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View the documentPaper 11 Small-scale irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa: a balanced view
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Paper 11 Small-scale irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa: a balanced view

Richard Carter

Silsoe College, Silsoe, Bedford

Summary: Small-scale or farmer-managed irrigation (SSI), is a promising vehicle for rural development. It can offer the farmer increased security of crop production, while avoiding many of the problems which have been experienced by large scale, formal irrigation projects. The experience of SSI can also provide pointers to the improved management of existing large scale projects. The conditions for successful small farmer irrigation development are set out, together with the implications for present practice. Key areas for research and development are identified, and the importance of national irrigation policy development and strategy formulation is highlighted.


Since at least the late 1970s large-scale, formally managed smallholder irrigation has been the subject of increasing criticism by researchers and observers in the field and, to a lesser extent, by donors. The reasons for this barrage of criticism are numerous and have been well documented elsewhere.

In relation to Nigeria's massive investments in such irrigation projects the World Bank commented: "There can be no doubt that this sum [nearly 1 billion Naira], if spent judiciously on the promotion of rainfed agriculture and small irrigation schemes, would have produced vastly superior returns" (World Bank, 1979). Nigeria's generally disappointing experience with large-scale irrigation has been widely commented on in the academic literature (e.g. Adams, 1991; Carter et al., 1983; Kimmage, 1991; Palmer-Jones, 1987; Wallace, 1981). An evaluation (van Steekelenburg and Zijlstra, 1985) of a number of smallholder irrigation projects in Africa funded by the EEC found fault with many aspects of large-scale irrigation schemes, and concluded: "In irrigation projects in sub-Saharan Africa, it would appear that the larger the projects are, and the higher the level of their technology, the poorer is their performance." In Tanzania, in the course of the UNDP-funded FAO-executed project 'Institutional Support to Irrigation Development' (1986-90), criticism of capital-intensive sophisticated schemes requiring high levels of support services grew; irrigation development policy in that country now stresses low-cost improvements requiring only limited Government inputs (Chapman, 1987).

In a number of countries it has only recently been acknowledged that the development of major water resource projects (including irrigation schemes) has damaged or destroyed existing traditional irrigation systems whose economic value was grossly underestimated.

Problems with large-scale irrigation projects

Through the 1980s a reaction against the promotion of large-scale irrigation projects has been gathering pace (especially, but not exclusively in Africa). With some exceptions, national governments, donors and lending agencies are starting to recognise the management issues associated with scale and philosophy of irrigation development. Just as with environmental issues, so with the subject of small-scale irrigation, it has suddenly become respectable not only to criticise large-scale projects but also to promote small-scale alternatives. Figure 1 lists more than 20 of the factors identified by evaluators of large scale irrigation projects around the world

It is perhaps not surprising then that both the British irrigation fraternity and the wider international interest group established networks in the late 1980s to promote small-scale irrigation (SSI). In the UK the Small-Scale Irrigation Working Group comprises over 100 consultants, researchers and academics who meet (generally 30 40 on any occasion) for its regular biannual meetings. The International Irrigation Management Institute (IIMI) has an active research, publication and networking programme in Farmer Managed Irrigation Systems (FMIS). Both these groups have as their aims the understanding and promotion of a form of irrigation development which emphasises the farmer's role in management and which of necessity therefore involves small units of production. This emphasis represents a radial departure from previous practices, as is shown in Figure 1 (for definitions of terms, see Annex).

Figure 1 Reasons identified for poor performance of large-scale irrigation schemes

The current debate is constructive and helpful for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it transcends the sterile confrontations (especially between engineers and sociologists) of earlier years, in particular by attempting to build bridges between disparate disciplines; secondly, because it is producing genuinely new and promising approaches to development practice; and thirdly, because it is able to contribute ideas to the management and rehabilitation of schemes constructed in the old-fashioned 'top-down' style which, though far from ideal in conception, represent major investments which must therefore be made to work if possible.

Top-down smallholder irrigation development an obsolete approach

The inappropriateness of past approaches to irrigation development in sub-Saharan Africa is becoming more widely accepted. It is recognised that past perceptions of the role and place of irrigation in the farming system have led to unrealistic expectations about how irrigation schemes would be managed and operated, and about the benefits which would follow.

Figure 2 (from the Proposal for the Training Course 'Design for sustainable Farmer-Managed Irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa', by Wageningen Agricultural University, Institute of Irrigation Studies and Silsoe College) shows the mismatch which often occurs between the intended and the actual operation of an irrigation scheme.

