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6. Modernizing irrigation water management

The scope of modernization

Modernizing water management in irrigation systems can be interpreted in different ways depending on the local circumstances. One type of modernization is the introduction of modern technologies, such as water application and distribution through pipes rather than open channels, and the use of computerized soil-water sensors to trigger water applications. However, it also comprises older capital-intensive techniques, such as canal lining and land levelling. These techniques can only be introduced and used successfully where the farmers can be trained in their use or already possess the necessary skills. However, the technical side is only one aspect of modernization. Equally important are fundamental changes in the institutional arrangements and regulations and improvements in the performance and efficacy of water users and their organizations.

FAO has defined modernization as “a process of technical and managerial upgrading of irrigation schemes combined with institutional reforms, if required, with the objective to improve resource utilization and water delivery service to farms” (Facon and Renault, 1999). In this sense, modernization offers a means of institutional reform with a purpose, not just reform for its own sake. It is systemic and practical without asking that all institutional elements change and it needs to be applied where irrigated agriculture has a clear comparative advantage.

Plate 14 A farmer preparing irrigation pipe in a field of tomatoes (Brazil)


Irrigation institutions need to adopt a service orientation and improve their performance in economic and environmental terms. This entails: adopting new technologies; modernizing infrastructure; applying improved administrative principles and techniques; and promoting the participation of water users. Irrigation-sector institutions need to link their central task of providing irrigation services to agricultural production and to integrate their water demands and uses with other users at basin level. An enhanced appreciation of the water cascades and flows across landscapes and the circulation of groundwater within aquifers will lead to informed decisions on the use and reuse of agricultural water.

Because modernization is usually perceived as an engineering project, its planning typically focuses on engineering and macroeconomic issues with only broad assumptions about how the delivery system and the on-farm irrigation systems are to be managed. Where the modernized system turns out to be incompatible with existing management practices or where unanticipated extensive changes in management practices are needed to take full advantage of the potential of the modernized system, then the modernization project is likely to fail.

In addition, failure is likely if the public irrigation organization continues as before without the involvement and participation of the water users in the system’s operation and management. Only through their involvement from the beginning of a modernization project can farmers develop a sense of ownership and be likely to care for the system. This sense of ownership should prevent several of the problems that often arise after a short time: field channels being demolished; gates being stolen or damaged; field drainage systems becoming blocked; open drains filling with sediments and weeds; and graded land becoming spoiled by bad tillage. Box 13 presents some of the lessons learned from irrigation modernization projects.

Box 13 Irrigation modernization in Argentina, Mexico and Peru

Source: FAO, 2001d

A set of conditions for the success of modernization projects can be drawn from an analysis of recent irrigation modernization in Argentina, Mexico and Peru:

® Modernization is more likely to succeed if the ideas come from the farmers.

® Pressure irrigation is ‘in’ and gravity irrigation is ‘out’; future irrigation development should be for pressurized irrigation.

® Much attention needs to be given to efficient water distribution; otherwise, high water losses, water theft, and unscheduled irrigation will continue.

® Payment of water service fees remains a problem unless farmers are taught and accept that water cannot be free.

® Providing farmers with appropriate technical assistance requires considerable attention. Despite the training provided, there are still large gaps in knowledge about farming practices, water requirements and irrigation scheduling.

® Each system requires tailor-made solutions: modernization always includes improving the physical infrastructure, but how this is done and all other needs are site-specific.

The case studies indicate that, because of severe competition for water, the water delivery system in irrigation has to become more efficient soon or the system will cease to exist. In the long run, reliance on government contributions and subsidies is no longer an option, although the transition phase to modernized management may still require substantial public investment. The three cases of modernization were successful in the sense that farmers became aware that business as usual is no longer possible. However, as technology is changing so rapidly, it may be necessary to modernize more or less continuously in order to adjust to the changing circumstances.

An important aspect of modernization is the effect of intended plot sizes on the feasibility of the project. For example, in Navarra, Mexico, the average plot size is about 5 000 m2 while the average area owned by one farmer is 1.3 ha. It is likely that in the near future these farms will not be economically viable for two reasons: (i) the small plot size; and (ii) the poor condition of the irrigation systems (FAO, 2002d). The modernization of many irrigation systems should encompass restructuring land tenure in order to ensure plot sizes that can be farmed profitably. In this system in Mexico, such a plot size is thought to be about 5 ha. Increasing plots sizes will also allow a reduction in the investments needed to modernize the irrigation systems. In addition, farms that perform well will have the capacity to generate jobs both directly and indirectly.

