Telegraph Nepal: It was in 1991 when I first visited Nepal as a graduate student at Indiana University, working on a research project on the management of common pool resources under the leadership of Professor Elinor Ostrom. To get myself prepared for the visit, I had been reading case studies of irrigation management in Nepal written by some very experienced researchers and practitioners. These case studies are extremely valuable. They not only allowed me to learn about irrigation management of Nepal and the country, but more importantly provided a rich body of information for our research team to construct a Nepal Irrigation Institutions and System (NIIS) database by coding information described in these case studies.
The 1991 visit was a real eye-opening experience for me. Being someone who was brought up in a big city where people take for granted that food comes from the supermarket and water comes from the water tap, I was impressed with what I saw in the field. Even though I had learnt from the case studies that farmers in many irrigation systems in Nepal had to deal with a perilous physical environment in trying to make water available to their fields, I could not help being startled when I saw for myself what a perilous physical environment could mean in Nepal. I was amazed to see how farmers in many systems, despite the challenging physical environment, were able to engage in all kinds of genius collective action to manage their systems effectively. Many people often assume that irrigation management is merely a matter of technological fixes, and that water will start to flow in canals once irrigation infrastructure is put in place.
During the visit, I was surprised to see how some very sophisticated infrastructure, much of which was invested by the government and international donors, had become inoperable due to a lack of proper maintenance and use; at the same time I also observed how farmers in disparate locations in Nepal made use of rudimentary materials and local knowledge to create marvels. For someone who had always thought that the onus of public problem-solving was upon government, what I observed during the visit built in me a deep appreciation of the importance and power of self-governance in not only irrigation management but in all domains of human endeavor; such appreciation has since continued to grow as I have learned more and more about farmer- managed irrigation systems in Nepal and elsewhere.
With the excellent work by researchers who have a deep interest in Farmer-managed irrigation systems in Nepal in the last several decades, we have accumulated a rich body of knowledge about irrigation management and institutions. Three lessons are of particular importance to the policy and academic circles. First, irrigation management is by its very nature a series of “socio-technical” processes that not only involve effective operation of irrigation infrastructure but also require productive collective action among users and managers of an irrigation system. Local farmers who appropriate water from an irrigation system are not simply system users but important actors in the management of the system. The ways they relate to one another and the infrastructure is a major determinant of irrigation performance and system robustness. Much research evidence has shown that technological fixes do not necessarily bring about irrigation performance; in fact in many instances, improved infrastructure has inadvertently attenuated the power asymmetries between head enders and tail enders in an irrigation system which, in turn, adversely affected farmers’ collective action (Lam et al.. 1997; Lam 1998).
Second, evidence from many communities across Nepal has suggested that local farmers not only cope with collective action problems, but they are also capable of crafting rules to govern their own systems. The potential of self- governance is by no means trivial. In Nepal and elsewhere, some of the oldest, most long-enduring irrigation systems have been constructed, governed and maintained by farmers themselves for a long period of time (Yoder, 1986, 1994; Ganesh et al., 2005). Research has also suggested that, even in irrigation systems that are governed by government agencies, a certain degree of self-governance at the field level is essential to effective operation of the systems (Chambers, 1988; Lam 1996b).
Third, self-governance does not just exist, but is fostered and sustained by institutions that regulate farmers’ interaction concerning irrigation operation and maintenance. Research in the last several decades has provided solid evidence that well-designed local institutions can facilitate trust and reciprocity among farmers; such social capital provides the basis for collective action among farmers and, hence, irrigation performance. In particular, based upon careful theoretical analysis and meta-analysis of a large number of empirical case studies, Professor Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues have identified eight principles of institutional design for robust governance of CPRs: (1) clearly defined boundaries, (2) congruence between rules and physical conditions, (3) collective-choice arrangements, (4) monitoring, (5) graduated sanctions, (6) conflict-resolution mechanisms, (7) minimal recognition of rights to organize, and (8) nested enterprises (Ostrom, 1990, 1992, 2005).
While we have gone a long way in understanding the design and performance of irrigation institutions, there is no ground for complacency. Although the diagnosis that neither a bureaucratic mode of governance nor technological fixes is a panacea for irrigation performance seems to be straightforward, the solution is not as simple as many might have expected. In the last decades, governments in many Asian developing countries, often with the assistance of international donor agencies, have embarked on various intervention programs that aim at developing new institutional frameworks for irrigation management.
