The Water Dissensus – A Water Alternatives Forum
Designed to fail: Many irrigation schemes in sub-Saharan Africa are neither fit nor fit for purpose
A recent review of irrigation projects in sub-Saharan Africa found some surprising reasons for the poor performance of many schemes that complement the usual suspects (McCarthy and Winters, 2022). Not only is irrigation infrastructure itself often poorly constructed (not "fit"), but the operations, maintenance and repair of irrigation infrastructure is often too costly given irrigators' profitability (not "fit for purpose").
Our review confirmed the findings of many others on the factors that are critical in determining the success (or lack thereof) of surface water irrigation schemes. These include issues related to tenure security; transaction costs of collective action; adequacy of capacity building of scheme management at all relevant administrative levels; and presence of a clear legal and regulatory framework that clarifies the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders (e.g., government irrigation authorities, parastatals or private sector firms, water user associations [WUAs], and irrigators). Underlying hydrogeological and climate characteristics can also affect success; though evidence is scarce, incentives to maintain schemes seem generally higher where rainfall is relatively low, but irrigation water supply is relatively stable.
Starting with schemes that are not fit, there are numerous examples of poor-quality construction, including improperly placed intake valves (leading either to no irrigation at all or no irrigation in the dry season), improper drainage, the use of poor-quality materials, and instances where construction was simply never completed. Years ago, I led a project on small-dam irrigation schemes in northern Ghana and observed multiple construction defects in the small set of schemes that did function (it is likely that even more defects would have been found at completely defunct schemes). The number of observations was too small to draw more than tentative hypotheses on why. But out of 19 schemes rehabilitated or constructed between 2000 and 2005, by 2007, seven were not completed (mainly irrigation and drainage canals not finished or even constructed), and at six sites, water levels were too low to reach the intake valve (the latter was likely due to both poor construction and sedimentation) (Birner et al., 2010).
The widespread nature of shoddy construction was still a surprise 15 years later. Some construction problems are related to poor design, stemming from poor and/or rushed project proposals. However, other problems are related to lack of capacity to secure competent contractors and supervise construction. These problems arise with many large-scale infrastructure projects; but many problematic irrigation schemes are relatively modest in size. Evidence also suggests that the largest scale schemes are less likely to suffer from design and supervision problems, probably because higher quality services are contracted. It appears, then, to be more than just the standard large-infrastructure-related problems that afflict these schemes.
Contracting and supervision problems appear to have defied all attempts at mitigating them, from transferring supervision from national government irrigation authorities to local irrigation offices, to third party experts, to local administrative authorities, and even to irrigators themselves (the latter two presuming that supervision does not require much construction and engineering expertise). A recent study by Keita et al. (2022) documents the failures of an internationally funded NGO project that constructed micro-irrigation schemes (well-based systems to irrigate one hectare). The authors attribute significant failure of the project to poor engineering choices. But it may also be because the NGO simply did not have the expertise to choose feasible designs, did not itself possess the expertise to supervise construction, and did not have sufficient donor funding to hire experts. Unanswered questions remain, such as: how does the poor quality of built schemes affect the incentives of irrigators to participate in maintenance activities and pay fees? Are there negative impacts of scheme failure on future efforts to engage in collective action for irrigation?
The second surprise is even more prevalent, though difficult to disentangle from other problems mentioned above. A lot of evidence suggests that, even if schemes are well-built and the management team has all the necessary skills, irrigators simply do not realize sufficient returns to afford costs associated with operations and management. They are not fit for purpose. In the case of South Africa, evidence suggests that irrigation schemes with sophisticated sprinkler systems were well built, but the rapid and chaotic Irrigation Management Transfer (IMT) process led to swift declines in many systems. Researchers attribute this to limited or no attention to the management skills needed by the newly established WUAs, but also to the fact that smallholders focused on subsistence crops simply could not afford fees associated with sustainable operation and maintenance. Similarly, IMT in Zimbabwe entailed transferring all scheme costs to WUAs, including the pumping fuel costs that had been primarily borne by the government. Successful transfer was premised on the hypothesis that smallholders would quickly switch to high-value crops, which simply did not materialize. Other examples abound.
