involvement of the beneficiaries in system management.

Improvements can also be seen in water distribution. The decrease in the number of water-related conflicts is a clear indicator of this. Greater acceptance by the farmers of the rules and regulations laid down in the water user associations' constitution and of the norms set by the consensus of the farmers themselves can be considered as the reason for the decrease. Consequently, water adequacy and reliability conditions are reported by the farmers to have slightly improved. Reliability, it is reported, has also improved because the farmers are now well informed, as they themselves are involved in decision-making.

Equity in water distribution has also significantly improved. It is thought to further improve after the outcome of the applied research on economical use of water is disseminated to all the farmers. The discharge measurements observable at the off-take structures have helped improve equity in water distribution. As the structures have been calibrated and the designed discharge level for each canal marked on the gauge, farmers can easily see whether they are getting their share of water or not and also whether the farmers of some other canals are taking more water than their share.

There are also indications of the system moving toward self-sustainability and financial autonomy. Through the process of gradual acceptance of operation and maintenance responsibility of the respective systems, the relevant water user groups have not only shown their interest in carrying out such tasks but also their ability to do so.

1 According to the Nepalese classification, an irrigation system with a command area larger than 2 000 ha in the Terai and 500 ha in the Hills is a large-scale irrigation system.

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