Water management for agricultural development | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 04, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 04, 2016

Water management for agricultural development

In the context of the changing global environment and socio-political and economic conditions of Bangladesh, agricultural development of the country and its sustainability deserve active government-private partnership. A comprehensive agricultural development action plan is required to face the challenges of feeding growing population. Appropriate marketing system development is also required to ensure price support to the growers at the same time price of the essential commodities should be within the purchasing power of low-income group of the society. First attempt will be to increase and stabilise production of selected essential commodities through maximum utilisation of land, water and human resources of the country. In subsequent attempts, the country can plan for value addition to the products and for commercial agriculture, which have been started at limited scale but need expansion.

Cost of production of major crops is high in Bangladesh and power use in agriculture is low compared to even neighbouring countries. Furthermore, whatever is produced, a bulk of it is lost after harvesting (post harvest losses). Therefore, efficient use of irrigation water, effective use of irrigation facilities, use of machine for agricultural operation and saving/minimising post harvest losses are required to make agriculture cost effective in Bangladesh. In this article, possible contribution of water management for agricultural development will be discussed. Discussion on agricultural mechanisation and processing may be undertaken if opportunities arise.

Water availability situation over the year compels Bangladesh to address issues like irrigation, flood control and drainage, which are contradictory in nature. For example, Bangladesh receives annually about 7.5 meters of water, 5.5 meters from surface flow and 2 meters from rainfall. About 90% of the huge water volume is available during June to September each year and remaining 10% is received during October to May. Therefore, water environment forces Bangladesh for irrigated agriculture supported by flood control measures and provision of drainage facilities. With the water potential of the country, about 76% of the cultivable area can be irrigated of which about 64% are presently under irrigation. Due to fluctuation in availability and lack of control over surface water, about 79% of the irrigated area use groundwater.

Major constraints to face for irrigation, flood control and drainage systems development and operation are; lack of continuity in policy supports, withdrawal of surface water at upstream, lack of timely availability of fuel, oil and electricity for smooth operation of irrigation systems, funds and interest for maintenance of flood control, drainage and irrigation (FCDI) systems.

Water management is a critical issue in Bangladesh for about two to two and half months

(Mid February to April). During this period of the year,

- Water Table goes below suction limit (> 8 meter)

- Arsenic concentration exceeds safe limit, >0.05 parts per million (ppm)

- Soil salinity in coastal area increases beyond crop tolerance level (> 4 mmohs/cm or 4 dS/m)

- Surface water sources especially smaller rivers, and low lying areas (beels) become dry.


Therefore, comprehensive plans and implementation methods should be practiced to address water management related issues. Sustainable agricultural development and improved livelihood will be possible if land and water resources of the country are used judiciously. This will require taking advantages of improved technology available in the country or adapted from abroad after adaptive trials.

It has been observed over several years that both tube wells using groundwater and large-scale canal irrigation systems in most parts of the country are operating at lower than 50% of their efficiency level. Experiences indicate that over all irrigation efficiency levels of tube wells and canal irrigation systems can easily be increased to 75% and 70% respectively. That means another about 25% area can be brought under irrigation with existing irrigation infrastructures. Therefore, performance improvement of existing irrigations systems can be one of the ways of making the systems cost effective.

Concern about water management

Recently, much concern is being expressed about need for improving performance of irrigation systems. However, it is not new as irrigation systems are operated with low efficiency since beginning of irrigation in Bangladesh. Over the years, terminologies changed from Thana irrigation program (TIP) in early 1960s to water management during early 1970s, to on-farm water management (during late 1970s and 1980s), to improved water management (during early 1990s), to participatory water management (since late 1990s) and to the recent integrated water resources management (IWRM). In real sense there have not been any significant improvements in water management and efficient use of water resources. It is believed that there have been changes of terminology but not much in utilisation level of water resources and its management since late fifties to date. To understand it and to establish status of water management, let us see how water management is defined:

The most comprehensive definition of water management compared to general definition of management can be explained using the definitions. Management in a comprehensive way has been defined as “the process and activity of carrying out the task so that a number of diverse activities are performed in such a way that defined objective is achieved by the combined efforts of a group of people (French and Saward, 1975).”