Relatedly, many irrigation project proposals base their expected economic benefits on unrealistic and overly optimistic assumptions on the adoption of high-value cropping, market transaction costs, and input costs (Inocencio, et al., 2007; Fujiie et al., 2011; Molle and Renwick, 2005; Higgenbottom et al., 2021). Smallholder irrigators often face limited integration into value chains, even if they can aggregate their production. And yet, proposal after proposal assumes that small irrigators will magically adopt high-value crops, or that value chains can easily be developed in tandem with irrigation construction. Proposal after proposal keeps setting the conditions for smallholders to invest time and resources into irrigation infrastructure that is doomed to fail. As with irrigation infrastructure that is not fit, building not fit for purpose schemes may have additional negative impacts on future efforts to engage in collective efforts for irrigation and even other resilience building activities.
Climate change has spurred renewed interest in irrigation schemes to build resilience, but there is limited evidence that project proposers are incorporating lessons from a substantial empirical evidence base. And the evidence suggests all aspects of irrigation projects are subject to flaws, from initial design to scheme management transfer, and every step in between.
Birner, R., McCarthy, N., Robertson, R., Waale, D. and Schiffer, E.2010. Increasing access to irrigation: lessons learned from investing in small reservoirs in Ghana. Paper presented at the Agricultural Services, Decentralization, and Local Governance Workshop, June 3, 2010, Accra.Washington DC: IFPRI.
Fujiie, H., Maruyama, A., Fujiie, M., Takagaki, M., Merrey, D. J., and Kikuchi, M. 2011. Why invest in minor projects in sub-Saharan Africa? An exploration of the scale economy and diseconomy of irrigation projects. Irrigation and Drainage Systems, 25(1): 39-60.
Higginbottom, T. P., Adhikari, R., Dimova, R., Redicker, S., and Foster, T. 2021. Performance of large-scale irrigation projects in sub-Saharan Africa. Nature Sustainability, 4(6): 501-508.
Inocencio, A., Kikuchi, M., Tonosaki, M., Maruyama, A., Merrey, D., Sally, H., and de Jong, I. 2007. Costs and performance of irrigation projects: A comparison of sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions. IWMI Research Report 109. International Water Management Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Keita, A., Niang, D., and Sandwidi, S.A. 2022.How non-governmental organization-built small-scale irrigation systems are a failure in Africa.Sustainability, 14(18): 11315.
McCarthy, N. and Winters, P.C.2022.Building resilience to climate change in Sub-Saharan Africa through irrigation investments.Pulte Institute Policy & Practitioner Report No. 4.South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame. https://pulte.nd.edu/research-policy/visiting-associates-program-publications/nancy-mccarthy/
Molle, F. and Renwick, M.2005. Economics and politics of water resource development: The case of the Walawe River Basin, Sri Lanka. IWMI Research Report 87. International Water Management Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Photo Credit: Jean-Philippe Venot / Burkina Faso
Your analysis shares many findings with those of writings going back to the 1970s by academics and practitioners including Bill Adams, Kevin Kimmage, Jon Moris, Richard Palmer-Jones, Beryl Turner, Harry Underhill, Tina Wallace and Linden Vincent. Most of those pre-date the internet, so they tend to be omitted from present-day literature searches and reviews.
In my view, the main flaw (in SSA at least) has been the idea of 'schemes', implemented (often poorly) by government for farmers (who may not share government's objectives for their farming systems). The alternative - small-scale or farmer-managed irrigation - has been far more successful, as it has grown organically from the 'bottom up'. There is also a good deal of evidence that it is far more extensive (in terms of total hectares under irrigation).
I'm happy to correspond further ...
The review paper covers both schemes (mainly surface water) as well as groundwater irrigation (mainly by individuals or very small groups). We did not find much evidence that the total hectares under irrigation by groundwater pumping is expanding/has expanded rapidly, and information area irrigated via manual extraction for small areas was also very limited. For instance, given the decades long program to expand irrigation by shallow aquifers in Nigeria (World Bank, FADAMA (though the project also updated objectives over different phases), others document very limited expansion over those decades. But, that doesn't me we didn't miss key articles on the expansion of FLI, in at least some countries. Given language deficiencies, we also relied heavily on sources published in English, and so may have missed articles in French and Portuguese in particular.
