Although they are frequently mentioned among the objectives of irrigation projects, policies for the actual distribution of water rarely are established in a way that is compatible with that objective.
Properly managed, irrigation can be an effective tool for reducing poverty. The International Programme for Technology Research in Irrigation and Drainage has pointed out that the benefits of irrigation include higher and more stable incomes for farmers, greater food security for the poor, more farm and non-farm rural employment opportunities, and enhanced supplies of domestic water that can improve health in low-income
24. MENA/MED Water Initiative, Proceedings of the Regional Workshop on Sustainable Groundwater Management in the Middle East and North Africa, Summary Report, Sana'a, Yemen, June 25-28, 2000, hosted by the National Water Resources Authority, Republic of Yemen and Co-Sponsored by the Swiss Development Cooperation and the World Bank, p. 4.
25. Jacob J. Burke and Marcus H. Moench, Groundwater and Society: Resources, Tensions and Opportunities, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs and Institute for Social and Economic Transition, New York, 2000, p. 11.
households. However, the same study stresses that the realization of these benefits requires effective targeting of irrigation on land-poor families, including approaches that allow them to own irrigation systems and sell the water for a profit, ensuring selection of low-income families among the families for settlement schemes, using employment-intensive methods for building irrigation systems, institutional arrangements to ensure secure water supplies in periods of low water, and full compensation for cultivators who may be dislocated by the schemes. Equally, the use of participatory approaches in the design of irrigation schemes is vital, with emphasis on involvement of low-income households, and designs need to guarantee low costs of system operation.26
Increasing the efficiency of irrigation systems has two different meanings. Technically, it refers to the reduction of water losses. In a broader sense, it refers to increasing net economic returns for the systems' users, taking full account of externalities. Achieving it requires actions in distinct dimensions: technological, institutional and the dimension of the policy environment. However, irrigation differs from some other areas of agricultural policy in that water is not a sectoral resource. It is a unitary, mobile resource that may be used in all sectors of the economy and for different purposes. Hence, irrigation policies and programs cannot ignore the role that water plays in other parts of the economy and in other uses. It is now an internationally accepted principle that water management policies of all kinds must recognize that water is an economic good and that it has value in competing uses.
For these reasons, achieving greater 'efficiency' in irrigation in the broader sense may mean giving up water to other sectors where it has higher-value uses, even if sometimes that also implies reducing the value of agricultural output. As the value of those other uses is taken into account in irrigation planning, achieving greater efficiency within typically will require measures to increase both system efficiency and on-farm efficiency. Such measures range from changes in system design to management improvements to economic incentives for better water use. Improvements in these areas in turn will lead to higher levels of agricultural output per unit of water used and/or reductions in total water used, and possibly to reductions in the costs of water delivery and of system management.
In line with the need to improve the efficiency of irrigation systems, in most parts of the world the emphasis in irrigation planning has shifted from augmenting supplies to managing demands. It also is an internationally accepted principle that irrigation management is a component of broader water management. It must take account of all uses in all sectors of the economy, by watershed or river basin, and irrigation development plans must be made consistent with overall frameworks for water policies. This holistic approach embraces considerations of water quality as well as quantity.
These interrelationships occur on the demand side of water balances. There are also basic linkages on the supply side which require holistic thinking about water management. The physical relationships on the supply side are complex and pervasive. Surface and groundwater characteristics need to be analyzed jointly in developing strategies for water management, since usually there are hydrological linkages, sometimes complex, between aquifers and surface flows. Typically, surface flows filter down to aquifers in part but movement may occur in both directions from flowing aquifers. Utilization of one of these sources is likely to affect the other, and so strategies for joint or 'conjunctive' use need to be developed. More broadly, it should be recognized in strategies that use of water in one part of a watershed or basin can affect both the quantity and quality of water in other parts.
26. International Programme for Technology and Research in Irrigation and Drainage (IPTRID), Poverty Reduction and Irrigated Agriculture, Issues Paper No. 1, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, January 1999, pp. 7 and 15-16.