An exemplar of these efforts is the management-transfer programs in many countries that aim at turning over the authority and responsibility of irrigation operation and maintenance in agency-managed irrigation systems to farmers using the systems (Vermillion, 1991). ‘The results of these and many other intervention programs, however, have been mixed (Lam l996a; Shivakoti and Ostrom, 2002). In many instances, farmers perceived the management-transfer exercise to be an excuse of shirking on the part of government. Perhaps the important lessons that one can learn from these experiences are that (1) one cannot take for granted that farmers will automatically organize themselves, and (2) the “blueprint” approach to jumpstart local irrigation institutions is not viable. To develop effective local irrigation institutions requires a good understanding of not only the nuts and bolts of institutional design, but more importantly the dynamic of institutional change. Unfortunately, except for some notable exceptions, much of the irrigation research in the last several decades has focused on the static question of what kind of institutional designs are more likely to bring about good irrigation performance; relatively little attention has been given to the question of how institutions evolve and change in response to changes in the broader context. To better understand institutional change, the analysts need to develop a dynamic explanation of institutional change by focusing on the interaction between individual choice, institutional design, macro political-economic context, and the nesting of local institutions within the broader institutional context.
In the following, let me share with you some of the findings of an on-going research project that seeks to understand the dynamic complexity and performance of a very innovative irrigation assistance project that was initially taken in Nepal more than 25 years ago. In 1985, the Water and Energy Commission Secretariat (WECS) of Nepal and the International Irrigation Management Institute (IMI) developed an ingenious intervention program for 19 irrigation systems located in the Indrawati River watershed in Sindhupalchok District which tried to overcome the “best practices” trap that prevailed at the time in regard to assisting irrigation systems. The funding support was provided by FORD Foundation, New Delhi. The project was designed by Prachanda Pradhan and Robert Yoder who had long experience with farmer-managed systems and had observed the failures of many expensive interventions that had imposed their own designs without any involvement of the farmers (Pradhan, 1989a, 1989b; Yoder, 1986, 1991, 1994).
Instead of simply spending large funds and imposing a top-down planning process, the WECS/IMI project extensively involved farmers in deciding what should be done. Specifically, the project was innovative in several aspects: (1) the farmers could choose whether to be involved or not; (2) the project provided technical assistance but purposively did not provide full funding for engineering improvements and the farmers were expected to provide core labor and some materials; (3) the farmers had to provide a full rank ordering of the improvements that they desired; (4) the farmers examined the engineering plans and had to approve them before they were implemented (in other words, the farmers had a veto over engineering plans that were not consistent with their preferences); (5) if the farmers were able to reduce the monetary expenditures for the highest-ranked projects by their own contributions, the released funds were then allocated to the next ranked project on the farmers’ lists; (6) participating farmers were expected to go through “farmer-to-farmer” training offered by some of the more productive irrigation systems in Nepal; and (7) each farmer group was expected to write its own internal set of working rules that covered how future decisions would be made for their system.
In an effort to understand the impact of this intervention, our research team entered the data collected by the WECS/IMI team in a database we had already created, called the Nepal Irrigation and Institutions (NIIS) database (Lam, 1996a, 1998). In our NIIS database, we were already coding variables related to various physical and institutional features as well as irrigation performance of the systems we were able to study in the field. By augmenting the data collected by the WECS/IIMI team in 1985 about the systems before the intervention, this “Time Slice 1″ serves as a benchmark against which the impact of the intervention can be assessed. In 1991, members of research team visited these same 19 systems to conduct a second round of data collection using the coding instruments developed for the NIIS database. The collected information describes the action situations of the systems a few years after the intervention, which constitutes the “Time Slice 2″ data. In an earlier study, Ganesh Shivakoti and I compared performance at Time Slice I and Time Slice 2 and found that looking at the intervention as a one-shot process of transferring resources to the farmers did not fully explain the patterns found in 1991. A better explanation was generated by looking at both the direct and mediating effects of an intervention (Lam and Shivakoti, 2002). The analysis corroborated the argument that intervention should “enhance” rather than “replace” the efforts of local farmers in irrigation management (Shrestha, 1988).
To assess the long-term sustainability of the intervention effect of the WECS/IIMI project, our research team visited the 19 systems again in 1999 (eight years after the second visit). Using the same coding forms, the team collected information on the physical and social aspects of the systems, as well as performance measures. The information collected constitutes the core of the “Time Slice 3″ data. To supplement the NIIS data and to capture the processes of evolution and change of the systems, the team visited the systems again in 2001 to conduct a series of intensive qualitative interviews. In-depth interviews were conducted, focusing on the processes of change in performance and institutional arrangements. In particular, farmers were asked to identify major disturbances since the intervention, and to discuss how the disturbances impinged upon the evolution of rules and collective action.
The availability of both qualitative and quantitative information on the 19 systems in three time slices allowed us not only to study how irrigation performance had changed over time, but more importantly to trace and examine the unfolding patterns of improved engineering infrastructure across time depending on the way it interacts with other factors to affect long-term irrigation performance. We conducted statistical analyses to study the change of irrigation performance over time, and examine some of the key variables that are likely to affect the diverse and complex patterns of change. We also undertook analysis of the configural impact of core variables using Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA).
Before I report to you some of the preliminary findings of our analysis, let me emphasize that the lessons that our study has to offer are general and cannot be picked up and applied routinely in other settings without knowledge of these settings. We hope that our findings provide insights to how it is possible to help farmers help themselves to maintain better irrigation facilities and greater agricultural outcomes without massive infusion of funds.
