Although opinions differ about the risk of a second food crisis, undoubtedly there is a serious problem that must be addressed. There is a false sense of security because of the abundance of grain produced and low staple food prices. As a result, irrigation investments and official development assistance to irrigation in developing countries have fallen and the rate of growth of irrigated areas has dropped. The World Bank and Irrigation publication (Jones, 1995) suggests that public-sector planners typically share the popular perception that agricultural intensification will take care of itself, even though the conjuncture of forces that inspired the Green Revolution is no longer present. If persisting, that perception could be counterproductive. At the very least, the food production will have to increase by about 50 percent to feed some two billion more people by 2020, and a large part of that increase needs to come from irrigated agriculture. Todays situation is much more difficult than the problem solved in the Green Revolution.
The shortages of food production projected for the 1990s have been averted to some extent by the explosive exploitation of groundwater and the increase in water saving technologies over the last three decades. However, overexploitation of the groundwater resource and an associated decline in water quality have been occurring in many parts of the world, particularly in the semi-arid regions. Exploitation of groundwater was originally spurred by the need of farmers for additional water. In many regions, the farmers reacted to the inadequate service they received from the large surface irrigation systems.
There are various examples that support the viewpoint that it is the association of technical changes with institutional and policy reforms that contributes to the success of reform programmes in irrigation. Deficiencies in management as well as in design of irrigation projects are the causes of the poor performance of irrigation. This observation does not suggest that design of irrigation projects should be refocused to the conventional engineering aspects of the past. Modern approach to design means taking into account the quality of service, the ease of operation, the social and institutional aspects, in brief the needs of the farmers and the working conditions of field operators.
With the diminishing availability of groundwater for irrigation, addressing the reasons of the poor management and performance of large-scale surface irrigation projects in a holistic manner can no longer be evaded. Food trade agreements, alleviation of rural poverty and reduction of out-migration from rural to urban areas are also strong arguments in favour of improving irrigation service to users.
In the middle of a food crisis, it would be too late to explore in an efficient way the technical and institutional options for improving the performance of existing and new irrigation systems. The next shock in food production should be anticipated. Changes in management and design of surface irrigation systems are an urgent matter that can no longer be ignored.
Box 9: Emergence of new thinking
New design criteria, operational rules and water allocation policies have to be set up. Management strategies should consider not only resources but also demands. (Nineteenth European Regional Conference of ICID, Prague, June 2001)
Modernization of irrigation schemes to improve water use efficiency, comprising all aspects like engineering, land consolidation, system management, farmer training, etc. was considered as priority areas. (One of the 21 recommendations of the Nineteenth Spanish National Congress on Irrigation, Zaragossa, June 2001).