Wetenschap - 1 januari 1970

Irrigation is not only about technology but also politics

Irrigation is not only about technology but also politics

Dr Peter Mollinga is hoping for a revolution in the way engineers and
policy makers approach irrigation in South Asia. Together with Professor
Linden Vincent and Professor Franz von Benda-Beckmann he managed to get
financing from the Ford Foundation for a research programme ‘Matching
Technology and Institutions in Land and Water Management in South Asia’.
The first two of the nine PhDs financed by the programme graduated last

Mollinga is a lecturer in the Irrigation and Water Management group at
Wageningen University, but has spent the last two years living and working
in India, where he is doing his own research and supervising PhD students
carrying out research using a socio-technical approach, the trademark of
the group. He supervises them together with Professors Vincent and Benda-
Beckmann and Dik Roth. The unifying theme of the research projects is the
influence that the technical design of irrigation systems has on the social
organisation of the users and conversely, the ways in which users groups
design and use their technology.

Many large-scale irrigation systems in South Asia were designed in the
1960s and 70s by governments and big donor organisations such as the World
Bank, without paying much attention to the needs of farmers. The systems
were set up by engineers with technical training who did not look further
than their own discipline. The majority of engineers in South Asia are
still mono-disciplinary. Mollinga wants to change this, and hopes to awaken
the sensitivity of engineers and policy makers to the social and political
context. This requires an interdisciplinary approach. Social organisation,
and negotiations and conflicts about water between users, are inseparable
from technological designs. The research by the first PhD candidates in the
Ford Programme confirms this.

It is not only the Ford Foundation that has shown interest in the approach
adopted by the research programme. The publishing company Orient Longman
has decided to publish the theses that the project produces to publish as
accessible books in the form of a series entitled the Wageningen University
Water Resources Series. The series was launched last week and the first
books were presented to Dr Ujjwal Pradhan of the Ford Foundation and
Professor Aalt Dijkhuizen, President of the executive board of Wageningen
University and Research Centre. Pradhan had words of praise for Wageningen
UR, calling Wageningen a centre for interdisciplinary thought capable of
making a considerable contribution through the project to the professional
development of managers in South Asia. Dijkhuizen confirmed that water
management is an area of growing interest in Wageningen. He praised the
interdisciplinary approach of the research and said that it was important
this approach continues to receive attention. He said he was glad to see
that researchers have been successful in finding external finance for their

Success of decentralisation depends on how technical designs are applied

Governments in South Asia want to transfer the responsibility for the
management of irrigation systems from the government to small water users
organisations. Whether this decentralisation is successful depends not only
on the technical design of the system but also on the extent to which the
users and policy makers understand the system and can adjust it to their
own situation.

The idea behind decentralisation is that water users associations become
responsible for water distribution. The reasons for this can vary,
according to Dr Vishal Narain, who examined two large-scale irrigation
systems in India. They include government cutbacks, more efficient use of
water, the perceived need to transfer power to farmers, or conditions
placed on loans by donor organisations. Narain’s point is that policy
makers do not always take into account whether a technical design of an
irrigation system also makes decentralisation possible. In a system where
fixed quantities of water are distributed during each time unit, water
users organisations may formally be given power, but in practice little
will change in the management system. The users organisations remain a
means in the hands of the central bureaucracy unless they organise jointly
and manage to change the whole system.

In a system where it is possible to regulate the water delivery by placing
adjustable devices in irrigation canals, water users organisation can gain
significance by for example fighting illegal siphoning off of water. This
is what Dr Puspa Raj Khanal’s research is about. He examined three medium-
sized irrigation systems in South Nepal. He also discovered that
decentralisation does not always work. In addition to the technical design,
the way in which farmers participate is also decisive. Participation is a
buzzword at present, above all because donors require it. But very often
predetermined rules are used to implement this which are not relevant or
adjusted to the local conditions. A water users organisation may be set up
but does not work because farmers are not given sufficient chance to learn
how to use it. In situations where the groups are taken seriously and can
organise in a way that is well adapted to local conditions, water
management is more successful.

Joris Tielens