The Benefits of Local Water Management

The main form through which local irrigation management is implemented is through water users' associations. The number of such associations has been growing rapidly in recent years, throughout the world. They have become fixtures of irrigation management in diverse places such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Morocco, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Cameroon, Mali, Nigeria, Kenya, Guyana, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and more than 20 other countries (Vermillion and Sagardoy, 1999). An international network exists, INPIM, to facilitate exchanges of information and experiences.165 In the case of Indonesia, for example, 'the government had transferred more than 400 irrigation systems, covering 34 000 ha, to water user associations associations by 1992'.166

In India, the state of Andhra Pradesh has 'opted for a "Big Bang" approach', constituting 10292 WUAs covering all of the state's irrigation systems, an area of 4.8 million hectares.167

Clearly, WUAs are responding to well-defined needs and in all probability are giving rise to significant benefits. However, before exploring their roles and the nature of those benefits, it is well to note that WUAs do not always improve system performance, and often their creation requires a conscious and sustained effort on the part of supporting institutions. It has been asserted that in general:

it has been difficult to establish that communal approaches to water management have actually increased farm production and income. ... In practice, turnover of irrigation systems [to users] has legitimized the transfer of the responsibilities for operations and manage ment to farmers, thereby reducing the costs of financially strapped public bureaucracies. The turnover of costs and responsibilities, however, has not been accompanied by improved access to water through the establishment and granting of tradable water rights, nor has it been accompanied by a clear demarcation of duties between the government irrigation bureaucracy and the private water user groups. As a result, there has been no change in the fundamental incentives governing water use.168

These caveats aside, some of the valid motivations for promoting the formation of water user associations have been mentioned throughout this chapter. The basic case for them has been stated by the World Bank in the following way:

The participation of users in managing and maintaining water facilities and operations brings many benefits. Participation in planning, operating and maintaining irrigation works and facilities to supply water and sanitation services increases the likelihood that these will be well maintained and contribute to community cohesion and empowerment in ways that can spread to other development activities In addition, governments benefit directly . . . financial and management burdens on government that result from administering water allocation can be reduced through user participation in both urban and rural areas.. . .169

The FAO has concluded that the formation of WUAs offers several kinds of benefits:

Studies throughout the world demonstrate that user participation in irrigation services improves access to information, reduces monitoring costs, establishes a sense of ownership among farmers and increases transparency as well as accountability in decision making.170

165. INPIM website: [].

167. K. Oblitas and J. R. Peter, 1999, pp. 1 and 2.

168. M. W Rosegrant and H. P. Binswanger, 1994, p. 1615 [emphasis added].

To put it in another way, perhaps the main advantage of water user associations is that, properly organized, they can be effective control mechanisms for reducing or eliminating the 'free rider' problem, which in this case would consist of some farmers receiving irrigation water without making proportionate contributions to system management and maintenance.171

Mexico has advanced rapidly in turning over management of irrigation systems to WUAs, under a scheme in which the latter handle tertiary distribution, frequently over areas covering tens of thousands of hectares. Users also belong to corporations, whose shareholders sometimes are WUAs, which control and operate the main canals. While it is still too soon to evaluate the longer-term effects of that program, a survey-based evaluation of results in four irrigation districts was carried out after one or two years of experience, with the length of the experience depending on the date of the transfer. Some of the principal findings of this evaluation in Mexico were summarized by Cecilia Gorriz, Ashok Subramanian and José Simas as follows:

• About 80 percent of the surveyed farmers . . . said that with the transfer of the district to WUAs, there were improvements in water management, and in timely and adequate water delivery and maintenance of the irrigation systems.

• About 45 percent of the farmers believed that water fees were high.

• About 30 percent of farmers had problems of salinity primarily due to inadequate drainage systems and poor on-farm water use. .. .

• Most of the irrigation districts have reached financial self-sufficiency, but large variations in water availability had affected revenues of the WUAs, which must endure financial difficulties in years of water shortages or heavy rainfall.

