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Blog Post
20 February 2018
Author: Andrew Noble

Time for a rethink: large scale irrigation systems in South and Southeast Asia

Children catching fish in an irrigation canal Cambodia

Photo by: Andrew Noble

The discourse associated with irrigated agriculture often highlights the challenges that are faced with respect to inefficiencies, underperformance and impacts on the hydrological cycle, particularly the publicly owned and managed large-scale irrigation systems (LSIS) that dominate transitional economies in South Asia and Southeast Asia. These public assets account for about 115 million hectares or approximately 45% of the total area under irrigation in the region. Globally LSIS constitute 130 million hectares out of a total global irrigated area of 320 million hectare, a significant asset.

If one goes further and estimates the economic value of the primary crop production that is generated from LSIS globally, a figure of US$ 355 billion annually has been calculated by Langford et al (2016). To put this in perspective, this level of economic output is equivalent to the world’s sixth largest company ranked by revenue on the Forbes Global 2000 list of May 2014 (above the Volkswagen Group, Toyota and PetroChina)! LSIS are clearly an asset that has been unrecognized and economically undervalued. Though they should be viewed as important national assets with an economic status equivalent to that of large companies that operate in these countries, today this is not the case.

These systems produce significant quantities of calorie-rich and agro-industrial crops that include rice wheat, cotton and sugarcane to name a few, with implications for local and global food security and in addressing poverty. LSIS also alter the hydrology and water quality of rivers through diversion, consumption and return flows that significantly impact the timing and nature of water-based ecosystem services. Yet LSIS, when distributing water by gravity and managed effectively, use far less energy than equivalent pressurized sprinkler and drip systems, and thus reduce their own carbon footprint. LSIS are central to the nexus between food, climate change, energy and environmental accountability and can substantively contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda.

LSIS – rice in Cambodia

Photo by: Andrew Noble

Though LSIS’s play a significant role in rural employment, livelihoods and ensuring food security, there are clear deficiencies in their management and governance that often lead to their underperformance. A majority  of these deficiencies are due to: 1. Repeated donor and government funded cycles of ‘build-neglect-rebuild’ that is common in these systems; 2. Below par financial performance; 3. Under productivity  in water, land and labour; 4. The large volumes of water that are diverted and poor irrigation efficiencies within the system adversely impact water governance at the basin level and limit allocation of water for other users and the environment. Further, if one considers the entire sector as a whole, there has been a systemic decline in capacity development, in addition to investments in irrigation research being substantially less than what the sector warrants considering its importance.

Lankford et al (2016) suggested a course change in the way we manage LSIS. They propose a ‘theory of change (TOC)’ as a foundation for promoting transformational change centred around a ‘global irrigation compact’ that results in new forms of leadership, partnership and ownership. The compact argues that LSIS can change by moving away from current model of channeling aid controlled by government irrigation agencies. It should instead be given directly to irrigators that will closely partner with private, public and NGO advisory and regulatory services to develop strong leadership models and foster new compensatory alliances with cities and other river basin neighbours.

Cambodia headworks of a canal

Photo by: Andrew Noble

There are three dominant pathways to management for governments, donors and investors. These are (1) Largely ignore large-scale irrigation (which is arguably a version of the current ‘business-as-usual’); (2)  Increase expenditures on reforming LSIS, but via ‘business-as-usual’ models such as ‘patronage-with-participation’ (which may minimally alter performance); and (3) Increase investment and/or change the types of investment in LSIS, along with innovative reform. The proposed global irrigation compact recognizes the need for increased emphasis on sharing resources, knowledge, problems, risks and benefits by and between more stakeholder groups, especially irrigators. This is a high-stakes, high-rewards policy that not only questions decades of historical effort and sunk-capital, but also it builds on it. Adopting either of the first two pathways is a genuine risk that should be discouraged. It is time to take action and adopt this new approach.

Based on the paper: Langford, B.A., Makin, I., Mathews, N., Noble, A., McCornick, P.G. and Shah, T. 2016. A compact to revitalize large-scale irrigation systems using a leadership-partnership-ownership ‘theory of change’. Water Alternatives 9:1-32.


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