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Combining technical changes and reforms: A prelude to success

The combination of technical changes with institutional and policy reforms have largely been responsible for the success of reform programmes in irrigation. The examples of the State of Victoria, Australia (box 7) and of the Office du Niger, Mali (box 8) demonstrate that investments in irrigated agriculture can again be worthwhile. The key conditions are a better understanding of the importance of technology in combination with management reforms, the adoption of improved technology and the greater awareness that some action needs to be taken to sustain food supplies.

Box 6: The technical and political reform processes in the State of Victoria, Australia

Irrigation enterprises of low profitability, aging infrastructure, large public debt and environmental degradation through salinity and waterlogging were common in Victoria State, Australia in the early 1980s. Operation of the complex irrigation channel systems was inflexible and highly reactive. Operation of the irrigation systems was driven from the headworks down. Renewing infrastructure provided the opportunity to redesign the system to create much more effective water delivery systems. The first step taken was to fundamentally change the approach to managing the irrigation systems with the objectives of reducing the costs of delivering services and of building a base with new technology to allow more sophisticated water services and tariff arrangements. Instead of merely replacing the existing infrastructure, careful analyses of the system revealed opportunities to create better, more effective irrigation systems. The roster system requiring the irrigators to take water on a fixed schedule was converted into a water-on-order system allowing the farmers to better meet the needs of their crops, make more efficient use of water and reduce pumping costs. A telemetry system combined with Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) provides real operation of flows and water levels.

The new system was a significant step in the development of irrigation in Victoria. The new system allowed leasing of water rights, diversion licenses, and sale entitlements between established farms within certain conditions. The shortfall of revenues was considerably reduced (Langford et al., 1999).

Box 7: Restructuring of the Office du Niger, Mali, West Africa.

The Office du Niger in Mali was seen for many years as a heavy financial burden. It is now seen as a “success story”. The Office du Niger was created in the early 1930s to reduce the dependence of France on imported cotton from the British Colonies. The project was managed by a parastatal organization, following the model of the Gezira project in Sudan. The 25 000 farmers resettled by force and deportation were seen as agricultural workers. In the 1950s cultivation of cotton was abandoned because of rapid development of waterlogging conditions, a major contrast with the heavy soils of the Gezira project highly suitable to cotton cultivation. The restructuring of the Office du Niger focused on both institutional and technical aspects. The paddy rice processing and commercialization functions of the Office du Niger were progressively privatized. The activities of the Office are now concentrated around its essential functions of water services, planning and maintenance.

The physical upgrading consisted of modern water control of the main conveyance and distribution network, and precise levelling of paddy lands. The improved water delivery and land levelling makes possible the adoption of transplanting and high-yield varieties, resulting in an increase of paddy yields from 1.5 to 6 tonnes per hectare.

The technical and institutional restructuring of the Office du Niger made it possible for the agronomic and economic performances of that project to skyrocket, responding to the need for financial balance, market opportunities in a context of liberalization and privatization (Couture and Lavigne-Delville, 2000).

State officials of the 1960s to 1980s have been criticized for their ‘construction bias’ and their lack of interest for social considerations. Equally erroneous could be to think that software would solve all the irrigation ills. Most policy and institutional reforms cannot be fully implemented without the right physical environment. 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 delivery system, and proper water control to provide that service (Burt, 1999). The implementation of institutional reforms without considering the need for technical changes may lead to a failure of the reform process.

The case of the National Irrigation Authority (NIA) in the Philippines illustrates that point. Created in 1964 as a public corporation, NIA has been experimenting with agency restructuring since then. However, NIA has been unable to accomplish its goal of financing itself despite transferring the operational and management responsibilities to user organizations, reducing NIA staff and increasing collection rates of irrigation service fees. In response to rice shortages and financial problems, the government of the Philippines recently reinstated public subsidies to NIA and reduced service fees. The reasons for this suggested by donors are the lack of political will and weak leadership allowing NIA to avoid making the difficult political decisions needed to become financially self-sufficient. These are not the only causes of the failure of the restructuring experiment in the Philippines.

Lending for irrigation in that country during the last two decades has mostly supported rehabilitation and deferred maintenance. No diagnosis was made to identify the causes of rapid deterioration of the water control infrastructure. The water allocation and delivery was basically unchanged. The conclusion is that the focus was on the financial sustainability of NIA, not on the profitability of farming as has been the case in the State of Victoria and in Mali.

A much better approach was adopted in Vietnam for the preparation of a water resources development project with a major irrigation modernisation component. Intensive capacity building programme through workshops on irrigation performance and modernisation and study tours is part of the efforts of preparation to broaden government commitment to modernisation and to build up capacity in planning, designing, building and operating modern systems.

The importance of technology in combination with management and policy to improve performance of large irrigation systems is progressively recognized at national and regional levels (box 9). However, this should be more forcefully promoted by donors and international irrigation and water resources organizations.

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