Figure 2 Mismatch between intended and actual operation of an irrigation scheme

A new approach to irrigation development in sub-Saharan Africa is necessary. This approach should be:

- farmer centred
- truly inter-disciplinary
- characterised by dialogue, interaction and flexibility.

These characteristics and their implications are developed further below. They are at the core of what has come to be called Small-Scale Irrigation (SSI).

The dangers of over-reaction

As with any radical change in approach, there are dangers: the dangers of wholesale rejection of previous practices and standards, and the risks associated with unthinking commitment to the relatively unknown.

Perhaps the most common mistake among non-specialists is to ignore the complexity of smallscale irrigation development. Talk of 'small scale', 'low technology', and farmer-management' can give an impression of delightful simplicity, especially when set against the detailed and multi-disciplinary studies involved in the preparation of large irrigation schemes. On the contrary, small-scale irrigation does not escape any of the complexity of irrigation in general. Indeed because of its scale and its inherently less predictable nature, some aspects of SSI are actually more difficult to handle than the corresponding aspects of large scale schemes. To indicate the nature of this complexity Figure 3 sets out the major issues and subjects which have to be addressed in the design of any public irrigation scheme be it large or small.

In implementation, likewise, the development of small-scale irrigation may not be able to support the wide range of expertise and technical input available to large and costly enterprises. A single engineer may now need sufficient economic, agronomic and management know-how, as well as engineering skill, to combine a number of roles. This presents difficulties for current approaches to training and education, but it does have the major advantage of creating an interdisciplinary professional mentality more akin to that of the farmer than to that of the narrow subject specialist.

Thirdly, the importance of quality (in survey, design and construction especially) needs emphasising. A stress on 'low' technology and low-cost works need not, and should not, mean compromises over quality. Surveys should be accurate, designs should be competent, and construction quality should be managed to a high level, all within the constraints of budgets which reflect the real level of benefits achievable.

Lastly, in the reaction from 'top-down' approaches and in the current fashion of respect for 'indigenous technical knowledge', it is possible to have an over-romantic image of the farmer. We are right to arrive at a deep respect for the farmer's expertise in survival and risk-spreading, and in his knowledge of the land and the crops it can support; but this respect must be tempered by the recognition of the rainfed farmer's areas of ignorance. He probably has little innate understanding of on-farm water management, he may have little experience of organised group activities (such as channel maintenance), and many aspects of agricultural intensification will be new to him. Indeed, ideas of crop responses to water developed under rainfed conditions may lead to problems such as gross over-irrigation.

Production versus social development: the dilemma of smallholder irrigation projects

It is the hypothesis of this writer that there is often a fundamental incompatibility between the objectives of national governments in promoting irrigation development, and the aims and aspirations of small farmers. Government objectives may include social development (rural employment, increased incomes, improved nutrition and public services) but their primary aim is usually in terms of increased production, often of specific crops (e.g. rice, wheat, sugar), and often to substitute for imports. On the other hand, developing country farmers may be less interested in putting all their eggs in the one basket of intensified production of a specified crop or crops, and more concerned to reduce risks through diversifying their food production and income-generating activities.

If these two sets of aims can come together in a single scheme, then success may follow; however, it seems more common than not (at least in Africa) that they do not. Conventional design procedures for smallholder irrigation embody many assumptions about farmers' aims, and about their willingness to take part in this form of development. Reality has shown the error of these conventional top-down approaches.

Figure 3 Checklist of issues and subjects to be addressed in the planning and design of any public irrigation scheme

It may well be that in regions with little experience of irrigation the attempt to combine production objectives with social development objectives should be abandoned. If the aim is production, then the estate/plantation/aommercial sector is the right arena. If the aim is social or rural development, then (small-scale) farmer managed approaches may fit better. There is no good reason why smallholder irrigation projects targeted at former rainfed producers, who have complex farming systems and diversified household economies, should be expected to work.

There is a major difference between the background just painted of much of rural Africa and the situation of strong traditional rice irrigation economies in Asia; in the latter case smallholder schemes are really water supply schemes to supply an existing activity, rather than involving a radical shake-up of the farming system and rural economy. This arguably is the pattern which government irrigation agencies elsewhere should follow.

Role of irrigation in poverty alleviation and social and economic development

If then the production objective is best met through private sector commercial enterprise, what role can irrigation development play in social and rural development? Is irrigation a useful vehicle for delivering wider developmental benefits, including those of poverty alleviation and food security, or are its associated problems and costs simply too great, as Moris (1987) has suggested in referring to irrigation as a "privileged solution"?