Our analysis of the changing patterns of irrigation performance of the 19 systems has shed light on how the intervention has affected irrigation performance over time. We have found that the effects of intervention on the technical aspects of irrigation management are conspicuous in the short run. Due to improved infrastructure, the size of irrigated area increased and the technical efficiency of the irrigation systems also improved. Yet these positive effects dissipated, or leveled off, in the longer run. In particular, the analysis has suggested that the improvement of technical efficiency has withered away in almost all of the systems. Such a situation should come as no surprise. For farmers who engage in constant struggle with the challenging environment, working together to fix and rebuild their systems is simply part of effective irrigation management. In fact, in some irrigation systems in Nepal, the diversion structure is built of primitive materials intentionally so that during the monsoon season water could be stopped from getting into the system to flood the canals and farmers’ fields (Lam, 1998). Given the challenging environment, to maintain a high level of technical efficiency by continual infrastructure investment is not, and should not be, a realistic objective.
Does it mean that infrastructure fixes are irrelevant to efforts helping farmers to improve irrigation management and performance? The answer is negative. Our analysis has suggested that, in most of the 19 systems involved in the WECS/IIMI project, the improved technical efficiency of irrigation infrastructure did bring about an improvement in water adequacy, which has persisted even after the improved technical efficiency withered away. The WECS/IIMI intervention was designed to involve farmers in the processes of’ planning and implementing the infrastructure works to the extent possible. The infrastructure improvement works provided not only incentives for farmers, who could see for themselves how their effort could make a difference, but also effective opportunities for farmers to develop working relationships with one another. As long as a good working order can be maintained, a high level of water adequacy can be achieved. Maintaining a good working order, of course, is no less a challenge than coping with the capricious physical environment. It requires a mastery of human artisanship-the abilities and skills required for working with one another for mutual betterment. A major focus of the WECS/IIMI intervention was to help farmers improve such abilities and skills and to avoid swamping them with expensive works that might make them dependent on external aid. Through farmer-to-farmer training, getting the farmers involved in project implementation, identifying local leaders, and helping farmers to work out rules, the intervention set the momentum for farmers’ self-organization.
Another major finding of our analysis is that continual infrastructure investment can bring about persistent improvement in water adequacy only if farmers have been able to develop a set of written rules for system operation and maintenance. This suggests that the debate about whether physical infrastructure or social infrastructure is more important is misplaced; neither of them would work without the other. Our analysis has also found that invention projects might help bring in infrastructural investment and put in place formal rules in an irrigation system, these two factors by themselves. However, are not sufficient to bring about effective outcome. Either they have to be complemented by a certain degree of collective action among farmers based upon common understanding and norms, or, in systems in which farmers’ collective action does not exist, they have to be backed up by strict implementation of fines without a strong leader dominating the management of the systems.
Third, our analysis has found that in systems in which there are written rules. consistent leadership, a certain degree of farmers’ collective action, and also strict implementation of fines, one can find persistent improvement in tail-end water adequacy no matter whether there has been infrastructure investment or not. This pattern suggests that, to make up for the positive impact of continual infrastructure investment, heavy investment in institutional development and social capital has to be made to sustain the positive impact of the intervention. An implication is that there is a limit as to the positive impact of continual infrastructure investment that can be substituted. Our analysis has found that for systems that have not received any infrastructure assistance since the completion of the WECS/IIMI project, collective action of farmers becomes an extremely important factor affecting irrigation performance.
While developing robust local institutions to support the operation and maintenance of engineering infrastructure should not be viewed as a panacea, it needs to be part of the design of projects intended to have a long-term, positive impact on a high proportion of systems that receive external assistance. Further, the designers of projects can learn from, as well as contribute to, the knowledge base of local farmers. When farmers have no voice in the design of systems that are supposed to help them, we can expect few successes over time. More importantly, before one asks the question of what can be done to help the farmers improve irrigation performance, one has to appreciate the challenges and complexity involved in managing irrigation in a region where the natural environment is hostile and the material condition is in general austere.
Given their different history and social-political backgrounds prior to the intervention, the 19 systems in our study have taken on different paths for self-organization. Some have been able to build upon the momentum and thrived; others have failed to sustain the physical improvements achieved early in the process. It would be naïve to think there is a single recipe for developing human artisanship. Yet our analysis has suggested that as long as farmers are willing to maintain a certain level of collective action, and a core of local entrepreneurs exists to provide leadership and adjustments to changes, it is possible for the farmers to build on the momentum introduced by the intervention to attain consistently high levels of performance over time.
Text Courtesy from the book: Farmer Managed Irrigation Systems Promotion Trust, 2010.
Thanks the publishers and the author. Special permission from Professor Upendra Gautam: Ed.
Published already in the Telegraph Weekly.
By: Wa Fung Lam, Associate Professor, University of Hong Kong
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