Participatory Management for


Agricultural Water Control in Vietnam:

Challenges and Opportunities








Bryan Bruns









A Background Paper for the



National Seminar on



Participatory Irrigation Management


April 7-11, 1997



Vinh City, Nghe An Province







Vietnam already has participatory institutions which can provide a good framework for improving operation and maintenance of irrigation, drainage and flood control, if these institutions are suitably developed. Specialized irrigation teams distribute water at the local level. Irrigation management companies manage headworks and main canals, making contracts for providing irrigation services to irrigation teams or cooperatives. Irrigation management companies have financial autonomy, obtaining income from irrigation fees and have the right to retain surplus earnings. Irrigation fees are well established and, together with local labor, contribute to comparatively high levels of local resource mobilization. Small irrigation systems are already locally managed. Water resources development has received priority in government policy.


However, there are still serious weaknesses, and a risk that if irrigation development is not wisely managed it could undermine existing institutional strengths. Institutional reforms for cooperatives and irrigation management companies to adjust to a market-oriented economy are still incomplete. Much infrastructure is in poor condition, and funds, equipment and skills for improvement are scarce. Government policies promising to fund costs of major construction may create expectations which exceed government capacity, while discouraging local efforts. Rice yields are still low relative to other countries in the region. Export quotas and other characteristics of the agricultural marketing system keep farmgate prices far below export prices, weakening the incentives for farmers to increase production. Water fees are inadequate to cover operating costs in many areas. Institutions for coordinating water management among multiple irrigation teams and communes need further development.


Efforts to improve participation can draw on a variety of experience, within Vietnam and in many other countries. As a basis for stimulating discussion during the seminar this paper outlines several key sets of opportunities.


  • 1. Federated organizations can be formed by representatives of existing irrigation teams, to create better institutions for participatory management of canals and schemes covering multiple communes. These may simply provide more formal forums for consultation in irrigation scheduling or be organizations which can take over management of medium-scale schemes and secondary canals.


    2. Increased responsibilities can be transferred to local management, creating a better balance of local incentives and capacity with irrigation management company responsibilities and capacity. This includes both transfer of new responsibilities as well as formal recognition of roles already played in operation of tertiary gates and secondary canals.


    3. Management transfer can be supported by appropriate training, monitoring, technical guidance and other measures to strengthen the capacity of irrigation teams and irrigation management companies. Team performance can be strengthened by ensuring that irrigation team leaders are locally elected and accountable for their performance. Irrigation teams and cooperatives need full financial autonomy in collecting fees, paying for services and financing improvements.


    4. Rehabilitation and tertiary development can continue and deepen use of participatory approaches in design and construction, particularly through village level meetings and field walkthroughs, to ensure thorough consultation. Design criteria and investment levels need to be appropriate to local conditions and management capacity.


    5. Further management reforms of irrigation management companies could consider representation of farmers and other stakeholders in irrigation company management boards and other organizations, e.g. in basin management, as well as the possibility of transferring even large schemes to farmer-controlled water management entities.


  • Pilot projects can play a valuable role in trying out new ideas. Working groups, including university researchers and NGOs, can help guide pilots, draw lessons from pilot efforts and formulate recommendations for reforms in policies and institutions. Caution should be exercised to avoid excessive levels of resources and attention which would make pilots impossible to replicate. Regional and local diversity means that the goal be should not be a single uniform model, but instead a menu or toolkit of approaches and techniques, which can be customized to local conditions, to achieve the goal of creating effective continuing improvements in operation and maintenance, irrigation performance and farmer welfare.








  • 1. Challenges and Opportunities

    2. Kinds of Participation

    3. PIM-International Examples

    4. Tools for participation


  • 1. Strengths

    2. Weaknesses


  • 1. Form federated organizations

    2. Transfer medium-scale schemes and secondary canals

    3. Improve irrigation teams

    4. Develop infrastructure-with participation

    5. Increase participation in large-scale management


  • 1. Pilot projects

    2. Conclusions

  • F. NOTES








    1. Challenges and Opportunities


  • Vietnam faces major challenges and opportunities in development of agricultural water control, to make productive use of increased infrastructure investments and follow through on the process of economic reform and institutional development. Vietnam's water resources management institutions already incorporate valuable elements of participatory management. Their sustainability may be threatened if development ignores, bypasses or undermines these institutions, while development can be much more successful if this experience is recognized and sustained.


    Experience in Vietnam and in other countries shows a variety of ways in which participation improves irrigation and water resources management. Vietnam can take advantage of this experience and identify ways in which institutions can be further developed to improve performance. Such efforts should be part of a broader vision for creating a vigorous, prosperous agricultural sector, capable of supporting continuing improvement in water management, agricultural productivity and the well-being of rural people. This requires overcoming several challenges.



    Water control: Vietnam's environment makes agricultural water management a major challenge. Irrigation can enable farmers to grow two or three crops per year, as well as reducing damage from dry spells during the wet season. However, more than most countries, drainage and flood control are also crucial in Vietnam. Monsoon rains are heavy, and in much of the country steep rivers debouch onto flat floodplains, creating frequent flooding. Irrigation and drainage works are intended to provide controlled flooding, but are often overwhelmed by natural forces. In northern Vietnam, massive investments have been made in flood control levees, which bring benefits, and also problems including rising river bed levels, difficult drainage and loss of soil fertility replenishment. In many areas, particularly in central Vietnam, annual flooding frequently damages canals and creates heavy burdens for repair. Drainage is essential for agriculture in much of the Mekong Delta. Along the coast, water control structures can help to keep water available for more of the year, use tidal fluctuations to aid delivery of irrigation water, and exclude saline water. Effective institutions are needed to build operate and maintain all types of systems for agricultural water control.