The World Bank (Barghouti and Le Moigne, 19903 still appears to view irrigation primarily as a means of increasing production, and of course without production benefits (including both increased production and more reliable production) then no other benefits are likely to accrue. The questions are; production of what, for whom, and under whose control?

Evidence is widespread that, under the right conditions (of relative autonomy in crop selection and production, ready access to markets and attractive prices) farmers will benefit from irrigation facilities. The precise ways in which they benefit are not always easily predictable. For example, a recent programme of studies (Diemer and Huibers, 1991) in Senegal showed that successful village-level irrigation schemes were used by farmers not to increase significantly production for market (as might have been expected), but rather to reduce hot-season farming activities and to permit them to pursue other income-generating activities at this time of year: in other words, to reduce risks and take advantage of greater opportunities for diversification. In Nigeria, on the other hand, the more attractive wheat price since 1988 has stimulated private small- and large-scale (irrigated) production in a way that 40 years' of conventional smallholder irrigation development failed to do (Kimmage, 1991).

Irrigation development can provide a real contribution to rural social development in two main ways, and under a number of conditions:

· through assistance provided to existing (traditional) irrigators
· through the introduction of irrigation to former rainfed producers or to those who were not previously involved in crop production.

The first of these is the easier although it has its own pitfalls A major reason why Asian irrigation development has, on the whole, been more successful than that promoted in Africa is that the beneficiary farmers have already been practicing some form of irrigation or water management (usually for paddy production), often for generations. But in Africa too, where Governments and NGOs have sensitively addressed some of the difficulties or bottlenecks experienced by existing (traditional) irrigators, results have been promising. Examples of such interventions can be found for example in the northern Nigerian fadamas, in Burkina Faso and in Zimbabwe (Carter, 1989) as well as in Nepal, Bhutan and Thailand. Interventions need not and arguably should not be comprehensive, but may address a single issue such as water lifting, water control or water conveyance.

The more difficult situation is where the attempt is made to introduce irrigation to farmers who have no previous experience. The enormity of the step from pastoralism or rainfed production to irrigation is easily under-estimated, and it is here that many well-meaning attempts to provide assistance have come adrift. The main problems, apart from the farmers' lack of technical know-how in water management, relate to the intensification of farming that goes with irrigation (and so the need for the farmer to learn many new skills at once), and the inevitable loss of independence which accompanies most forms of irrigation activity. The argument for improving rainfed production first, before introducing irrigation, is very strong. Figure 4 lists the major ways in which this may be done. When irrigation development is further complicated by resettlement, and the consequent disruption of existing social structures and infrastructure, the task can become even more problematic.

Figure 4 Possible improvements to rainfed agriculture as a precursor or alternative to the introduction of irrigation (after van Steekelenburg and Zijlstra, 1985)

Conditions for successful SSI

In the previous section reference was made to the conditions under which irrigation development could make a real contribution to rural and socio-economic development. The experience and reflection of the last 15 or so years - the SSI era - allows us to summarise at least some of these conditions and to identify areas where further understanding is needed.

· The first condition for farmer-centred irrigation development to succeed is the coincidence of farmer aims and objectives with those of any agency (government or NGO) providing assistance. A mismatch here spells disaster. Too often government irrigation policy and strategy are couched in terms too vague to be clear on this point, and in any case insufficient time is spent in dialogue with farmers to ascertain their own aims. Much of the most successful irrigation in Africa has been developed by farmers without the intervention or interference of Government agencies; in these circumstances the conflict of objectives highlighted above has not arisen.

· The second necessary condition is farmer autonomy. Producers should either be permitted to behave as farmers, who make their own decisions on cropping calendars and who manage their own farming systems, or they should be employed as wage labourers. In either case their position is clear. In many (African) smallholder projects farmers are such in name only, when virtually all autonomy is taken from them.

· The third condition is that the technology and physical systems supplying irrigation water must be able to be operated and maintained (within farmers' own budgets) without heavy dependence on unreliable supply and service agencies. The VLOM (Village Level Operation and Organisation of Maintenance) concept of village drinking water supply (Arlosoroff et al., 1987) is highly relevant to the case of small-scale irrigation.

· The fourth condition is that agencies (government or NGO) providing technical or other assistance in irrigation should take a support role rather than a dominant part. Their role should be to assist farmers in their own development, not to impose a particular pattern of 'development' on them.

· The fifth condition, which is implicit in the first four, is best expressed by Diemer and Huibers (1991) on the basis of their work in Senegal. It is a condition which must be reflected in the attitudes and approaches of irrigation agencies, and which has important implications for the whole process of intervention. "The most important conclusion is the need to recognise that the irrigator's economic and social circumstances are just as important for viable irrigation development as the physical conditions. These circumstances have to be reflected in any irrigation design. Schemes based on desirable behaviour patterns imposed from above are almost bound to fail."