Nonetheless, site-specific considerations can lead to different conclusions. In Mali, the Office du Niger, which is dedicated to rice production, allocates individual plots of at least 5 ha. This allocation of large plots to full-time, maximum-profit farmers is seen to be inconsistent with the reality of people generally pursuing diversified livelihoods, especially when trying to escape from poverty. Moreover, small plots are often used more intensively. For example, in Zimbabwe in the early 1990s, the government changed its policy of giving farmers irrigated plots of 0.1 ha so they could supplement their income from rainfed agriculture, to giving each farmer 3-5 ha of irrigated land. The expectation was that the larger plot sizes would induce farmers to devote themselves full-time to irrigation. The policy also favoured giving the irrigated land to men, with the idea that they would be more likely to devote their energies to irrigated farming. However, productivity per unit of land and productivity per unit of water were later found to be higher on the smallholding system, and women farmers were significantly more likely than men to be oriented towards irrigation as their main source of food and income (FAO, 2002d).

Large-scale irrigation development and modernization projects tend to concentrate on the production of staple foods while ignoring the fisheries. A main issue with loss of fishery habitat, or specifically with the reclamation of wetlands for agriculture, is that once the wetland is converted to agricultural land, people can have title to it. Legal title to natural wetlands is not possible although traditional communal rights can be recognized. Fisheries are often taken for granted. Many people fail to see the benefits of wetlands and fisheries, whereas they realize that quantifiable benefits, such as agricultural production and hydropower, will flow from new development works. Examples of undervaluing inland fisheries can be found in Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (FAO, 2002d). For a balanced diet, rice needs to be supplemented with animal protein, and inland fisheries provide one of the cheapest and most readily available sources of such protein. However, development decisions that affect the management and use of inland waters are often made without accurate and complete knowledge of the contribution that inland fisheries make to rural livelihoods. One lesson from many such examples of modernization projects is that a project is not necessarily good or bad, but rather that full knowledge of the local conditions and cultures is essential for its successful implementation. The goal in modernizing irrigation institutions is not only to improve water management in agriculture but also to promote integrated water resource management (IWRM), which takes into account the social, economic and environmental sustainability of all management of the water resources.

The role of low-cost technologies in modernization

Plate 15 Tachai: farmer using hand-operated pump to draw up water from canal (China)

FAO/10790/F. BOTTS

The introduction of low-cost technologies, which could be part of the modernization of small-scale irrigation projects, provides another example of the site-specificity of success. Inexpensive treadle pumps have been successful in some South Asian countries in extracting irrigation water from shallow aquifers. These pumps have allowed poor farmers to make good use of the available labour in their households and so increase crop production and farm income. The farmer has full control over the timing and amount of this pumped water, which given the effort involved is used sparingly. For example, the area under irrigation by one treadle pump in West Bengal, India, varies between 0.033 and 0.13 ha. Treadle pumps have also been introduced in Africa, including the urban and peri-urban areas of Ndjamena, Chad. Here, the vegetable growers rejected the pumps in favour of mechanical pumps because they could afford the cost of fuel and spare parts. However, in the more remote areas of Sarh, Chad, farmers were content with the treadle pumps and requested more of them (FAO, 2002d). Treadle pumps are intrinsically pro-poor, as richer farmers would not be able to persuade household members to use them. A limitation of treadle pumps is that their use requires spare labour, which may not exist. Women are usually already overburdened. Healthy children could do the pumping, provided it does not interfere with school attendance. Therefore, it is important to assess labour availability before introducing treadle pumps (FAO, 2002d).

Positive experience has been reported with the introduction of bucket drip-irrigation kits. These kits are suitable for the irrigation of small plots of vegetables and fruit trees in peri-urban areas (close to markets). In Kenya, the return on an investment of about US$15 for one bucket drip-irrigation kit was some US$20 per month. Farmers in Kenya have bought over 10 000 kits, although some of these farmers could not described as very poor (FAO, 2002d).

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