    Infrastructure: Vietnam has over 2.4 million hectares of irrigated land. Much infrastructure is in poor condition Funding for maintenance and improvement has been scarce. Irrigation management companies are short of equipment, such as transport and communications, and often either lack technical skills, or lack the facilities, equipment and institutional capacity to apply the skills they possess.



    Investment: Increased funding is becoming available for irrigation investment in Vietnam from government revenues and international finance. This creates both opportunities and threats. If used wisely, investment can improve performance and extend benefits more widely. However in many countries performance of large irrigation projects has been far below expectations, while creating heavy debt burdens, with actual irrigated areas smaller than design areas and rapid deterioration of facilities leading to needs for rehabilitation long before the expected design life of structures and canals. Government investment has sometimes disrupted and displaced local efforts, and created expectations that the government should shoulder operation and maintenance costs, beyond the financial and institutional capacity of the government to deliver. Internationally, these concerns are leading to increasing efforts to improve participation in irrigation management, enabling farmers who benefit from irrigation to take on greater roles in development, operation and maintenance.



    Organization of the paper: This background paper explores some of the ways in which participation can contribute to improving the performance of water management for agriculture in Vietnam. The paper was prepared for the National Seminar on Participatory Irrigation Management in Vietnam, held from April 7-11, 1997, in Vinh City, Nghe An Province. The paper draws on published reports, discussions and field visits in Vietnam during February 1997 and comparison with other countries in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. The first section of the paper discusses different kinds of participation and briefly introduces relevant international experience and techniques. The second section outlines some of the strengths and weaknesses of irrigation operation and maintenance in Vietnam as they relate to participation. The third section explores some of the principal opportunities for using participation to improve irrigation management. The conclusion outlines routes and principles for developing new approaches as part of pilot projects and reform programs.



    2. Kinds of Participation


  • Participatory development is "a process through which stakeholders influence and share control over development initiatives, and the decisions and resources which affect them" (World Bank 1996). Stakeholders in irrigation projects include farmer beneficiaries, staff of irrigation agencies and others who are affected, such as users of water for domestic use and people whose land might be acquired for canals and roads. Participation comes in a variety of forms, and may range from merely sharing information about plans and schedules, to discussions which allow stakeholders to suggest ideas, to decision-making based on mutual agreement and full transfer of responsibility and authority to local control.


    The best form and level of participation needs to be worked out based on the characteristics of the situation. Participation has both benefits and costs. Participation helps prevent problems and increase performance. Participation is costly in terms of time, of farmers and agency staff. Participation can be done efficiently, requiring less time and cost in total than less effective non-participatory approaches, once capacity has been institutionalized. However, efforts to develop participation require significant resources, and are not guaranteed success. If conducted poorly, reforms may even damage previously effective institutions. Still, in many countries, concern about current poor performance in irrigation and potential benefits from participatory reforms have motivated continuing efforts to improve participation. It is important to remember than participation is not a panacea nor necessarily an end in itself. Participation in irrigation is primarily a means. The goal is not to maximize participation, but instead to optimize participation in ways which contribute to improving the performance of agricultural water management.



    3. PIM-International Examples


  • Participatory approaches to irrigation development have been developed in many countries. This has created a stock of ideas and techniques which countries such as Vietnam can draw on in considering ways to improve irrigation management.



    Organizers and associations: In the 1970 the Philippines pioneered efforts to increase the role of farmers in irrigation management. Community organizers (COs) helped farmers to organize irrigators' associations. This provided channels for farmers to voice their ideas during design and determine which construction work would be done by the agency and which by farmers, as well as planning for O&M. These efforts began with communal schemes (smaller than 1,000 hectares) and then were expanded to include secondary canals within larger schemes. Results from pilot efforts were analyzed on a continuing basis by a working group including agency officials, donor representatives and social scientists. This group helped formulate recommendations for changes in policies and institutions. One of the main pressures for reform came from the search for ways improve recovery of construction costs in communal schemes and payment of irrigation fees in larger schemes. The success of participatory approaches in rehabilitation of the Gal Oya reservoir in Sri Lanka showed that participatory approaches had more general applicability. Subsequently, similar efforts have been made in many countries, including Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Nepal, India and Pakistan.



    Irrigation management transfer: Turnover of irrigation management to farmers in the Philippines, Indonesia and Nepal has focused on smaller communal schemes, mostly covering a few hundred hectares or less. More recently Mexico and Turkey have transferred larger schemes, many covering thousands of hectares each, and sometimes tens of thousands, to local management. These experiences will be discussed in more detail by other participants in the seminar. This transfer has involved larger, more formal management organizations which can hire professional staff, operate vehicles and equipment and mobilize substantial budgets from farmer fees. Agencies may retain responsibility for managing headworks and provide subsidies for maintenance or rehabilitation. In both countries there has been strong top-down push to carry out turnover, though this has generated local responses leading to rapid expansion of areas transferred.



    Management concessions: China has a diverse range of water management institutions, some of which will be reported during the seminar by participants in the study tour. One distinctive institution is the use of management concessions. Competitive tenders are used in some cases to select contractors who take responsibility for managing a scheme for a period of several years. This allows competitive selection of operators, rather than giving a monopoly to state agencies by default.



    Irrigation districts. In the western U.S., Japan and some other countries districts are given limited governmental powers to finance and manage irrigation development. Typically, plans are made for construction, an election is held and if a majority approves, then the district is authorized to borrow money, from the government or bond market, to invest in irrigation development. The district has the taxing power to collect a levy from all land which benefits from irrigation, in order to repay the debt. States retain responsibility for regulating the activities of districts and ensuring that they comply with regulations.