@Richard Carter I agree with your comments with regards to small scale farmer managed irrigation. My question to the team is how do we begin this ? if 1. the schemes are under the control of government management especially in Africa 2. Who funds and supports these farmers 3. As mentioned by a reader which crops do they farm? and are they for sale becuase majority of the time the food grown is for subsistence consumption? I will appreciate your comments to these because in my study 90 percent of the comments here were a challenge to the scheme ? We in Africa cant be singing this song ? we need change?
Thank you for this interesting piece - shoddy construction of irrigation schemes seems to be matched by poor construction in many water points in African countries too, leading to premature failure and higher costs. I suspect that more focus by implementing partners on engineering, design and supervision would probably pay for itself many times over.
I completely agree that without an economic rationale, irrigation schemes won't survive without external input / subsidy. Let's not forget that subsidies (actual or in kind) are foundational to many big irrigation schemes / big ag globally - but that this support is rarely available to Africans. So I agree with Prof. Carter (see his comment above) that smaller scale, farmer-led irrigation is more promising in Africa, and I've often wondered how the "anarchy" (from Tushaar Shah's "Taming the Anarchy") of booming small-scale irrigation in south Asia could be replicated in Africa. It's true that some of the Asian experience involves subsidy too (e.g. cheap electricity where available) but there also seems to be a critical mass of other factors in place (spare parts, low cost drilling, agricultural extension, transport, storage, access to markets, etc. etc.) that applies in south Asia too. What combination of these things (which are sometimes called "secondary factors" by us hydrologists, but which I suspect are much more important than having lots of water!) would work in Africa? How can we put the conditions in place for the explosion of small-scale, farmer-led, irrigation in Africa that we so desperately need? I suspect that some of the bottlenecks would be simple to fix (no import duties on pumps, for example, or speeding up border crossings for agricultural produce), whilst others would be more challenging (road transport infrastructure, electricity grids, land tenure, better crop varietals). Are there quick wins here, and could we map these secondary factors by country, by agricultural zone, or by projected climate conditions, so as to inform policy? These factors interact to form classic complex / wicked problems, so iteration towards solutions, rather than grand designs, is what's needed. Where are efforts and money best spent, to get the most return? There seems to be fairly little in the literature on this general topic.
Finally, it's great to be discussing irrigation at all, thank you. I believe that irrigation attracts too little attention currently, and is sometimes even frowned on because it "wastes" water. This view may even be a serious secondary factor all of its own. But ask any commercial farmer in semi-arid Africa whether they could survive for long without irrigation, and they'd just laugh at you.
Nancy's study reminds me of my first study of irrigation system performance in Zimbabwe. To ensure that we didn't have a biased sample, by only studying those that were functioning, we did a review of the files on failed schemes. (I remember that "lack of proper hippo fencing" was a surprisingly common reason for failure). But to say that the alternative is to only go with atomistic "farmer-led" irrigation is problematic on several counts. First, water capture and use has externalities--positive and negative. There are possibilities for harvesting excessive rainfall and reducing runoff that require community-level or even larger infrastructure. The "booming small-scale irrigation in south Asia" that Jude Cobbing comments on builds on centuries of state and community irrigation development, which built up technical expertise by farmers and irrigation professionals (including a host of common irrigators), and atomistic approaches are leading to a problematic "race to the bottom" in groundwater development (which is about the only type of irrigation development you can do as an individual). What would it take to get better construction and "fit for purpose" irrigation in Africa? Are there lessons that we can learn from accountability and technical performance of other infrastructure sectors (e.g. roads)?
