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Great Expectations: Achieving Security, Livelihoods And Growth Through Enhanced Water Management

Congress: 2015
Author(s): Simon Howarth, Yi Zhang

Simon Howarth, Yi Zhang
Mott MacDonald

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 10: Management of water resources,


Smallholder irrigation has low financial value but it is critical for the livelihoods of many (billions) of rural people. Despite that, it only provides part of their livelihoods, and there is also a need to divert some water to industry which can enable economic growth which in turn can provide the employment needed to supplement livelihoods for smallholders. It is also critical for national and local food security, but increasing pressures on resources mean that more commercial approaches are also needed to maximise production and enable the investment in more intensive agriculture. These challenges need to be balanced with the need to protect social and cultural heritage, recognising the central significance of rice, the importance of domestically-grown food for most rural people, and the ongoing gradual process of urbanisation and the transformation of rural landscapes. Overt conflict over water is still surprisingly rare, but dissatisfaction over inequitable access and increasingly over poor quality is a real problem: the risks are increasing as water allocations are changed.

China has made good progress in both water-saving irrigation and in introducing strict regulation over total volumes of water use -- with a strong focus on financial incentives -- so that it can be used in the most productive way. However, this is weakened in practice by stakeholder participation which is often only nominal, water rights which are weakly-defined, and a reliance on top-down control. For example, a bold attempt has been made to regulate groundwater use, but it remains to be seen how effective it will be until it is supported by an equally determined effort to strengthen the governance of the organisations who are involved in managing it (Doczi et al 2014). China is also stimulating agricultural production by providing incentives to farmers to diversify their cropping, and encouraging commercial farmers to invest in new technology and methods. Incentives are given for generating local employment, but care is needed to ensure that smallholders are not first displaced and then offered insecure employment..

This paper draws on project experience between 2007 and 2014 in Gansu and Qinghai provinces in western China, where the Government is grappling with approaches to reconcile these competing interests. This requires an integrated approach, but much more than integrated water resources management as it is usually described. Economic tools in IWRM are more related to user fees and cost recovery, than to economic policies which would influence the demand for water by different sectors. Social tools are too often narrowly focused on participation in WUAs, rather than gaining a full understanding of livelihoods and the role of water in protecting livelihoods through its use in all sectors.


This paper describes methods which were used to strengthen key aspects of water management to address the key challenges of equity, productivity and livelihoods. These were based around intensive methods of facilitating participation by water users and coordination between them and higher level water management and administrative organisations. These were introduced by:
Strengthening communications between county water resource bureaus (WRBs), management stations and users through stakeholder workshops and facilitated meetings at village level;
Building up local management organisations in a way that does not overburden them either administratively or financially, yet meets local needs;
Providing training on agricultural value chains which fit in with local livelihood strategies, which are dominated by migration and off-farm employment;
Ensuring a balance between quasi-commercial agriculture, creating local employment and investment opportunities, and smallholder agriculture in support of multiple livelihoods;
Recognizing constraints of smallholders who are a less homogeneous group than in the past with many people who are not traditional decision-makers (poor, elderly, disabled, or female household heads) and who risk being marginalised.

This was undertaken over an extended period, with an initial focus of building local understanding of the constraints and needs, including changed responsibilities and financial arrangements, followed by a process of establishing and building capacity of local organisations to implement these changes.

Results and Conclusion

The immediate outcome was that farmers could operate irrigation systems in accordance with local needs, in pilot areas and WRBs were familiar with the process and could extend the approach elsewhere. Management arrangements were developed to cope with gradual reductions in water allocations, given that rights were defined and agreed in advance and enforced. Emerging conflicts between villages over access to and quality of water could be resolved through discussion, with small changes to infrastructure. Arrangements for subsistence farmers to collaborate on commercial agriculture are emerging but will take time to become widespread, and control of the adverse consequences of industrial use will increasingly require strong enforcement.

Reforms are long-term and gradual process, and are being introduced in parallel with improvements to infrastructure. The initial conclusions about modernising irrigation can be summarised as:
Small problems can easily become critical for the farmers, but can be resolved if there is sufficient consultation at an early stage. Pressures to complete construction quickly, or to seek simple technical solutions to complex problems should be resisted.
Ensure a complete solution before starting construction, otherwise the incentives for compromise may be lost
Rehabilitation and modernisation of existing irrigation systems can bring complexity to future management, but also opportunities to draw on existing strengths;
Technical solutions should match management skills -- automatic gates or structures will not resolve conflicts on their own as they can always be bypassed or damaged. Ensure a common understanding and commitment to shared management
Participatory development is time-consuming: a patient approach is needed to understand and accommodate farmers' views; reliable information should be provided at all stages so that farmers can understand what is proposed;
Flexibility, with review and modification of methods throughout implementation is important. Social mapping is a great way to connect the knowledge of experts with that of local inhabitants or communities.
Incentives to stimulate participation are needed. Sometimes the opportunity for involvement in management is sufficient, but others need to see more tangible outcomes quickly -- changes to designs, improved access to agricultural technology etc.

2011 IWRA - International Water Resources Association - - Admin