    Empowering communities: Irrigation has been one of may sectors in which there has been a shift to greater recognition and support for local self-governance rather than relying primarily on national bureaucracies. Policies have changed to encourage governments to work more directly with local communities, sometimes in conjunction with non-government organizations (NGOs). Many countries have recognized the limits of development efforts dominated by bureaucratic agencies, which often discouraged local efforts and led states to take on responsibilities for O&M which they were unable to fulfill. Participatory irrigation management is one part of this broader shift to policies which better utilize the capacity of local people and organizations.



    4. Tools for participation


  • Putting participation into practice can make use of a variety of techniques which have been developed over the years. In some cases these are just a matter of making more systematic what may have been done informally, reducing the risk of bias and enabling new people to quickly learn techniques. In some other cases very innovative techniques have been created to elicit local knowledge, facilitate communication between community members and agencies and encourage communities to analyze their problems and plan solutions.



    Walkthroughs: Joint walkthroughs allow engineers and farmers to observe and discuss conditions in the field. This allows empirically based discussion to focus on solving problems, rather than just reiterating policies and conducting abstract discussions in village meetings. A key part of walkthoughs is to look at the entire system, avoiding the too common pattern of visiting headworks and nearby areas where water is relatively abundant, and neglecting to see areas in the middle and tail end where problems are more apparent, and urgent. Walkthroughs have been a fundamental and very successful tool for implementing participation in many countries.



    Mapping: Farmers can make sketch maps to clarify conditions, particularly when ordinary maps (at suitable scales) are unavailable. When local people draw maps they can identify areas where problems in irrigation and drainage occur, and clarify how local landholding and other factors might affect development of canal networks. In larger schemes, where adequate information is available, topographic maps can also be useful. Overlays can help show different kinds of information which might be too complex to include on a single map, such as soil types, roads, electric networks, settlements and cropping patterns in different seasons. In hilly areas, relief models can be created using cardboard or thin pieces of Styrofoam for each contour level. These can help to make discussion between local people and agency staff much clearer and easier. Models of village areas can be made on the ground, using stones, sticks, branches and other available materials. Maps and models help open up discussion so that many people can contribute their ideas, rather than purely verbal discussions which are more easily dominated by a few leaders.



    Crop calendars show the scheduling of different crops, and associated irrigation and drainage activities. Again, experience has shown that local people are quite capable of preparing and using such diagrams, with a modest amount of explanation and support. This enables them to take part as active participants in analyzing the situation and planning ways to make improvements, rather than just having information extracted for use by outsiders.



    Matrix ranking: Simple matrices can show alternatives and how they are rated on various criteria, for example alternative crops for diversification could be compared in terms of price, input costs, risks, difficulty of cultivation and other characteristics which farmers identify as important. This can help clarify the factors which influence local choices, and assess which alternatives are most feasible in terms of local conditions and preferences.



    Stakeholder workshops: Workshops can bring together participants from different stakeholder groups, to help clarify their concerns and formulate approaches which serve common interests. The basic framework of small group discussion and plenary sessions can be productive with all kinds of participants, including illiterate people. Facilitators can help encourage all participants to express their concerns. Small groups give everyone a chance to express their ideas, which each group can then summarize on large sheets of paper as key points for presentation to the larger group.



    Farmer-to-farmer training: Farmers often are much more willing to learn from the experience of other farmers, rather than in conventional classroom conditions. In the context of integrated pest management programs these approaches have been effectively applied to teaching people about sophisticated strategies for identifying pests, assessing when pest levels are high enough to require response and selecting appropriate management strategies. In irrigation, experienced farmers can work as local experts to help train others and assist in planning irrigation development and other activities.



    PRA: The methods outlined above are just a few of the huge variety of techniques which have been developed. Many of these have already been applied in participatory rural appraisal (PRA) work in Vietnam, in forestry and other sectors. More important than any particular technique is the fundamental attitude of being ready to listen to farmers and support them in their efforts to analyze the situation and plan ways to make improvements. The techniques listed above provide ways to make this process easier and more effective, facilitating participation in irrigation management.






    Vietnam has many important institutional strengths, which should be kept in mind when thinking about improving participation in operation and maintenance. Participatory projects in other countries have exerted great efforts to try to establish some of the institutions which already exist in Vietnam. However, experience elsewhere has also shown how easily such institutions may be lost, when well intentioned projects overwhelm, undermine or discourage participation.



    1. Strengths



    Irrigation teams: Many areas in Vietnam already have well established institutions for specialized local irrigation management by irrigation teams. This is in part a heritage of the period of collectivized agriculture, but seems to have survived even in areas where after decollectivization cooperatives disappeared or became defunct. In some cases these teams manage water all the way down to and within individual fields, while in other cases water is delivered into a canal, and then households take it into their fields. Teams may be made up of from five to twenty or more members. Leaders are often elected directly by farmers, but in some cases may be appointed by the cooperative or commune. The area managed by a team member may range from a few hectares, with intensive in-field water control, to seventy hectares or more, where households take a greater role in moving water from canals into their fields.



    Service contracts: Irrigation management companies (IMC) sign contracts to deliver water from main canals into the areas managed by irrigation teams. The cooperative or irrigation team usually makes service contracts with a village head or with individual farmers. In general IMCs contract with cooperatives, particularly where cooperatives have successfully been reorganized as service cooperatives, as has happened for example in Quang Nam and Quang Ngai. In some cases contracts may be made directly with irrigation team leaders, e.g. in Ho Chi Minh City. In other cases, the cooperative may still exist in name, but largely persist only as an extension of the commune administration. Contracts at both levels provide a framework for defining service obligations and responsibilities for paying water fees, even though performance in practice may be somewhat mixed and fees collected are often insufficient to cover costs.