That many irrigation developments are not fit for purpose reflects that irrigation system development is often still left to engineers. Good engineering is needed (in planning, design, construction and management), as shown from the continued existence of flaws in infrastructure; but an irrigation system is in the first place an agricultural undertaking; and the transformation that irrigation could facilitate does not come by its own. Assuming that value chains magically appear, or that a supplier for irrigation equipment and spares shows up on her/his own accord; or that asset management planning to modify, operate and maintain a system is farmers' second nature; is simply wrong. Irrigation development takes place at a crossroads of resource management, agriculture, value chains and organisation. Not easy, yet highly potential.
From our review, I'm not convinced that only small-scale, farmer-led irrigation (FLI) can be successful; and evidence suggests there's room to improve both schemes and the promotion of FLI. I also think the comparison with India and other south Asian countries needs to be done carefully, as Ruth notes. There's a longer history, but also population densities are generally much higher, and crowding-in complimentary services (to credit, transport, spare parts/repair services, etc) is far more likely with higher population densities. And of course, subsidies for fuel have been extremely important and are very unlikely affordable in most African countries; renewable energy sources are very promising but still in the early (and relatively expensive) stages.
I also think that though we do have a decent handle on the secondary factors that are important for success, we don't know how to address these factors very well under current constraints (e.g. construction supervision). I am wary of the argument that everything needs to be perfect before anything can get done (as Shah pointed out, that is likely way too cautious an approach). But, the approach to project planning should be done from the point of view of existing reality and various realistic scenarios about future conditions. This is especially true if a key objective of the project is both production and food security.
What is surprising is that it does appear, as Kees notes, that alot of irrigation system development has been left to engineers, and yet construction quality is often very poor. Following Ruth, accountability is critical and not happening in a number of cases, likely in part due to lack of interest by the government and lack of knowledge and political power by the potential irrigators. But, why do the donors sign off? I must confess I do not know much about how these incentives have been managed in other sectors, but I'm guess the potential beneficiaries (companies, the relatively wealthy) are in better position to demand accountability.
But fit for purpose matters too, and it appears systems have been developed in a void, as Kees points out. This appears to be major flaws in the project proposal process. I wonder if other sectors have also been more successful in mitigating the overly optimistic, naive assumptions in project proposals as they have been with ensuring better quality built infrastructure?
I wonder whether the fact that nothing has changed is a surprise; perhaps the surprise would have been that it did.
As well stated: "Contracting and supervision problems appear to have defied all attempts at mitigating them, from transferring supervision from national government irrigation authorities to local irrigation offices, to third party experts, to local administrative authorities, and even to irrigators themselves".
Part of the answer may lie in a structure of incentives and accountability that has by and large remained unchanged. I have seen (not limited to SSA) canal lining with a lot of sand and little cement degrading rapidly; pumping stations (supplied by the ministry) with a capacity lower than design; water user groups coerced into signing due (and 'satisfactory') reception of the works, etc. Shared interests between contractors and some officials in line agencies result in limited interest in checking/enforcing the quality of works. Donors are remote from field realities and while they sometimes (for larger schemes indeed) succeed in ensuring independent quality control, they often cannot and tend to be satisfied when the loan is disbursed. So who cares, beyond the users themselves?
Regarding the 'fit for purpose' issue, I think it is also somehow well recognized that collective irrigation paying for itself is quite rare (see here). In large-scale public schemes in particular it is exceptional that the water charges cover O&M costs, if these charges exist at all. Communal systems, whether using surface or groundwater, are seldom able to shoulder more than small repairs. Water User Associations in Tunisia or the Groundwater Cooperatives in Turkey, for example, are chronically in debt. Communal irrigation schemes in France are self-managed but need state subsidies for periodic rehabilitation/upgrading. Unless cash crops are grown (often the case for individual investments in groundwater-based irrigation) we must probably accept the fact that collective irrigation is rarely profitable enough to cover all costs, most especially replacement costs in case of asset deterioration. A similar discussion has developed about the non-profitability of water services when poverty alleviation and the right to water are factored in. There has been a lot of wishful thinking in the expectation that financial sustainability can be attained by collective (public) schemes, however desirable that may be.