• For the most part.. . . users claimed that irrigation service had improved: structures were being better maintained even though they needed rehabilitation; there was interest in improving the on-farm irrigation systems; in improving the technological level of water distribution; and in technical assistance to users. The users greatly appreciated the training and technical assistance provided by the [National Water Commission] and the [Mexican Institute of Water Technology].

However, the qualifications to these positive results are illuminating and are likely to arise in other circumstances as well:

• The transfer of the four irrigation districts to the WUAs led to reductions in the number of staff causing dissatisfaction among National Water Commission personnel.

• While the farmers have obtained a greater leverage in water management than before the transfer, they have had to substantially increase their contributions to O & M of the sub-system under their management and on-farm capital improvements.111

The benefit of WUAs that is most commonly confirmed is a reduction in government fiscal outlays for managing irrigation schemes, in exchange for greater contributions by farmers of cash and labor. Frequently, the management by farmers is also more efficient so that the total cost of management is reduced, independently of

171. This point is brought out in Elinor Ostrom, Larry Schroeder, and Susan Wynne, Institutional Incentives and Sustainable Development: Infrastructure Policies in Perspective, Westview Press, Boulder, CO, USA, 1993, pp. 136-137.

172. Cecilia M. Gorriz, Ashok Subramanian and José Simas, Irrigation Management Transfer in Mexico: Process and Progress, World Bank Technical Paper No. 292, The World Bank, Washington, DC, USA, 1995, p. 38 [emphasis in original]. These findings are based on a survey carried out by the Colegio de Postgraduados, Mexico: Diagnóstico sobre la Administración de los Módulos Operados por las Asociaciones de Usuarios, Mexico City, Mexico, 1994.

The cost savings from local irrigation management were remarkable in an experience analyzed in Chile:

In Chile, the State management of a 60 000 hectare irrigated area on Río Digullín involved five engineers, eight to ten technicians, fifteen to twenty trucks, and five bulldozers, compared to one engineer, two technicians, one secretary, and two trucks under farmer management of the same area. Because farmers work collabora-tively with engineers and technicians, they are fully aware of the 'true' costs of running the irrigation systems, and for this reason perceive that the water fee charges they pay, even if they are high, are 'believable' costs. .. . (R. Meinzen-Dick, et al., 1997, p. 90).

which entity is funding those costs. Meinzen-Dick et al. have documented this benefit extensively:

The most tangible and well-documented gain from farmers' involvement in irrigation is the reduction in government costs. These cost savings come from reduced administrative and operations costs as the number of staff fielded decreases, better project design, increased fee collection rates, and decrease in the destruction of facilities. Numerous country experiences support this claim. For example, Bagadion and Korten (1991)173 estimated an annual savings to the Philippine Government amounting to US$12 per hectare from the contributions of the irrigation associations in terms of man-hours spent on management, maintenance, repair, and improvement activities; water distribution and fee collection; and direct cash outlays for canal repairs and supplies and materials.174

The Senegalese experience provides another illustration of cost reductions and efficiency improvements when management of irrigation is transferred to farmers, albeit at the expense of higher costs to the latter:

Under agency management, irrigation fees and service quality were both low. The agency provided maintenance and paid for electricity on an irregular basis, leading to highly unreliable irrigation services. Agency field staff were poorly supervised, and would therefore turn on pumps and leave. This resulted in over-pumping and system breakdowns. By contrast, WUAs provided more careful supervision of staff, reducing over-pumping and thereby cutting electricity costs by up to 50 percent. Other cost savings came from WUAs paying staff less than full civil service rates. Nevertheless, because WUAs had to pay for full electricity consumption along with maintenance and a fund for pump replacement, farmers' fees increased by two to four times.. . .175

It is clear that under local management of irrigation systems, at least a portion of the savings in costs to governments takes the form of increased costs for farmers. Presumably, the principal gain for farmers is increased reliability of service, but in almost all cases they end up paying more for the service after the transfer of responsibilities:

Although total cost reductions are possible, in practice, farmers' costs usually increase with the transfer of irrigation management responsibility to the WUAs. . .. Part of the reason is the removal of State subsidies with management transfers. If irrigation service fees were below full O&M costs prior to transfer and WUAs are expected to assume full costs after transfer, farmers' contributions have to

173. B. U. Bagadion and F. F. Korten, 'Developing Irrigators' Organizations: A Learning Process Approach', in M. M. Cernea (Ed.), Putting People First: Sociological Variables in Rural Development, 2nd Edn, The World Bank, Washington, DC, USA, 1991.