    Financial autonomy: A key recommendation for reforming irrigation in many countries has been to set up irrigation agencies as financially autonomous organizations. In principle this is already the case for irrigation management companies at the provincial and district level. They have their own separate finances. They can obtain income from irrigation fees, as well as charges for supplying water to other users and from construction activities, though such sideline enterprises are much less common than in China. Most companies still depend on subsidies from government, but they do have separate accounts. If they have a surplus, companies can retain it at the end of the fiscal year, in accounts for paying additional compensation to staff and for further irrigation maintenance and construction. This fiscal autonomy creates a framework for assessing management performance, and for pushing companies to improve earnings, if policies for subsidies are further tightened up and more clearly targeted at poverty alleviation, disaster relief and other priority goals, rather than simply covering revenue shortfalls regardless of management performance. Irrigation teams and cooperatives generally have financial autonomy in collecting water fees and remitting them to the irrigation management company, as well as collecting additional fees to cover local management costs.



    Local resource mobilization: Farmers contribute a high level of resources towards irrigation management, by comparison with most other countries, even though in many cases this is still insufficient to cover operating costs. Farmers pay irrigation fees, which in some pumped schemes with three crops per year can exceed one ton per hectare per year. Typical fee levels are on the order of two to three hundred kilograms of paddy per hectare per crop. This is usually paid in cash, converted at the local price for paddy. Fee levels vary depending on the type of irrigation service, with the highest fees in pumped schemes, lower in gravity schemes and lowest where water is made available to farmers who must lift it to their fields, as in the Mekong Delta. Procedures are used for exempting farmers from payment when crops are lost due to flooding or other disasters. After the season, performance is supposed to be reviewed and fees adjusted accordingly. Water fees are only one part of a relatively heavy burden of taxes and other charges which farmers must pay.


    All adults are obligated to contribute ten days work per year, and a significant part of this is used for irrigation maintenance, along with work on roads and other public facilities. The government policy has long been that the government would concentrate its efforts on building headworks and major structures, with farmers responsible for doing remaining works, even when these included major earthworks for main canals. Technical advice and materials, e.g. cement and steel would be provided sometimes to support local efforts. Availability of international financing creates the possibility of accelerating irrigation development. If these resources are to be used efficiently and optimally, this should be done in ways which support, rather than undermine, traditions of local self-reliance and cost sharing in irrigation development.



    Management transfer: In general schemes covering less than 150 hectares are turned over to local management. Larger schemes built with government aid have been turned over to local management in some cases, particularly when located within the area of a single commune. This again shows how local participation is already a well established part of irrigation management in Vietnam. The approach to turnover seems to depend on local management capacity. The irrigation management company in Quang Nam Da Nang reported that they were turning one small reservoir over to local management, but were also taking back responsibility for another reservoir which had technical problems beyond local capacity to manage. Statistics indicate that formal government managed gravity and pump schemes serve only slightly over half of the irrigated area: the other half appears to be irrigated through household and community efforts.



    Policy priority for irrigation: Another factor which should also be recognized, and remembered when considering the relevance of experience from other countries is that the government of Vietnam has given a high priority to irrigation, drainage and flood control. In part this goes back into the long history of building levees to control floods in the Red River delta. After unification, efforts were made to rapidly expand irrigation, particularly through the expansion of pumping schemes. Communes and agricultural production cooperatives played a major role in mobilizing collective labor, as well as funding and technical support for these efforts. The shift to production by households has changed conditions, but irrigation continues to receive much attention from government.



    2. Weaknesses



    Institutional reform: The economic reforms are intended to separate administrative and economic institutions, leading to more efficient and productive management of economic activities in a market-oriented economy. Reform is an ongoing and still incomplete process. At the household level and for private companies, the reforms have had dramatic impacts on raising productivity, driven by the quest for profit. Progress has been much slower for state enterprises, still subject to many restrictions and asked not just to earn income but to serve many public policy objectives.


    Cooperatives and irrigation management companies are still in the process of adjusting to economic reform policies. In some areas cooperatives have successfully reorganized themselves as service organizations, under leadership elected by farmers and with financial autonomy. In other areas cooperatives have disappeared or become defunct, existing in name but with little or no independent activity. Irrigation management companies have had varied degrees of success in strengthening irrigation management and mobilizing additional sources of revenue.


    At the local level the shift to household level production brings increasing socio-economic stratification, with risks of better-off people using political and economic power to unfairly bias project implementation to serve their interests. Social changes also risk reducing women's opportunities, unless efforts are made to ensure that they have a voice in decision-making, helping to identify ways in which irrigation and other projects can respond to their concerns. More generally, participation cannot rely on commune institutions in the same way as in the past, and needs to be improved in ways which fit with current conditions and provide incentives for improving performance.



    Water distribution: Some of the most practical problems in water resources management concern distributing water so that it reaches beyond those areas closest to main canals. The government's policy has been to concentrate on building headworks and major structures, with further development done by farmers. However in some cases this seems to have meant that tertiary networks were little developed, with actual irrigated area much less than the command area expected during design. As discussed in the reports from the ADB pilot sites, canals serving several communes had severe problems with head end communes taking excessive amounts of water, to the point that others received little or no canal water, and it appears that similar problems are common in other areas.



