Nieuws - 2 november 1995

A closer look at irrigation bureaucracies

A closer look at irrigation bureaucracies

From a strong belief in technocratic solutions during the 50's to a focus on water users in the 70's, the irrigation debate has now reached the realization that reform of irrigation management bureaucracies is necessary if the performance of large irrigation systems is to be improved. Above all improving accountability seems to be a key issue for change.

The organisational principles underlying successful self-governing systems should be used by policy makers in designing reform programs for the management of large systems. Irrigation systems managed by system-specific organisations that are both financially and organisationally autonomous and accountable to their customers - the water users - perform better and are more sustainable than systems managed by agencies that are financially and organisationally dependent on government." This is the basic hypothesis of the paper presented by visiting researcher Dr Douglas Merrey, at a seminar last Friday, October 25 in the Department of Irrigation and Soil and Water Conservation.

Merrey is a researcher at the International Irrigation Management Institute (IIMI) in Sri Lanka and has carried out extensive research on institutional aspects of irrigation management. Although it is still a point of discussion, the fact that water users are better able to manage irrigation practice than the responsible agencies is widely accepted. Due to cutbacks in public expenditure during the 1980's, irrigation management agencies encouraged the handing over of operation and maintenance to water users. In many cases, however, these government agencies still retain control over the main system and its financial management.

Merrey explains: The objective of the paper I presented is to point out the directions of change, but I do not present a strategy. In most cases irrigation management agencies are rather conservative. They want to solve specific problems on their own, often by making cosmetic changes and not fundamental changes to sharing benefits and responsibilities between the management and water users, which are necessary." Merrey believes that a process should be designed through which irrigation management staff themselves decide which changes they will have to make in the long run. Development organisations should provide assistance at the level of training in management principles and structured strategic planning in order to create the preconditions for good relations between parties which are accountable to each other.


Merrey sees a dilemma in the work of organisations like IIMI. It is partly a research institute and partly an agent of change. He feels that a lot of excellent research and consultancy work is simply being shelved, since the irrigation agencies usually react defensively to criticism and tend to ignore the conclusions of such research. Merrey believes that research and change agencies must be actively involved in developing the solutions as well, and should encourage the active participation of all parties involved. Peter Mollinga of the Department of Irrigation challenges Merrey's hypothesis.

At the same seminar Mollinga presented a case study from South India in which he made clear that relations of accountability should be situated in a wider context of economic and political relations. He explained that the assumption that improving accountability will lead to good performance obscures the existence of relations of dependency within the agrarian structure as well as in the wider political context. One of the examples that Mollinga presented in the case of South India was that small farmers deal with anticipated water scarcity by growing dry crops whereas bigger farmers situated at the beginning of the canal system use water to grow rice and sugar cane. Despite formal agreements on equal distribution of water, the big farmers apparently are not held accountable for the fact that they take a bigger share of the water. The reasons for this lie in the social relations between different types of farmers, for instance concerning employment and credit relations.


Merrey does not find his approach incompatible with that of Mollinga. He continues, If you want to present, like I did in my paper, institutional principles that policy makers can use in designing reform programmes on the basis of comparative analysis, then you have to leave out detailed contextual information on specific cases of irrigation practice. On the other hand results from research like Mollinga's are needed when designing an intervention strategy. Such a strategy has to be based on cultural principles and power relations in a specific situation." Merrey has mixed feelings about the fact that IIMI's attention is shifting more and more towards research on policy changes at the macro level. He continues, It would be very unfortunate if IIMI, when studying the irrigation agencies, did not pay attention to issues of policy implementation and trying to understand how they can be changed effectively." Merrey concludes: There is still plenty of work for
Wageningen on this front."