These problems are disappointingly familiar. However, sweeping generalizations risk suggesting there will be generic solutions. More importantly, looking for generalizations about reasons for failure risks missing opportunities to learn, particularly if there are examples of schemes that are more fit, and more fit for purpose. From my experience with small scale irrigation development, mainly in Southeast Asia, including dissertation research on small-scale irrigation development in Northeast Thailand in the 1980s, I'll just suggest a few possibilities, though obviously there are lots of differences in conditions with contemporary Sub-Saharan Africa:
• Are there designs and design guidelines and standards that have been adapted to match local conditions, including hydrology, low-cost construction using available skills and materials, and enhancing what farmers have already been doing to irrigate?
• Are there programs that are learning and doing better over time? Funding for rural infrastructure in Thailand initially led to lots of failure, but then changes including improving training, better availability of standard designs, posting technicians to support planning and implementation at the local level, and subdistrict councils learning from local experience to make better decisions about selecting sites.
• Are there areas with more favorable conditions where things are working somewhat better, including higher population density (e.g. Great Lakes region), better combinations of government and community cooperation (multi-level/polycentric governance, e.g. Kenya), and better access to markets for high value crops (e.g. peri-urban areas)?
Bruns, Bryan. 1990. “Design for Participation: Elephant Ears, Crocodile Teeth and Variable Crest Weirs in Northeast Thailand.” In Design Issues in Farmer-Managed Irrigation Systems. Proceedings of an International Workshop of the Farmer-Managed Irrigation Systems Network Held at Chiang Mai, Thailand from 12 to 15 December 1989, edited by Robert Yoder and Juanita Thurston, 107–19. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Irrigation Management Institute. https://ageconsearch.umn.edu/record/302130/files/H07273-007.pdf
Here are a few quick thoughts of mine.
To paraphrase Barack Obama or closer to us, Bruce Lankford in this very journal, the discussion seems to be evolving towards finding the "right irrigation for Africa".
I would argue that sub-Sahara African farmers have already found the irrigation that is right for them as illustrated by the vibrant development of farmer led irrigation across the continent. I would further argue that this "right irrigation" rarely faces the issues raised in the initial post and that is because farmers initiate it, not external actors be they international or national engineers or contractors. Such irrigation hinges on modalities of water control and distribution that are different to that of the blue-print model of an “irrigation scheme” and the classic engineering that comes with it - and there I agree with the fact that the very idea of ‘scheme’ underpins many of the issues highlighted in the previous posts (on this, see the interesting paper by E. Harrison published in 2018 in World Development: Engineering change? The idea of ‘the scheme’ in African irrigation).
True, farmer led irrigation development raises some issues (of sustainability and equity in water allocation notably as raised by Ruth) but it is also an invitation to reinvent irrigation and, above all, how we approach it. And there, the flaws from “initial design to scheme management transfer and every step in between” are, I think, mere consequences of much more significant - yet maybe less visible- flaws that relate to the way development projects (not schemes) are still designed, implemented and monitored. Far too many (irrigation) projects are still locked-in a top-down approach trying to “force-in” predefined solutions to a diversity of contexts and the daily realities of development practice make it difficult to “reverse things up” : it is more complicated, it requires continuous adjustments - which the development sector does not deal easily with, and few people have direct incentives to change the ways things are and the way they work.
Farmer-led irrigation development in Sub-Saharan Africa: Investment, policy engagements and agrarian transformation (Guest Editors: Gert Jan Veldwisch, Jean-Philippe Venot and Hans Komakech)
I share the skepticism about government-built, and especially large-scale, irrigation “schemes” in Africa expressed by both Nancy’s blog and most commentators; and I also feel very positive about the potential of farmer-led irrigation as some have noted, even with its potential drawbacks. I am even a co-author of several papers raising questions on the efficacy of investing in government irrigation schemes (e.g., Inocencio et al. 2007; Fujiie et al. 2011; Kikuchi et al. 2020: Merrey and Sally 2017).