    Deficits, lack of transparency and dependence on subsidies: In many, perhaps most cases, revenues from irrigation fees are insufficient to cover the cost of O&M, particularly for pump schemes. Fee collection is often well below targets, due in part to poor quality service which makes it difficult or impossible to collect fees, which may perpetuate a vicious circle of decline. Water charges are not retained for use within the same scheme they are collected, nor is there a clear separation between scheme-specific O&M costs and more general services. This creates a complicated pattern of cross-subsidies, weakens incentives for payment and confuses accountability. Many pump schemes were developed during the period of collectivized agriculture, when economic factors were less of a consideration, and, under current prices for rice, electricity and other factors, may not be financially viable to operate without subsidies. Irrigation company costs and staffing levels often seem high in relation to the amount of work accomplished. Lack of information makes it hard to analyze the cost structure or conduct other management accounting analysis. Lack of transparency may discourage payment, and weaken pressures for performance. At the local level, farmers may not even know which of their payments are for irrigation and which are for land tax and other obligations. District and provincial irrigation management companies seem to vary greatly in the extent to which reports on fee collection and expenditure are made available to cooperatives, farmers and the public.



    Inadequate infrastructure: Capital for improving tertiary irrigation infrastructure is in short supply. Service cooperatives or irrigation teams lack the financial capabilities which production cooperatives had to mobilize capital for pumps and other investments. While communes and cooperatives sometimes borrow to finance electricity and other infrastructure, institutional mechanisms could be further developed to enhance the capacity of local institutions plan, borrow, implement investments and ensure repayment by beneficiaries. In some cases local investments have been made in ways which remedy local problems but further complicate overall system management and make it impossible to operate schemes as they were originally designed. Examples include adding numerous direct outlets from major canals, rather than building and using tertiary canal networks, and installing weirs and pumps to lift water from drains in tail end areas, changing drainage patterns. There is often a strong belief that lining is necessary and worthwhile, but a lack of technical or financial analysis on how to optimize benefits from this costly investment. There is inadequate attention to how management changes could help solve problems, i.e. improving software, not just hardware. There is a need to learn from recently built or rehabilitated projects, about which problems have been successfully solved by rehabilitation, and which problems are still prevalent, requiring different approaches. Poorly planned construction can waste money and create numerous problems.


    The prepared by NGOs for the Vietnam Water Resources Sector Review draws on lessons from extensive experience to summarize valuable recommendations on participatory approaches, as follows:


  • "1. The community must be involved in all aspects of the project from origination to design to construction to implementation to post-construction management. Without this community involvement in the total project the chances for success are severely limited.


    2. There must be transparency in all the dealings. All levels-government, community and NGO-must all have the same facts and figures.


    3. Training of local nationals as part of the process is crucial.


    4. Post management schemes must be included in the pre-design stage.


    5. Taxes, fees etc. would work better if they are project specific and clearly spelled out beforehand.


    6. Extra interventions aimed at alleviating the constraints faced by poorer households may be needed since it cannot be assumed that they will automatically benefit from water resource projects." (Source Egan, Kohnert and NGO Water Resource Sectoral Group 1994).



  • Rice prices and yields: Farmgate rice prices are far lower than international export prices, weakening incentives to farmers to invest their time and money in rice production. Export quotas and other inefficiencies impede agricultural marketing. Rice yields are low by comparison with other countries in the region, suggesting that there is still considerable potential for increasing production. Diversification is also needed to provide more opportunities for farmers, particularly where rice production is difficult or inappropriate, e.g. where pumping costs make water too expensive to grow rice profitably.






    There are many steps which could be taken to improve irrigation operation and maintenance through participatory approaches. As a means for stimulating discussion in the seminar, five key areas of opportunity will be discussed here:




    1. Form federated organizations


  • The most significant opportunity for improving participatory irrigation management lies in setting up institutions which can enable increased participation in the management of irrigation systems which serve multiple communes and multiple irrigation teams. Using a federated structure could provide a relatively rapid means for establishing such organizations, formed by representatives from existing irrigation teams. Such a federated structure could be either an informal organization or a formal cooperative with legal status, depending on the situation.


    A federated structure can have multiple levels. Thus representatives of irrigation teams sharing a single secondary canal could cooperate to share water in that canal, while a higher level federation might join together with the IMC for planning cropping schedules and water distribution among multiple secondary canals. As this example suggests a federated structure could be useful either as a formal mechanism for consultation which may already be occurring more informally, or as an organization which can take over responsibility for irrigation management in secondary canals or medium-scale irrigation schemes.


    The pilot efforts to be carried out as part of the World Bank supported Irrigation Rehabilitation Project would provide an opportunity to explore the alternative of forming a federated organization based on existing irrigation teams. Formation of federated organizations is not something which should necessarily be undertaken automatically or universally. It is a means for building institutional capacity which can help solve specific problems. One example is where severe difficulties existing in implementing rotational water distribution to equitably deliver water to tail end areas.


    Current organizations represent a substantial amount of social capital in the network of institutions and relationships which have been developed. It may be possible to establish federated organizations with much less disruption than completely reorganizing management, and in ways that maintain support from commune authorities rather than arousing opposition. At the local level in Vietnam, irrigation teams seem to be widespread and relatively effective, despite wide local and regional differences in the extent to which cooperatives have survived and transformed themselves from production into service organizations.


    Experience in many countries has shown that new formal organizations can be easily established, in the sense of electing officers and approving constitutions and by-laws. It is much harder to establish sustainable organizations which continue to be active once project interventions cease. Similarly there have often been many problems resulting from efforts to install technical irrigation management, with sophisticated measuring structures and rotation located at the tertiary level.