175. Ibid.

increase (unless efficiency gains are great enough to make up for the loss of State subsidies). For example, irrigation fees in Mexico increased fourfold to sixfold when WUAs took over and had to cover full O&M costs. Johnson (1993)176 shows that expansion in local participation in Indonesian pump schemes resulted in water charges that were five to seven times higher than those imposed by the government, but the new fees still covered only 30 to 50 percent of pumping costs.177

For this reason, the financial viability of WUAs will depend on the magnitude of monetary and transaction costs that farmers have to assume, in relation to their income levels (Meinzen-Dick et al, 1997, p. 21).

After fiscal savings, the second most commonly observed benefit of WUAs is increased efficiency in the operation of the irrigation scheme. Meinzen-Dick et al. (1997, p. 87) have compiled several examples, as follows:

Improved efficiency of water deliveries (reduced water losses) saved 25 to 30 percent of irrigation supplies after the WUA took control in Azua, the Dominican Republic. This, in turn, reduced the need for drainage and related investments In Nepal, water is more efficiently distributed in smaller farmer-controlled systems during the wet season than in larger systems. . . . More equitable water distribution has been a positive attribute of farmer-managed pump systems in Bangladesh . . . and of the introduction of WUAs in Gal Oya, Sri Lanka.

Part of the gain in efficiency is attributable to a lower rate of damage to facilities and to more prompt responses to instances of damage or degradation:

To provide adequate water to their members, WUAs are likely to pay more attention to maintaining the canals and headworks. Farmer members in Taiwan carry out routine patrolling and inspections to ensure the proper upkeep of systems.. . . Technicians hired by the users' association do regular 'policing' in Chile. Because they are in direct radio contact with farmers, problems can usually be corrected within an hour, compared to weeks of bureaucratic delay under agency management. ... in Sri Lanka [it was] noted that farmers who had damaged facilities began taking greater care of them after they were organized into water groups with a common interest in the irrigation system. . . .17S

These gains in efficiency are sometimes associated with more effective resolution of conflicts. Another observation regarding the Gal Oya project in Sri Lanka was that:

[the users'] groups discussed their problems and communicated with the government irrigation department staff. This process has greatly improved communications between farmers and government officials. Conflict among farmers has declined substantially, and the improved system provides more water for farmers at the tail end of the system. Careful to separate their organizations from party politics, the farmers have also eased ethnic tensions. In one area cooperating farmers cleared a canal allowing 1000 hectares to be cultivated in the dry season, which had previously been left fallow.179

An example from Tunisia suggests that another benefit of WUAs can be greater flexibility in irrigated cropping patterns. Over time, this advantage can translate into higher farm incomes than

176. S. H. I. Johnson, Can Farmers Afford to Use the Wells after Turnover? A Study of Pump Irrigation Turnover in Indonesia, Short Report Series on Irrigation Management Transfer, No. 1, International Irrigation Management Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1993.

Farmer-managed irrigation schemes have a long tradition in Nepal, where 70 percent of all irrigation is controlled by farmers. Nevertheless, the government had been heavily involved in developing new irrigation, with poor results. With a shift in approach, the government now promotes farmer management as a way to improve irrigation performance and to reduce the financial burden on the government of developing and operating irrigation systems. . .. The results are impressive. In the first two years of operation, forty-three surface subprojects of the [World Bank's] Irrigation Line of Credit were completed out of sixty-one subprojects processed. . . and eighty-one tubewells were drilled. .. . The project's success is due to the enthusiastic cooperation of farmers and the good dialogue between government officials and farmers. Having water user associations take ownership and responsibility for oversight improved the quality of construction, adding a much-needed element of transparency in the use of government resources. The associations created strong organizations that achieved good cost recovery and levied penalties on members who fail to abide by the rules. Many associations are also involved in other aspects of community development (The World Bank, 1993, p. 103).

otherwise would be the case. The Tunisian experience also illustrates how government and users' associations can share costs:

Water user associations have existed in Tunisia for most of this century, with the French colonial government introducing their legal basis in 1913. The Government of Tunisia reaffirmed the legal status of the associations by legislation enacted in 1975 and in 1987. During the 1970s, however, the government became increasingly involved in developing irrigation.