The term water management has different meanings to different people. Water is often considered to be free commodity; therefore, its management also varies. To me water management defined by Alvin Bishop is very relevant to our subject of discussion and he defined it as “Water management is a combination of science and art that requires application of knowledge of water, soil, climate, crops, and their interactions together with inputs and management for agricultural production”.

As professionals of this field let us ask ourselves, are we using our water resources and doing water management in our country that meets the criteria set in the above definition? Probably not! We could achieve a lot through improved water management by achieving the development potentials. Some of the improvement potentials could be achieved without additional investment at least for infrastructure development.

Infrastructure development

For protecting lives and properties of the people, FCDI facilities are essential. During infrastructure development for providing FCDI facilities, construction of embankments and irrigation and drainage canals are required. These infrastructures are mostly used for saving lives and properties and creating favourable environment for increasing agricultural production. Multiple uses of these facilities for afforestation and fish cultivation in addition to their primary uses will make them more cost effective.

How the situation can be improved

Irrigation personnel should be trained to use FCDI facilities and associated infrastructures for their best use. It will require active participation of the stakeholders/beneficiaries., which includes partnership among beneficiaries and government agencies, but responsibility of project implementation lies with implementing agencies. Participatory management and more specifically participatory water management in water sector projects are widely discussed now-a -days. Under present condition, government agencies are still the main player and beneficiaries are consulted for their opinion and expected assigned roles by the implementing agency or agencies. To be more specific, so far one of the agencies, which has been assigned responsibility of project implementation and operating funding arrangement for the development works become “captain” in the implementation team. Beneficiaries are expected to be good listeners and to follow directions of the captain.  In real sense, beneficiaries should be the decision makers while agency personnel, researchers and NGOs engaged in development activities in the project area would work as advisors.

Other important deviations from common thinking is that, in most FCDI projects, activities related to management, operation and maintenance (MOM) of flood control, drainage and irrigation infrastructures although not addressed properly, get all the importance by the project management. Other components like, efficient use of water, crop production, fish, forest and livestock production are not getting due importance. Improvements of these aspects are left with the concerned line agencies and beneficiaries of the project area. However, multiple and integrated use of the FCDI projects and integrated water resources management (IWRM) should be the priority areas for water sector projects.

Few examples are cited in this respect to emphasise and elaborate difference of the concept from the existing operational procedures. Guidelines for Participatory Water Management (GPWM) in Bangladesh states that “Participation is an important voluntary process in which local stakeholders influence policy formulation, alternative plans/designs, investment choices and management decisions affecting their communities and establish the sense of ownership”.  The GPWM indicate that “Give the local stakeholders a decisive voice at all stages of water management”. The co-management concept validated through a case study supports decision - making power than the decisive voice.

The GPWM also supports participation of local stakeholders to “prepare production plans on agriculture, fishery, forestry and livestock development and environmental management plan based on the feasibility study” by the implementing agencies. In real life, the implementing agencies, BWDB and LGED are not doing these as existing government mandates entitles Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE), Forest Department (FD), Department of Fisheries (DOF) and Livestock Department (LOD) to prepare their plan of action for the country including water sector project areas.

Co-management and participatory management support that mere participation in decision-making and consultation by agency personnel in water sector projects will not bring much benefit to the stakeholders. For increasing agricultural production, which is required for improved livelihood of stakeholders and for effective land and water resources in irrigation projects, stakeholders should have authority of decision—making for management of all infrastructures. Proposals agreed upon by the stakeholders should be implemented to achieve maximum benefit from the investment made in implementing irrigation projects and building infrastructure.

