At the crossroads

David James Molden
Anjal Prakash

Nepal has a long history of farmer managed irrigation systems (FMIS) where farmers take sole responsibility for operating and maintaining their irrigation systems. In the absence of strong government intervention in the past, FMIS slowly evolved through the collective efforts of farmers looking to irrigate their land. These FMIS provide irrigation services to about two-thirds of the country’s total irrigated area of a little over of 1.2 million ha.

In Nepal, FMIS are characterized by the use of low-cost technology appropriate for heterogeneous local conditions, autonomous decision-making suited to local contexts, and collective action by farmers for the operation and maintenance of the irrigation systems. FMIS not only gave control of irrigation to the farmers but also helped in increasing land productivity and bringing sustainable income to farmers for centuries.

While many FMIS have survived decades of changes in hydro-climatic, social, institutional and policy conditions, their performance is increasingly under stress. Water availability for irrigation is affected by variability in the intensity and timing of precipitation—more flooding and erosion damage at the intake and canals, and less water available at the irrigation intake points during the dry season due to prolonged drought and increased competition for water. These challenges are further compounded by socioeconomic and institutional changes. Men are migrating out of the country side leaving women to play a larger part in agriculture management. More educated youth seem to have less interest in water management. In FMIS, men have played a dominant role in the maintenance and operation of irrigation systems. Around cities, there is increasing competition with FMIS, and around Kathmandu, many FMIS have disappeared.

In the changing socio-ecological contexts of urbanization, migration and technological changes with booming population and economic growth, FMIS is challenged by competing demands for water for drinking and commercial purposes. Presently, there exists only anecdotal evidence of these linkages. Further, the relationship is not linear but is influenced by diverse elements like globalization, access to market, and farmers’ aspirations and therefore greater understanding of these issues will help in management of agriculture. However, FMIS do still thrive in many areas, and there is an opportunity to learn more about managing resources, especially to build resilience of mountain communities in the face of further change.

FMIS are not declining but evolving in rapidly changing technological, cultural, environmental and economic contexts. For example, irrigation technology has expanded to groundwater pumping and pond irrigation, especially in the Tarai and the mid-hills. What we saw 20 years ago, is not necessarily the same today, but farmers are still in control. Farmers are essentially adopting these new technologies according to their needs and convenience. In many cases, FMIS are performing well despite major natural disasters, like the Gorkha earthquake of 2015 with little technical and financial support from government, most FMIS have promptly recovered from the quake in Sindhupalchowk and Dhading districts.  

However, the situation is particularly serious in peri-urban and water-scarce areas where irrigation is mostly neglected and under-prioritized. For example, in Kathmandu Valley, large amounts of vegetables are irrigated with wastewater due to the lack of irrigated infrastructure and the scarcity of drinking water. Health hazards associated with consuming vegetables irrigated with waste water is another area that needs attention and is it closely linked with water insecurity issues.

The secret ingredient

A key to the sustainability of FMIS is their indigenous institutional set up which is highly variable from place to place. In Nepal, it is remarkable to find so many ways rules are made to fit local conditions. Technologies, while often very simple, are made for specific causes. People are resourceful in organizing the distribution of, and the maintaining of, water. Many development projects sought to improve FMIS, but over the years they learned to build on local institutions. Projects emphasizing infrastructure while overlooking institution, were often doomed to frustration and failure.

Coping with a changing environment is becoming more challenging for communities. Natural disasters and growing risks from climate change underscore the need to support FMIS. An increasing number of women—with limited skills—are now playing a more significant role in the management of water and agriculture due to labor migration.

The goal of programs and policies should be to strengthen the capacity of local people and not to create dependency on government. There is much that can be garnered from the study of FMIS in the 1980s and 1990s. There remains a wealth of knowledge in these systems and researchers like Prachanda Pradhan and the FMIS Trust. This piece was inspired by a recent meeting we had at ICIMOD with a group of professionals with long experience in FMIS. This type of knowledge holds the key to the future.