Irrigation is not simply a mechanical task of delivering water to crops. It is a human activity and a social undertaking. No consideration of irrigation development should fail to note that, ultimately, the success of every project depends on the quality of the human effort invested in it. Moreover, an irrigation project is not only a system for producing crops but also, and perhaps even primarily, a place for a community of people and families to live healthy lives while working cooperatively and contributing to the food security of their nation (Figure 34).
The consequences of irrigation
As in other human activities, the first requirement for success is that
the workers engaged in the activity be strongly motivated and committed to the task. The
second requirement is that they be properly informed, not merely trained in the
performance of routine operations but enabled to understand the fundamental principles of
proper irrigation manage-ment. An investment in research and in training personnel is even
more vital in this respect than an investment in pipes or pumps. The third requirement, of
course, is that the irrigation workers be given access to (preferably, an opportunity to
acquire) the material inputs necessary for the best performance of their work.
One of the worst mistakes that can be made by irrigation developers or managers is to assume an authoritarian role, expecting the workers to obey the instructions handed them from above without question. Depriving intelligent human beings of any personal stake in their own work, and of the challenge and incentive to apply their own creative ingenuity, is a waste of a resource even more precious than soil and water. People who are given a sense of participation, and allowed to reap rewards commensurate with their initiative and contribution, care much more for their work and devote much more of themselves to its success. The incentives offered may be social, administrative, economic, or, best of all, a combination of all three.
The greatest incentive is to allow, indeed to encourage, people and families to work for themselves, in harmony with their neighbours, on their own plots of land and with access to assured supplies of water and other essential means of production. To accomplish this aim, policy-makers and administrative agencies need to resolve a complex set of problems involving land reform and tenure, water rights, and the coordination of resource allocation and utilization among various competing sectors, all of which, however, range far beyond the limited scope of this discussion.
In addition to providing workers with incentives, an irrigation scheme may also contribute to human welfare in a larger sense. Many, perhaps most, irrigation systems in the developing world are used for non-agricultural purposes as well as for raising crops: for domestic water needs, waste disposal, power generation, transportation, fishing and recreation. Some of these needs may interfere or conflict with the basic functioning of the irrigation project, particularly if they are not recognized at the outset and included in the initial planning stages.
One of the most serious problems in irrigation projects is the potential health hazard resulting from the use of open water channels for drinking, bathing, washing of clothes and the disposal of human and animal wastes. It has been said that "wherever water goes, disease follows". Unfortunately, water storage and convey-ance structures present favourable breeding grounds for disease vectors (such as mosquitoes and snails) and for pathogens of some of the most debilitating illnesses rampant in the developing world. Among these are schistosomiasis (bilharzia), onchocerciasis (river blindness), malaria, cholera, dysentery and other intestinal diseases. Public health specialists should therefore participate in the design and operation of all irrigation schemes, as well as in the rehabilitation or modernization of existing schemes.
Among factors that may contribute to the control of water-borne diseases are the following:
All these measures can be carried out most effectively in systems that
convey water in closed conduits and that restrict access to storage reservoirs. Such
convey-ance can also facilitate the adoption of the HELPFUL (high-frequency,
efficient, low-volume, partial-area, farm-unit, low-cost) irrigation methods described in
It can thus be seen that the proper development and management of irrigation is a complex and comprehensive undertaking, requiring attention to much more than hydraulics and agronomy. The design and operation of each irrigation project is necessarily site specific not only because of variable physical and agronomic conditions. A special combination of human and economic factors exists in each case and must be recognized in any attempt to promote or improve the practice of irrigation.