Nevertheless, even these papers take a more nuanced view, for example finding that investing in small-scale irrigation schemes can produce positive returns on investment Inocencio et al. 2007, Fujiie et al. 2011). Kikuchi et al. (2020) tried to estimate what it would cost in today’s dollars to construct Mwea, a highly productive rice irrigation scheme in Kenya that was initiated in the 1950s and expanded over time. It produces two seasons of very high yields but its estimated cost if constructed today as a new scheme is very high. Still, its benefits versus costs are determined by the price of rice – and if, as seems likely, global rice prices tend to the high side over the next few years, it will generate positive returns. And the study did not consider a range of external benefits generated by the existence of such a productive scheme.
There are numerous papers coming out of Ethiopia and elsewhere suggesting that many new irrigation schemes are increasing farmers’ incomes and wellbeing, despite not being nearly as productive as they potentially could be.
Recently, a series of papers coming from a project in southern Africa has shown that with relatively low-cost interventions to increase the productivity of irrigated agriculture, seemingly “failure” schemes can become productive and profitable for smallholder farmers Bjornlund et al. 2018; Parry et al. 2020; van Rooyen et al. 2022). If these schemes had been developed from the beginning, co-created with the farmers who will be using the scheme, they might have been productive from the beginning.
Returning to Nancy’s original thesis that schemes are “designed to fail”, perhaps it is time to draw on the positive lessons to support moving to “designing for success”. This would require a radical transformation of government agencies’ incentives, priorities, and recruitment practices, which the major donors should have been promoting over the past few decades rather than supporting business as usual.
Bjornlund, Henning, Parry, K. Pittock, J. Stirzaker, R. Rooyen, Andre F. van Moyo, M. Mdemu, M., and others. 2018. Transforming smallholder irrigation into profitable and self-sustaining systems in southern Africa. https://hdl.handle.net/10568/102269
Fujiie, Hitoshi, Atsushi Maruyama & Masako Fujiie & Michiko Takagaki & Douglas J. Merrey & Masao Kikuchi. 2011. Why invest in minor projects in sub-Saharan Africa? An exploration of the scale economy and diseconomy of irrigation projects. Irrig Drainage Syst (2011) 25:39–60. DOI 10.1007/s10795-011-9111-4
Inocencio, A.; Kikuchi, M.; Tonosaki, M.; Maruyama, A.; Merrey, D.; Sally, H.; de Jong, I. 2007. Costs and performance of irrigation projects: A comparison of sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute. 81 pp. (IWMI Research Report 109)
Kikuchi, M., Yukichi Mano, Timothy N. Njagi, Douglas Merrey & Keijiro Otsuka (2020): Economic Viability of Large-scale Irrigation Construction in Sub-Saharan Africa: What if Mwea Irrigation Scheme Were Constructed as a Brand-new Scheme? The Journal of Development Studies, DOI: 10.1080/00220388.2020.1826443
Merrey, D. and Sally, H. 2017. Viewpoint – Another well-intentioned bad investment in irrigation: the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s 'compact' with the Republic of Niger. Water Alternatives 10(1): 195-203, https://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/alldoc/articles/vol10/v10issue1/349-a10-1-11
Parry, Karen, Andre F. van Rooyen, Henning Bjornlund, Luitfred Kissoly, Martin Moyo and Wilson de Sousa. 2020. The importance of learning processes in transitioning smallscale irrigation schemes. IJWRD. https://doi.org/10.1080/07900627.2020.1767542
van Rooyen, A., Henning Bjornlund, Jamie Pittock, Karen Parry. 2022. Irrigated Water and its role in Circular agri-food systems in SSA. Proceedings of the 39th IAHR World Congress 19–24 June 2022, Granada, Spain doi://10.3850/IAHR-39WC2521716X2022833
OK, I was asked for 1000 words. To start a conversation. Sweeping generalizations are therefore a given. A "nuanced" view is hardly going to be expressed, Doug. By design. You want an intellectual debate, fine. I will not be set up as a patsy.