These five conditions should no longer be controversial although they are by no means universally observed in practice. There is still a major task ahead to establish these basic tenets as accepted orthodoxy. Although directions are becoming clearer, there is still much to learn about what can work and what cannot work in irrigation development. The needs for R&D in small-scale irrigation fall under three broad headings (Carter, 1991). Firstly there is a need for increased understanding of both the technology and the social organisation of traditional irrigation systems; secondly there is the need to develop improved approaches to design of new farmer-managed systems, particularly taking a lead from the excellent work of Wageningen Agricultural University (e.g. WAU, 1990); and thirdly there is the need to develop and change the approaches of irrigation professionals, institutions (both government and NGO), and funding bodies.

Implications of the SSI philosophy

Project conception and assessment of irrigation potential

The first major implication of the new approach relates to the identification of 'irrigation potential' and of specific projects. Conventional wisdom has made the simplistic equation that suitable soils plus exploitable water adds up to irrigation potential. Organisations such as FAO (Thomas, 1987) and the World Bank (Barghouti and Le Moigne, 1991) have perpetuated this myth by failing to allow for the human element. Suitable soils and available water are necessary, but by no means sufficient, conditions for irrigation development since the success of farmer irrigation depends crucially on many factors other than the accepted technical and economic feasibility criteria (Figure 5).

Of course this new realism makes the identification of irrigation potential much more difficult and far less predictable; but present approaches to this subject can at best give only extreme upper bounds to the potential for development.

Figure 5 Two paradigms of the concept 'irrigation potential'

Design and construction

The implications for scheme design have been particularly highlighted by a number of workers at Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands. They have pointed out two key aspects of a new design process. Firstly, the willingness on the part of the designer to question conventional wisdom about human behaviour (in other words to identify how farmers will actually utilise and benefit from irrigation facilities provided); and secondly, the need to carry out the design process interactively, with farmers' views and wishes in relation to scheme location, site layout and other aspects of design being respected as fully as possible. These two aspects alone represent a radical departure from conventional engineering design practice.

Other aspects of design and construction, such as the use of local materials and construction skills, and selection of field layouts to suit land levelling practices which are readily available, are fairly obvious. The principle of 'design for (farmer-) management' is fundamental and this too requires professionals with field experience not merely office skills.

Operation and maintenance

The imperative of farmer control of operation and maintenance is not merely for the reasons outlined earlier in this paper. There is a pragmatic imperative too. Increasingly Governments are recognising their own inability, for financial or other resource reasons, to manage and maintain an increasing acreage of irrigated agriculture. Were it not for the widespread philosophy of disengagement, turnover or privatisation, there would be a real danger of irrigation becoming one of Moris's (1987) "privileged solutions" (strategies which seem so obviously right as to need little justification and which therefore win priority access to funding).

Institutional roles

The institutions involved in the promotion of irrigation need to evolve new roles and attitudes.

· Government agencies need to develop approaches which give greater respect to the knowledge, skills and wishes of farming communities; and irrigation professionals, particularly engineers, need to develop a more farmer-centred orientation.

· NGOs, while generally having strengths in the community-based approach of SSI, often lack rigorous technical expertise. They must be prepared either to buy in such know-how or develop it themselves.

· Donors will need to come to terms with far less cut-and-dried project formulations, since the SSI approach demands more flexible funding arrangements and timetables. Donors should require evidence of full farmer participation in proposed irrigation developments.

· Educational and training institutions should make greater efforts to bridge the divide between social sciences and the agricultural and engineering studies needed for irrigation development. Narrow subject specialisms are inappropriate in this field.

Focus for action

Four major areas emerge in which 'outsiders' (Government, donors and technical assistance) may have a role:

· Traditional Water Management and Irrigation Practices: The priority here is to identify, quantify, evaluate and understand. Too often 'modern' irrigation development has supplanted well managed existing agricultural practices which have been ignored or overlooked in the urge for progress. A true value should be placed on such 'traditional' systems of crop production.

· New Development: Here the need to develop new interactive design procedures, and the consequent requirements for training are key.

· Existing Smallholder Schemes: This area needs attention. Better provision of support services, assistance in turnover processes, and a fundamental re-think about processes of rehabilitation are needed here.

· National Irrigation Development Policy: Arguably, the fundamental area is discussed in the next section.