    Formation of federated organizations is an option which may be more feasible and sustainable than reorganizing water user organizations as separate organizations, based on canal service areas. Therefore it constitutes a somewhat different approach from that recommended based on the ADB pilot studies in Nghe An province. Pilots at those sites followed the approach which has been employed in the Philippines and some other projects of establishing water user associations as separate organizations based on hydrological boundaries. It was argued that interference by commune officials was a major source of problems in water distribution and fee collection, which could be solved by forming a new, separate organization. It has been pointed out that while this may create a greater degree of independence from interference from commune officials, they may resent the loss of power and income once water management and irrigation fees are no longer directly under the authority of the commune. In some extreme cases this degree of reorganization may be justified and necessary. However the more common situation seems to be one where irrigation teams function relatively effectively, and have financial autonomy in collecting fees and remitting them directly to irrigation management companies. Both approaches are directed at the need to establish more effective institutions for managing water beyond the boundaries of individual irrigation teams, given the limitations experienced when such management has been the primary responsibility of irrigation management companies alone.


    The goal should be institutions which recognize both administrative and hydrological realities, and capable of managing both. Efforts to simply exclude administrative authorities, e.g. commune leaders, from irrigation are likely to be futile and counterproductive. At the same time, water clearly does not stop at administrative boundaries, so institutions must be able to manage across multiple administrative jurisdictions. A federated approach builds up from tertiary level units with local roots and links with cooperatives and communes, while providing a structure for management of specific schemes.


    Difficulties in mobilizing money and sustaining activities in WUA have been the basis for calls for WUA to expand their activities beyond irrigation management in many countries. In this context it would be somewhat counterproductive to establish single purpose irrigation organizations, severing links with cooperatives which currently provide a mechanism for undertaking activities outside of water management. Linkages with cooperatives, where they are active and effective, can help reduce institutional overhead by sharing use of offices, leadership roles, etc., thus making irrigation management less costly for farmers.


    The appropriate type of organization is one of the topics to be discussed in the seminar. A federated approach can build on existing organizations, while providing financial autonomy and a management structure with a scope larger than a single commune, appropriate to medium-scale irrigation schemes or secondary canals.



    2. Transfer medium-scale schemes and secondary canals


  • There appears to be much potential for improving irrigation operation and maintenance in Vietnam by transferring increased responsibilities to farmers and locally-based organizations. This may mean transfer of activities which were done previously by irrigation management companies or jointly by IMCs and irrigation teams. It may also include formal recognition of situations where activities are already carried out at the local level, even though they are officially the responsibility of the IMC, e.g. operation of tertiary gates and secondary canals. One area of opportunity for irrigation management transfer lies in turning over medium-sized schemes, for example pump schemes serving areas of several hundred to several thousand hectares, and turnover of secondary canals of similar scale.


    Farmers would have strong incentives to take over schemes if this could enable them to improve water distribution and perhaps reduce water fees. For deficit schemes which currently require subsidies it might be necessary to either first make improvements which can reduce or eliminate deficits, e.g. increasing pump efficiency or reducing losses in canals and to drains or other measures which could help reduce electricity costs.


    Pump schemes serving the area within a single commune are already frequently locally managed, even if originally built with government funding, and many such schemes were developed entirely through local efforts in the past. The main constraint for activities beyond the scope of a single commune seems to be the need for an institutional structure for activities which include more than one commune but much less than an entire district. As discussed in the previous section, federated water user cooperatives provide a structure capable of taking over management.


    Farmers benefit from better water control, reduced risk and increased production, giving them incentives to push for better performance, if institutions enable farmers and their representatives to pursue their interests. Farmers and irrigation teams have detailed knowledge of local conditions and irrigation needs. Irrigation management companies have technical expertise. Government can provide authority and access to financing. The goal in management transfer should be to create a more optimal combination of accountability, incentives and skills to improve irrigation performance.



    3. Improve irrigation teams


  • In many, perhaps most cases, irrigation team leaders are already elected by farmers. Where this is not yet the case there is scope for improving accountability by ensuring that team leaders are elected, not appointed. In some cases team members are also elected. However there are advantages and disadvantages to having team members elected, so the best approach may depend on the local situation.


    Technical training can help to strengthen the skills of irrigation team members. It may help them to better carry out their tasks, and explain to others how O&M can be improved. Classroom training may be useful, or ineffective, depending on the circumstances. In general field-based activities are much more likely to have an impact in strengthening skills. An annual joint inspection provides an occasion for such practical training on the job, as well as participatory monitoring and planning for upcoming seasons.


    Now that cooperatives are no longer production units the process of mobilizing resources for maintenance and improvement is more complex. Labor cannot simply be commanded and cooperatives have much less funding at their command. Strengthening of local management institutions can increase local capacity for financing irrigation development. This can include strengthening local skills in technical and economic assessment of potential improvements, as well as providing access to financing for profitable improvements.


    The Rehabilitation Project is allowing provinces to borrow funds for tertiary development, to be implemented by Irrigation Management Companies and then repaid from future water fee revenues. This constitutes a potentially very useful mechanism for increasing access to funding for improvements, especially if participation is used to help make such investments as productive as possible.



    4. Develop infrastructure-with participation


  • The principle of consultation during design already seems well established in Vietnam. However as new arrangements are used, particularly selection of design consultants through competitive bidding, there may be a need for strengthening procedures to ensure close consultation. Companies conducting design on a commercial basis have a different set of incentives from design done by irrigation management companies which will continue to be involved in O&M. This increases the need for design supervision.


