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A deep dive into water management reform

30 Aug 2017

Cooperation between governments and farmers is essential for irrigation policy and water management in Southeast Asia, says SMU Assistant Professor Jacob Ricks.


Image credit: Cyril Ng

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By Jeremy Chan

SMU Office of Research & Tech Transfer – The livelihood of farmers is inextricably linked to water. While farmers can synchronise their sowing and reaping cycles with the coming and going of rainy seasons, the fickle nature of precipitation means that for every feast, a famine may be lurking around the corner.

In Southeast Asian nations where agriculture is a major economic activity, the timing and amount of irrigation has a tremendous impact on the outputs of subsistence or commercial farming, says Assistant Professor Jacob Ricks of Singapore Management University’s (SMU) School of Social Sciences, who studies natural resource management and governance in Southeast Asia.

“Southeast Asia’s strong reliance on rice production, especially the need to deliver multiple crops per year, means that water management is very important for food production, and poor water management means less food is produced,” says Professor Ricks. To exert better control over the availability of water, irrigation canals are required, be it to carry water to dry farmland or to drain water from flooded plantations.

A deluge of challenges

While most countries in the region have taken steps to transfer or share management of irrigation with farmers, implementation of these reforms has been uneven due to financial constraints and the lack of political will, says Professor Ricks.

“Cooperation between government officials and farmers is quite difficult to achieve,” he explains. “Aside from Singapore and Malaysia, Southeast Asian countries have struggled with developing the ability of the state to provide good services to its citizens, especially in areas of co-production such as irrigation, where citizens must be involved in service provision.”

The manner in which governments engage with farmers also influences the outcomes of collaborative efforts. In many developing Southeast Asian countries, policymakers take a top-down approach to the management of key services, says Professor Ricks. This has resulted in strong, independent irrigation agencies which are resistant to farmer inputs.

On the other hand, the reliance on government agencies to provide irrigation has alienated farmers and reduced their motivation to become involved in the planning, construction, maintenance and monitoring of irrigation canals.

“There needs to be changes in the mindsets of both sides, but this is unlikely to happen without a massive reform of irrigation agencies throughout the region,” says Professor Ricks.

Through case studies in Thailand, Professor Ricks found that a lack of incentives is a major barrier to mutual engagement. Irrigation agency officials prefer construction proposals that advance their own careers, and frequent interactions with farmers distracts from their personal ambitions. In rare situations where cooperative efforts took off, they were anchored by a supportive irrigation official with more altruistic inclinations.

To address this bureaucratic impasse, Professor Ricks suggests that promotions and wage increases for irrigation agency officials should depend on the satisfaction of farmers rather than on time-sensitive and easily visible projects. Subsequently, when farmer groups perceive obvious benefits such as better crop yields arising from consultative irrigation policy, they will in turn participate more actively in water management.

Professor Ricks published these recommendations in a 2015 paper in the journal Water Alternatives, titled ‘Pockets of Participation: Bureaucratic Incentives and Participatory Irrigation Management in Thailand’.

A drought of data

Policy reform is an iterative process, meaning that its inputs and outcomes must be transparent and inspected frequently so that adjustments can be made. For any iterative process to be successful, data is key.

Unfortunately, in many developing Southeast Asian nations, data on water management and irrigation policy is scarce. In this opaque landscape, neither the merits nor the pitfalls of cross-agency cooperation and farmer participation are tracked, hampering astute policy planning and further collaboration.

Professor Ricks experienced this lack of data first hand when conducting his research on irrigation management in Southeast Asia. To obtain the information he needed, he had to personally conduct site visits and interview irrigation officials, local politicians and leaders from the farming community. However, because of time limitations, he could only visit a relatively small number of farmer groups in each country.

“Irrigation reforms require that governments have good data on farmer groups, but irrigation agencies do not generally have the will or capacity to collect this data,” Professor Ricks explains. “As such, they often have poor information regarding the willingness and availability of farmer organisations to collaborate with the government.”

Although large-scale data collection may appear like a daunting task, Professor Ricks suggests that, for a start, governments can make use of simple metrics such as the number of interactions between farmers and officials to gauge the success of irrigation policies. This will help fine-tune efforts to better manage water.

Balancing town and country

In addition to bureaucratic resistance and insufficient data, urbanisation is a looming challenge for governments when it comes to water management. Currently, approximately 50 percent of Asia’s population lives in urban areas, and this is projected to increase to 64 percent by 2050. As demand for water in urban areas intensifies, governments must be prepared to ensure that the water supply to farmers is not compromised.

“The most pressing concern is to establish rules and laws for the management of competing water demands,” says Professor Ricks. “This will likely require political leaders to work with civil servants, engineers and representatives from both farms and cities to craft agreements on water sharing.”

Ultimately, the management of water is not a zero-sum game. With appropriate water management policies, crafted through consultation with stakeholders and guided by data, governments can increase the efficiency of water use so that all segments of the population will have adequate access to this finite resource.

“Southeast Asia, in general, is fortunate with its water supply—during part of the year there is great abundance [due to the rainy season],” says Professor Ricks. “Even so, the management of water should not be taken for granted.”

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Last updated on 31 Aug 2017 .