Action plans should be developed to emphasise on how water environment of the country can be managed to make positive influence on health, food availability and intake of nutrients and mitigate negative impact on these issues. Few examples of such action plan are:

* Conservation of excess water received during rainy season and effective use of rainwater and infrastructure developed so far can play important role in improving water availability in dry season, if comprehensive use of the facilities are ensured. Improved management at local and national levels through government and social interventions can solve the problem.

* Irrigation or water resources development of the country should be different for different agro-ecological regions of Bangladesh. The national development plan should be to maximise utilisation of rainfall, surface and ground water through conjunctive use of these resources. Comprehensive studies should be undertaken at the upazila level involving stakeholders, government and non-government organisations (NGOs) working with agriculture, soil and water based development programs for developing and implementing local level production plan.  Several studies indicate that improvements are possible for increasing annual crop production, increasing irrigation/water use efficiency and improving livelihood of farmers.

* Irrigation in Bangladesh at present is not cost effective. Over the years, number of deep and shallow tube wells and LLPs has increased, but area coverage per unit of these facilities has not increased rather decreased.  This issue may be reviewed by practicing professionals and means for improvement should be developed. It is required to increase irrigation efficiency, increase service area of irrigation units, and minimise water distribution loss by adopting location specific appropriate techniques.

*Low water demanding crops during dry season may be cultivated for minimising irrigation cost during dry season in highly permeable area. Low water demanding crops like wheat, pulses and oil seeds may be cultivated in place of high water demanding crops like Boro (rice) if the economic return and farmers demands permit. Research findings proved this hypothesis effective through several researches out puts.

Alternate wetting and drying

Studies conducted in Bangladesh on alternate wetting and drying (AWD) since late 1970s and case studies conducted recently confirmed that AWD has been accepted in Bangladesh as an important water management technology for irrigated rice cultivation. It is a proven technology for water management, where water can be saved compared to flood irrigation for rice cultivation without yield reduction. In fact, yield under AWD is higher compared to maintaining continuous standing water in rice fields. Moreover, it saves irrigation water, reduces cost of irrigation and thereby cost of production. Government of Bangladesh (GOB) has accepted this technology as part of policy document for “Integrated Small Scale Irrigation Policy”. The GOB advised agencies involved in irrigation management and development to adopt AWD method for irrigation of rice cultivation during Boro season as on an average it saves; five numbers of irrigations against about 25 irrigations required for standing water treatment and about 20% of irrigation water, which is about 600 litters of water for producing one kg of paddy. Adoption of AWD technique increase rice production by about 0.5 ton/ha and increase water productivity by 1.0 kg/ha/mm. It also saves fuel consumption by 23% and reduce cost of rice production by Taka 6000/ha. However, adoption of AWD requires one additional weeding compared to maintaining standing water in rice fields.

Bangladesh has created facilities for 5.40 Mha of irrigated (MOA, as of June 2014) and 6.14 Mha (reported by BWDB, as of June 2013) of flood control, drainage and irrigation (FCDI) area. Water potential permits irrigation development up to 6.55 Mha by 2025 and 7.45 Mha to the maximum (Water Resources Planning Organisation, WARPO, 2000). Therefore, about 6 Mha may easily be planned for year-round crop production through effective use of FCDI facilities. About 10 tons/ha of grain can be harvested in the FCDI area per year adopting available technology. Therefore, the country can produce 60 million tons of food grain (paddy + other grains + pulses) from the FCDI area, which may be about 45 million tons of net grain production (rice + other grains). This production target can be achieved adopting available research and management technology through integrated land and water management and adopting agricultural mechanisation. About 2 million hectares remaining even under traditional cultivation (which is not practical in the developing world, therefore, improved cultivation may be practiced) will make the country surplus in food production. However, it will require co-ordinated efforts for improved water management, use of mechanical power in agriculture, post-harvest technology, processing, and improved storage for favourable returns to the farmers.

The writer is an irrigation and water management specialist; former Head, Irrigation and Water Management Division, Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) and former Irrigation Engineer, World Bank, Dhaka Office.

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