    Now that land for agricultural production has been allocated to households it is less feasible to rely on cooperative or commune leaders to adequately represent local interests. In the past it might have been possible to carry out consultation at the commune level, and then rely on commune and cooperative leaders to work things out locally. Now that land is held by households who manage their own production, there is a greater need for gathering information and holding discussions at the village and household level, especially where construction or rehabilitation of land may affect individual fields. In principle canals and roads are supposed to be bounded by rights of way, but in practice it appears that sometimes much of this land has also been allocated for household use. The small size of household landholding means that using even small amounts of land can have a major impact for particular families. Farmers may have a good understanding of drainage complications, which would only be apparent to outsiders who happened to visit during major storms and floods.


    As discussed earlier, joint walkthroughs can play a very useful role in enabling clear and constructive discussion of irrigation problems and potential solutions. Actually staking out the land which would be affected can be much clearer than verbal discussion. Facing up to these issues early during the planning process allows more time to find acceptable solutions. Agency staff or others can work as facilitators, to help encourage local organization and action to take part in planning. In practice this means that meetings and walkthroughs are likely to be needed at the level of individual villages affected by potential improvements. The time and staff to carry this out need to be provided for in the design process, and so should be explicitly stipulated in design contracts. This provides a basis for monitoring to ensure that this consultation is carried out, and not skipped or done on a cursory basis. Minutes of such meetings, signed by farmers and agency staff, recording specific suggestions from farmers and responses from the agency can help provide a verifiable record of such activities.


    Technical advice can improve the effectiveness of local efforts to improve irrigation, for example surveying to check levels and the feasibility of supplying particular locations by gravity. As has already been practiced, provision of cement and steel along with technical advice can help stimulate and complement local efforts.


    With the availability of larger amounts of external funding there is a temptation to take shortcuts, completing physical improvements without having to go through more time consuming processes of local consultation. However this risks discouraging local efforts and creating a situation where the government will be expected to take responsibility for what it has built. A slower process, based on mutual agreement, is more likely to establish local ownership and responsibility for operation and maintenance.


    There is a risk that new investments may quickly degrade, particularly if old habits persist of making only minimal, stopgap maintenance. By comparison with most existing systems, newly rehabilitated schemes appear to be in very good condition, and so there may be a tendency to allow them to degrade substantially before maintenance is felt to be necessary. Upgrading maintenance standards is a necessary part of irrigation development, without which benefits may not last.


    This needs to be distinguished from the case where new works are unnecessary or inappropriate and therefore go unused. The Operations Evaluation Division of the World Bank, conducted a study of O&M in Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh. It argued that canals were kept functioning, as were gates on primary and secondary canals. In many cases tertiary gates did not perform a relevant function in the eyes of farmers or the agency, and so were not taken care of. This raises the question of what design standards are appropriate. The OED study suggests that many schemes were overdesigned. Flow measurements and graduated water allocation were not felt to be necessary or practical by agency staff and farmers, and were abandoned in favor of simpler approaches. The need is for a pragmatic assessment of what type of design can be operated in practice.



    5. Increase participation in large-scale management



    Management transfer: Proposals have been made to reorganize irrigation management companies along hydraulic boundaries, shifting from the current provincial and district basis. If a drastic reorganization such as this were to be conducted, then this could be used to institute a stronger form of participation in irrigation management. New management entities would have better accountability and performance incentives if they were not state enterprises, but instead were established as cooperatives (or other suitable legal entity) owned by and operated on behalf of water users. A federated structure could be used to organize and select user representatives who would form a board of directors. This board would then have responsibility for setting policies and hiring management staff. This could include both engineers, technicians and other workers hired by the entity, as well as contracting for services, such as water distribution and fee collection handled by cooperatives or irrigation teams. Irrigation infrastructure could be transferred to the management entity. As in Mexico, this might include vehicles and equipment. As in Mexico and Turkey, subsidies might still be provided for specific purposes, as long as they were clearly targeted, e.g. repairs after major disasters. Appropriate fees would need to be paid for services still received, e.g. basin management, and technical support. The government would need to retain rights to regulate the management entity, particularly on issues such as water allocation, to ensure that the water rights of other users are respected.



    Irrigation Management Companies: A less drastic recommendation which has also been proposed is to establish distinct management boards for irrigation management companies, at both district and provincial levels. Such boards would have responsibility for helping set policies and overseeing management of the IMCs, This would broaden the input of decisions beyond IMC managers, by bringing in representatives of various stakeholders, particularly farmers. As economic growth proceeds and becomes more diverse, People's Committees will become busier with a more complex variety of activities. It cannot be assumed that they will always have time for thorough oversight of irrigation, so there is a need for more specialized institutions. If federated organizations are formed, within irrigation schemes or among schemes sharing water sources in a single basin, then this creates a structure for users to select representatives to take part in such boards.



    Basin management and water rights: Establishment of water rights was a key part of the development of policies for management transfer in turnover in Mexico, so farmers received not just infrastructure but a definite allocation of water. Establishment of a clear and sustainable water right has been identified internationally as one of the key prerequisites for irrigation management transfer. Vietnam, like most other countries, is facing increasing competition for water resources, especially as demand grows from industries and cities and there is increased awareness of the need for environmental protection, while the vast majority of water use is still concentrated in agriculture. This creates the need for effective and appropriate management institutions, including participation of farmers and other stakeholders, in decisions which involve many considerations beyond just technical dimensions of water allocation and reallocation.