Recognizing the financial burden and inefficiency of this situation, in the mid-1980s the government began to strengthen water users associations and to allow more involvement by the private sector.. . . The most success has come in the south, where associations now control practically all tubewell irrigation schemes, ranging in size from 50 to 200 hectares. The farmers are responsible for all O&M, including hiring the appropriate labor and paying for electricity. The associations are well structured technically and financially. While they perform routine repairs, the Government performs large repairs, receiving a small contribution from the associations. One notable achievement of involving user associations is that farmers have greater flexibility to respond to changes in market demand for different crops. Previous government control precluded much flexibility.180

Another example of the flexibility of cropping patterns facilitated by farmers' management of irrigation, and its benefits, is provided by the experience of the Mohini Water Distribution Cooperative (Society) in Gujarat, India:

[It] would not show a profit if is maintained the planned cropping patterns. ... At present prices, the society makes a profit only if the major area is put under sugarcane. If the major area was under food grains, the society would make losses. The Mohini Society became a financial success because more than 85% of the area was put under sugarcane, instead of the prescribed 18%.181

Positive effects of WUAs on the process of project identification and design and on the quality of project construction also have been observed. In the case of small-scale irrigation projects in Ethiopia, 'Over 40 water user groups voluntarily formed at the time of initiation then fully participated in scheme identification and

construction. These groups have assumed total responsibility for operation and maintenance'.182

Results have become available from a systematic multi-country review of experiences with transfer of irrigation management, carried out three to five years after the transfer by the International Irrigation Management Institute (IIMI) in Sri Lanka, Colombia, Indonesia and India. Some of the principal findings of that work, which show that the effects of WUAs are not always unambiguously positive, have been summarized by Doug Vermillion, as follows:

• Does irrigation management transfer (IMT) reduce government expenditure for operation and maintenance? The answer is a definite 'yes,' with the qualification that IMT sometimes did not directly cause the reduction but at least generally supported a broader policy of reduction.

• Does IMT result in improved quality of irrigation service to farmers? In the four sample countries, IMT did not cause dramatic changes in irrigation intensity or in the adequacy or equity of water distribution during the first three to five years after IMT. There is evidence from the Colombian case that in pump schemes, irrigation delivery efficiency did improve after IMT. Farmers in all four countries reported improvements in communications and responsiveness to farmer needs by management staff after IMT. . ..

• Does maintenance of irrigation infrastructure improve after IMT? Results are mixed. In India and in run-of-river schemes in Colombia maintenance has improved. But in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and for expensive lift schemes in Colombia, it is apparent that some continuation of government subsidy or a more clear policy about rehabilitation is needed.

• Does IMT result in higher agricultural productivity? The results are mixed between and within countries, depending on many factors. In general, where changes do occur, they are not dramatic.

• Does IMT result in higher economic productivity? Again, results are mixed. It is evident that IMT has not undercut the profitability of irrigated agriculture. . ..

• Do farmers pay more for irrigation after IMT? Yes, they do pay more.183

In spite of mixed empirical results from the early years of these particular IMT experiences, in general the results are convincing enough that this approach has gathered considerable momentum in all parts of the world. The strength of this consensus was reflected in remarks by Hatusya Azumi of the World Bank's Economic Development Institute:

How important is participatory irrigation management (PIM)? I believe that participatory irrigation management is the single most important step that governments can take to improve the productivity and sustainability of irrigation systems. Let me repeat this statement: 'participatory irrigation management is the single most important step that governments can take to improve the productivity and sus-taxability of irrigation systems'.184

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