A key role for technical assistance: policy development and strategy formulation

The key area is that of national irrigation development policy. In any particular country or region the roles of irrigation need to be defined, and the options and priorities for intervention need to be spelled out. In most developing countries, and especially in Africa, SSI should be an important component of such policy (alongside existing large-scale smallholder schemes and the commercial sector). Formulation of strategies in pursuance of such policies can then follow. Models for such strategy formulation can be found in the work on irrigation manpower planning by Carter et al. (1986) and Carter and Mason (1988) and in that of Morris and Bishop (1989 and 1990) and Bishop (1990) on agricultural mechanisation.

It is essential that policy development and strategy formulation are carried out by the responsible national Governments, not by outsiders. Nevertheless, external technical assistance may be necessary to expose policy makers to the options and to give them the opportunities to consult widely as they develop their own approaches.

It is particularly important that younger irrigation professionals are exposed to the new approaches to irrigation development. This should be by a combination of in-country training and, where appropriate, on international training programmes.

Irrigation development in sub-saharan africa: a summary of priorities for donors

The following list suggests key ways in which donors can assist in the promotion and support of irrigation in the region:

· Continuation and communication of results of sector evaluations
· Interdisciplinary research on all types of scheme/system
· Quantification and valuation of traditional practices
· Research on alternatives to irrigation and alternative approaches to irrigation
· Assistance in policy/strategy formulation
· Co-ordination with other donors/lenders
· Support to NGOs
· Support to commercial sector
· Rehabilitation.



Definitions adopted by Underhill (1984) and UK SSI group:

Formal irrigation: Formal irrigation is the development and management of irrigated agriculture in a structurally formal way, usually by a government body. [Such schemes] are often established with very little prior involvement from farmers or landholders; and are usually managed by a structured government organisation on behalf of the resettled smallholders.

Small-scale irrigation (SSI): Small-scale irrigation, usually on small plots, in which small farmers have the major controlling influence, and using a level of technology which the farmers can effectively operate and maintain.

[Note this SSI concept and IIMI's Farmer Managed Irrigation Systems (FMIS) are identical]

Scale: For Africa, FAO has adopted the following scheme size classes for smallholder irrigation projects: FAO 1987, quoted in Underhill (1990).

1. Very large-scale schemes: typically over 10 000 ha with full water control and under government management. Examples are the gravity schemes in the large river basins in Sudan (Gezira), Morocco (Gharb) and Egypt

2. Large-scale schemes: typically 1000 to 10 000 ha with full water control. Generally under government or commercial management, the latter usually less than 5000 ha. Examples are found in Kenya (Bura; Mwea), Tanzania (Mbarali), Somalia (Shebelli)

3. Medium-scale schemes: typically 100 to 1000 ha with full or partial water control. Government managed, government assisted cooperatives, or commercial estates

4. Small-scale schemes: typically 1 to 100 ha controlled by farmers; groups, or single farmers. Examples are: Kenya, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Madagascar for simple river diversions, Nigeria (fadama) for shallow groundwater, and Kenya, Tanzania for pumping from lakes

Note: To these four classes of irrigation 'schemes' could be added irrigated 'garden plots' from a few square metres to perhaps 0.5 ha in size, controlled by single farmers and usually based on shallow groundwater. Examples are found all over Africa. (The term 'micro irrigation' is sometimes used for garden plots but should be avoided as the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage recommends that this term be used for the technologies of 'localized irrigation' such as trickle and drip (see FARO 1980c).

(Note the links between scale and management)


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In the discussion a recent ODA/NGO seminar on popular participation projects was referred to. The difficulties of multiplying up small-scale projects was mentioned as well as problems in accounting for process type projects because firm programmes, targets and costs cannot be prepared in advance. Opinions differed as to whether donor assistance should be to small- or large-scale projects. However, emphasis should be on rehabilitation based on the tenets of SSI experience in large schemes. Donors should support NGOs and local banks for provision of credit rather than major commercial lending. It was suggested that ODA should reduce irrigation spending by 25 40% in view of the changing demographic situation but it was pointed out that some donors are increasing their rural-based activities to discourage rural migration. It was said that 35 40% of Asian agricultural land is irrigated, producing 60 70% of food grains and that this is from both small- and large-scale developments. So the distinction should be more between well- and ill-conceived projects rather than between small-and large-scale projects. The question was posed as to what countries such as India and Pakistan should do without irrigation; the carrying capacity of rainfed land in Pakistan is no more than 5% of the total population. Finally, concern was expressed at the speed with which the management of irrigation schemes is being handed over in some countries. In many cases, this necessitates a sudden switch after many years of highly centralised and top-down management to water users' groups which have hardly developed in any meaningful sense.