    Separating regulation and operation: The current institutional framework has the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and Provincial Departments overseeing irrigation development, while design, construction and management activities are carried out by autonomous companies. In principle this creates the potential for clearly distinguishing between regulation of the sector and specific operational responsibilities. In practice there is still much variety and ambiguity in how much autonomy exists. Policies still give ambiguous signals, e.g. that irrigation management companies should be financially self-supporting, but that the government will pay capital investment costs and provide subsidies when farmers are exempted from irrigation fees due to flooding and other problems. Regulatory guidelines have been developed for some topics, e.g. irrigation design standards, but institutions for key activities such as basin management and allocation of water rights are still little developed. A clearer separation of responsibilities could help enable each organization to fulfill its role more effectively.







    1. Pilot projects


  • Pilot projects provide a valuable means of trying out new ideas. In many countries pilot projects have played a crucial role in testing new approaches, and refining them to develop methods. In the Philippines, Sri Lanka and elsewhere social scientists have been heavily involved in documenting how pilot efforts have proceeded, helping to analyze results and provide an independent perspective for formulating recommendations for new policies. On the other hand it should be noted that in Mexico the designers of the transfer program deliberately avoided using the concept of a pilot, though they did initiate activities in an area with relatively favorable conditions and then refined the approach based on experience.


    Caution is needed to conduct pilots in ways so that their results are more broadly replicable, rather than being distorted by unique conditions, extra resources and high level attention. Many efforts to improve water management in India were carried out in locations which benefited from atypically good water supplies, making it difficult or impossible to replicate results elsewhere.


    There is a temptation in pilot projects to try to seek a single model, and then try to impose that model on a national basis. The diversity of regional and local conditions in Vietnam, as in other countries, creates severe limits on the extent to which uniform models can or should be imposed, in irrigation or other sectors. It is more useful to look at pilots as a way of developing new methods, a toolkit of techniques which can be applied in customized ways to different sites.


    During preparation of the background paper visits were made to several of the Rehabilitation Project sites. There has already been discussion of possible pilot activities, but restating some of the possibilities here may contribute to further discussion.


    The South Nghe An scheme includes many pump schemes. Many of these might be transferred to local management. This would require an appropriate organization and arrangements for adjusting water fees to accord with a new division of responsibility. At the overall scheme level a federation could provide a forum for participation in planning system O&M and other matters of general concern. As an initial activity to at South Nghe An and other sites, a stakeholder workshop could provide a useful way to identify key issues and discuss ideas for the pilot efforts.


    The An Trach scheme also includes over ten pumping schemes. Many of these could be transferred to local management. Rehabilitation of weirs will help to raise water levels, reducing pumping costs. Lower operating costs should make turnover more attractive and feasible. The recent decision to separate Da Nang and Quang Nam provinces means that the scheme may now include areas in two provinces. This could provide an opportunity to look at how to set up a management organization which crosses provincial boundaries. It is not yet clear whether primary responsibility would be assigned to one of the provincial irrigation management companies or whether some new body would be set up specifically for the scheme.


    The Tach Ngam scheme in Quang Ngai province has a command area of over forty thousand hectares. Dams divert water from several rivers. Rehabilitation works are intended to help water reach areas which have not received water in the past, as well as improving service to the currently irrigated area. Water fees would still need to cover costs for managing headworks and main canals, but would be lower than in areas where the IMC still managed secondary canals. This is another case where federations at different levels might play different roles, e.g. taking over management at the secondary canal level while also providing a forum for broader participation in main system management decisions.



    2. Conclusions


  • Vietnam has much potential for improving O&M, building on existing participatory institutions and further developing participatory approaches. There is a range of experience, within Vietnam and in other countries, which can help provide ideas and inspiration for what could be done.


    The key principle for improving O&M is to create a learning process, which can be used to try out and refine new approaches. Without empirical feedback there is a risk of simply perpetuating errors and imposing incorrect prescriptions. Working groups, walkthroughs, process documentation by social scientists, participatory monitoring and evaluation, as well as comparison and synthesis of experience from different provinces, are some of the means that can be used to draw lessons for policy and practice.


    Such a learning process should continue, and be encouraged by the incentives motivating those involved in irrigation management. This means that authority and responsibility should be matched, with those able to affect performance benefiting when performance improves. Efficiency can help make water more productive and reduce electricity expenses for pumping. However if someone else pays the bills and reaps the benefits then incentives are weak and poorly aligned. Transfer to local management can bring more direct incentives for increasing efficiency, as could reforms in IMC financing which reduce the tendency to expect government subsidies to make up for any revenue shortfalls. Reforms should provide farmers, irrigation teams and irrigation management companies with better organized incentives and capacities to improve irrigation performance.


    Lesson are likely to be more useful if the goal is seen as developing a menu or toolkit of techniques, rather than a single uniform model. Various approaches and techniques are then available to be customized to fit local conditions. In this way improving participatory irrigation management can help restructure incentives, create a more optimal utilization of knowledge and skills in irrigation management, increase productivity of land and water resources and improve the welfare of rural people.



    F. NOTES




    Acknowledgments: Paul Stott at the World Bank Office in Hanoi, Nguyen Xuan Tiep and Nguyen Ba Chinh at the Department of Irrigation and many others were very helpful during my trip to Vietnam. My understanding of institutional issues benefited from an earlier mission with Leslie Small and Peter Herklots, done for the UN Capital Development fund. Papers by Mark Svendsen and by the NGO Water Resources Sector Group were particularly useful, well beyond the extent indicated by specific notes, as were discussions with NGOs, consultants in the ADB O&M Project and researchers in the ACIAR Red River Delta pump study . Support from Peter Sun and David Groenfeldt at the Economic Development Institute of the World Bank made this paper possible. Responsibility for errors is mine.







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