The necessity of a holistic approach to water management derives in part from the diversity of its uses and their competition:
'Water provides four types of important economic benefits: commodity benefits, waste assimilation benefits, esthetic and recreational benefits, and fish and wildlife habitats. Individuals derive commodity benefits from water by using it for drinking, cooking and sanitation. Farms, businesses and industries obtain commodity benefits by using water in productive activities. These commodity benefits represent private good uses of water which are rivals in consumption (e.g. one person's or industry's water use precludes or prevents its use by others)'. (From FAO, 1993, p. 259 [emphasis added].) [A special case is hydropower production, which generates benefits from water without consuming it, although it may introduce some constraints on other uses.]
It may be added that the waste assimilation uses can preclude the commodity uses, and both of those uses can diminish water's availability or usefulness for fish and wildlife habitats and for esthetic and recreational purposes.
There also are economic externalities and social linkages on the supply side of a watershed. These linkages as well as the physical ones have been mentioned by John Dixon and William Easter in stating the case for integrated management of watersheds:
(1) The watershed is a functional region established by physical relationships.
(2) The watershed approach is logical for evaluating the biophysical linkages of upland and downstream activities because within the watershed they are linked through the hydrologic cycle. . . .
(3) The watershed approach is holistic, which enables planners and managers to consider many facets of resource development.
(4) Land-use activities and upland disturbances often result in a chain of environmental impacts that can be readily examined within the watershed context.
(5) The watershed approach has a strong economic logic. Many of the externalities involved with alternative land-management practices on an individual farm are internalized when the watershed is managed as a unit.
(6) The watershed provides a framework for analyzing the effects of human interactions with the environment. The environmental impacts within the watershed operate as a feedback loop for changes in the social system.
(7) The watershed approach can be integrated with or be part of programs including forestry, soil conservation, rural and community development, and farming systems.27
There are a few parts of the world, mainly in parts of Latin America and West-Central Africa, where water is still abundant relative to demands for it, and the competition for water among sectors will not become manifest for several decades. In those cases, expanding irrigation supplies still may have a priority, but experience has shown that methods of system management are often the principal determinants of the effectiveness of the systems in raising rural incomes. Therefore, in both water-scarce and water-abundant environments, a principal operational concern is to improve irrigation management in the broadest sense, from watersheds to the farm level, and from the performance of public agencies to the roles of user groups and other community-level associations.
27. John A. Dixon and K. William Easter, 'Integrated Watershed Management: An Approach to Resource Management', in K. W. Easter, J. A. Dixon and M. Hufschmidt (Eds), Water Resources Management, Westview Press, Boulder, CO, USA, 1986, Chapter 1, p. 6 [emphasis in original].
In order to translate these broad objectives into concrete actions, the following eight operational sub-objectives for the irrigation sector may be established, taking into account both the needs of users and constraints of a financial and institutional nature:
(1) Improving the effectiveness of holistic planning for irrigation.
(2) Making irrigation more productive for its users, i.e. increasing economic returns per unit of water used.
(3) Improving the access of women and poor farm families to irrigation.
(4) Reducing physical water requirements per unit of output.
(5) Reducing the total costs for the provision of irrigation.
(6) Reducing the fiscal costs to the national budget.
(7) Improving the environmental sustainability of irrigation.
(8) Improving the institutional sustainability of irrigation systems.
The means for achieving these objectives are varied and include the following: direct administration of water fees and allocations at the irrigation system level; management of water allocations, quality levels and fees through watershed or river basin authorities; capacity building among users and managers; involvement of stakeholders in irrigation system design and operating decisions; decentralization of public sector management organs; codification of water rights and establishment of regulatory frameworks; developing markets in water rights; joint management of transboundary water basins; and public investments in water extraction and conveyance facilities. The choices among the means depend on the principal water issues faced by a country and on the particular socioeconomic, political, geographical and hydrological environment. As will be seen later, the more participatory the management of the systems, then generally the better their performance.28
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