FLID has not taken off in SSA. First, the emphasis on manual extraction, which nobody wanted and no one adopted. I asked the first commenter to provide me references for evidence on FLID that perhaps I was missing, and I would still be glad for such. I hesitated to even write this blog focusing on what we've learned only about schemes, given that obviously the FLID flag is the new flavor de jeur. The proportion of farmers using any type of irrigation -- including manual irrigation for kitchen gardens -- has remained stagnant for 20 years in Nigeria, despite alot of money allocated to a... certain... project... there. And in many other contexts as well, with the exception of Ethiopia. Ethiopia. Lets talk about "bottom up" versus "top down". Really, let's do.
It is one thing to start a discussion, its quite another to have a bunch of people plug their work without engaging in the larger issues, which is that the evidence is very slim about FLID except for carefully curated case studies, that large scale schemes have succeeded (in terms of net benefits for irrigators) in certain contexts, and that medium scale schemes have generally been a disaster. I agree with some of the sentiments pointing out that a good deal of failure is due to any understanding of the locational characteristics (economic, social, cultural) that are associated with success, due primarily to political pressures.
The external top down approach rarely works ever, and certainly not in irrigation. The conditions are mostly not there yet to promote bottom-up adoption of FLID, even in countries with fairly high densities. But, I was writing about schemes, not FLID. Because it was 1000 words.
It seems this discussion is moving away from schemes, though that was the initial mandate of the initial post, but maybe this is good because we are tackling ever-broader issues!
That FLID has not taken off in SSA seems to me a rather strong statement. I have much less experience than most on this forum but over the last decades, regardless of what we think of their efficiency and sustainability, many countries in SSA have witnessed a boom in small diesel pumps placed on river banks, on the shore of small reservoirs or tapping more-or-less shallow aquifers in valley bottoms. That’s one of the many modalities through which farmers engage directly with irrigation. This is happening and I would say to a rather large extent (but indeed hard to know and map despite improvements in remote sensing - I won’t advertise our work on this here ).
That being said, I agree that FLID has become the new hype among development agencies (and researchers) far too eager to have a new model to promote or a new concept to coin.
But again, for me, the main point of FLID is that it forces us (self-defined experts of the sector ) to rethink the way we approach irrigation. That nothing much has changed over multiple decades in the Fadama area (I suspect this is what Nancy talks about), I think, has less to do with the type of irrigation than with the development modalities followed to engage with farmers there. By and large, fadama projects followed the same logic than all other irrigation projects be they centered on schemes or not.
The “projects”, not only the “schemes” are designed to fail...
And for this to change, it is indeed a question of changing incentives and, beyond, of changing the overall institutional set up and governance of “projects” that we all contribute to. That this was already flagged 30 years ago is.... testimony to how difficult this is but unless this question is adressed, I feel scheme and FLID project are likely to face the same fate than that of their predecessors.
I did search for more information on groundwater pump set imports into sub-Saharan Africa, but no one has cobbled that together and it would be too large an undertaking to do unpaid! So, I was sincerely hoping that some of the contributors who note a boom in motorized pumping could point me to the source of that information. I would be very interested if anyone could do so.
Back to schemes. I was indeed hoping more commenters would have considered different dimensions of schemes and scheme performance, as some did responding to Doug's earlier blog on large schemes. The one thing that still strikes me as odd is, on the one hand, many observers have long noted that engineers have perhaps too much influence on scheme design, but on the other hand, you still end up with alot of schemes that are poorly constructed. And, the problem seems to be far more pervasive for smaller rather than larger schemes. So, either the pool of engineers to construct large schemes contains more highly skilled and experienced engineers versus smaller schemes where the pool of expertise in designing such systems is more limited. Or, there are very large economies of scale in supervision to ensure that a well-designed scheme becomes a well-built scheme. From project completion reports, it is often difficult to figure out which of these explanations drives the result (though sometimes it is straightforward). The first should be pretty obvious to the project team given the bids they receive, but perhaps they go ahead because of pressure by their bosses or the government involved, as Higginbottom et al. noted. The second broadly has more support but not necessarily the type of evidence that would be useful to drive changes in supervision modalities. That would be an interesting line of enquiry for more rigorous study. But, in the end I agree with Jean-Phillipe that research like that would likely fall on very deaf ears, as the entire project design process itself is generally ineffective, and perhaps especially for infrastructure-based projects.