Viewpoint -€“ Responding to context: Some lessons from experience in the water sector

Jeremy Berkoff
Independent consultant, London, UK; jeremyberkoff@mac.com

ABSTRACT: This paper focuses on an important lesson arising from long experience in Asia: the importance of adapting interventions in the water sector to their context. Water is pervasive and failure to appreciate how water programmes fit within a broader economic, environmental and social context can incur large costs. Too often we outsiders, not to mention local politicians and bureaucrats, have been driven by our own thinking and interests, imposing approaches and solutions that may be appropriate in wealthier and more manageable situations but which fail to take into account the complexities of the vast regions of Asia and their huge populations, widespread poverty and traditional practices.
The argument is illustrated in two ways. First by a brief review of programmes in five widely differing river basins: the Aral Sea Basin in Central Asia; the Mahaweli Basin in Sri Lanka; the Ponniar Basin in South India; hydro-power development in Nepal and Bhutan; and the massive 3-H (Hai-Huang-Huai) basins of the North China Plain. This review illustrates how basin interventions can have profound implications for the development of whole regions, even countries, and that politicians and water professionals have too readily driven priorities that are insensitive to the real interests of the areas concerned, whether they involve action (as in the Aral Sea, Mahaweli and Ponniar cases) or inaction (as in Nepal). A measured approach (as in Bhutan and North China) within a broad understanding of the interests of the country or region concerned can have major benefits.
Second, by an assessment of the irrigation sector. Irrigation is by far the largest water user and has played a central role in Asia'€™s agricultural development, yet there has been surprisingly little progress in understanding how the prevailing context and associated incentives impact on farmer and official behaviour. This has, in my view, resulted in misjudgments concerning irrigation potential and returns. The issues are discussed under four headings: water use, crop output, institutional performance and irrigation modernisation. They may need modification in a warming world, but as they stand the paper'€™s conclusions suggest that within its context Asian irrigation is more productive -€“ and, dare I say it, efficient -€“ than is commonly supposed. Failure to recognise this fact has led to unrealistic expectations from irrigation interventions and hence to wasted resources and effort.

KEYWORDS: Water, experience, context, river basins, irrigation