The opinions differ among experts on the causes of poor performance of canal systems. The following statement epitomises the thinking of many irrigation professionals:
Irrigation schemes in many parts of the world are known to be performing well below their full potential... There is now wide recognition that deficiencies in management and related institutional problems, rather than technology of irrigation, were the chief constraints of poor performance of irrigation systems (ICID, 1992).
There is no question that management of irrigation systems has been haunted by a multitude of problems. Admittedly there are some important management-related and institutional deficiencies, such as conflicts between farmers and irrigation agencies, farmer interference and lack of discipline, poor coordination between government agencies and poor recovery of investments and recovery costs and poor farmer incentives. Few irrigation experts have challenged the widespread wisdom that these are the main causes of poor performance of irrigation systems. A noticeable exception is a recent publication by IWMI.
According to the author, Prof. Horst, the underlying reason for the writing of that book was a combination of the denial of the importance of technology vis-à-vis management, the increasing indifference to system design and the lack of transparency of technology and operational procedures. The preface of that book challenges the well-accepted wisdom on irrigation issues with rather provocative questions:
Is management really the crux of irrigation problems? ... Do we not apply cosmetic surgery by only trying to improve the management environment without considering the technology? Is it not time to examine the root of the problems: the design of irrigation systems? (Horst, 1998)
Why is there so little recognition of the importance of irrigation technology as a principal cause of poor project performance? What are the causes of deficiencies in designing irrigation systems?
Most civil engineers are well trained in structural engineering and construction techniques but not in the practical and theoretical aspects of unsteady flow hydraulics that are the norm in most irrigation systems. They are also unfamiliar with the constraints of the end user - i.e. on-farm irrigation management requirements. Appropriate irrigation design and management is much more complicated than most engineers, administrators and donors assume.
Second, designers are rarely confronted with the consequences of how their designs function once they are installed.
Third, many irrigation agencies cling to outdated design standards and often resist changes by external experts. Most consulting firms have no contractual motivation and no financial incentives to introduce new concepts.
Operational failures of irrigation systems are not dramatic and are not widely publicized. Operation staff can operate canal for a while by infringing on freeboard and farmers are adjusting to the poor delivery by sinking wells or building reservoirs.
Many failures and problems are caused by a design approach that pays insufficient attention to operational aspects. The point is that if hydraulic systems were simple to operate to attain good water delivery service, safety and efficiency, then management and institutional problems may disappear. Many management and institutional problems are self-inflicted wounds that could be minimized or eliminated with proper designs and operational instructions (Burt, 1999).
A frequently heard argument is that modernization is too costly and too sophisticated. In modern schemes, irrigation is provided as a service to users that should be as efficient and convenient as possible. Modernization is a thought process that starts with the definition of a proper operational plan. The selection of water control equipment is then done in the light of the operational objectives and the requirements of the farming systems.
In most cases, proper hydraulic design and simple automation techniques can make significant improvements. A good design, even with sophisticated devices, results in simple rules of operation at all levels in canal systems.