Council on Energy, Environment and Water Integrated | International | Independent

Institutional Reforms for Water Use Efficiency in Agriculture

International Best Practices and Policy Lessons for India

Sachin Shah
April 2012 |

Suggested Citation: Shah , Sachin. 2012.Institutional Reform for Water Use Efficiency in Agriculture: International Best Practices and Policy Lessons for India. New Delhi: Council on Energy, Environment and Water.


This paper outlines the alternative technical definitions of water use efficiency (WUE). It explains their weaknesses, and identifies comparative indicators that give a broad overview of the hydrological, agronomic, economic, financial, and environmental performance of irrigation systems. It sets up a framework that combines water availability, water use, and institutions and capacities as the three key indicators for comparing institutional reforms for WUE across countries. It explores these indicators using international case studies with varied institutional reform approaches and then defines the needs and priorities for India at different institutional levels. It recognises that this approach requires focusing on elements common to all systems such as water, land, and crop production. The paper ends by outlining three innovative institutional design options and policy recommendations focused on three issues: greater local participation in irrigation management, capacity building for water management decisions, and better understanding of hydrologic principles.

Key Highlights

  • The salient indicators which distinguish between WUE performance across geographies and climatic regions are effective rainfall, relative water availability, irrigable land, and institutional financial sustainability.
  • Scientific and technical data management, and dissemination standards are necessary to improve WUE beyond basic administrative institutional reform.
  • Drip irrigation technology is the most efficient and is used for a wide variety of crops, such as vegetables, flowers, and plantation crops. As of 2012, about 4,100 hectares in Maharashtra were irrigated with drip irrigation systems.
  • Absolute water availability is determined by climate, water quality, agro-ecological characteristics and catchment conditions such as runoff, storage and groundwater recharge.
  • In China, contractors helped improve WUE by maximising the irrigable land for crop production in China and gain incentives for reducing water use beyond a set quantity.
  • Inefficient management not only results in a lack of cohesion among farmers in water user associations (WUAs) but also results in financial unsustainability, inefficient water use, and portions of irrigable land being wasted.
  • Groundwater uses about 44 per cent of the total volume of water used for irrigation but contributes 57 per cent of India’s irrigated area.

Alternative Water Management Institutional Models

  • Joint Management: State Agency–Farmer Organisation:This model can derive additional revenue from other services such as design and construction services. Also, it can resolve disputes more efficiently than IMB because the distributary station is responsible for contractors.
  • Shared Management: Quasi-state–Farmer Organisation:This model allows representation from both state agency staff and the farmers. Also, it allows farmers to gain access about change in policies.
  • Village-level Management by Farmer WUAs:This model allows farmers to have partial decision-making powers about management activities such as water distribution. Also, it allows the Irrigation Management Board to resolve water disputes.

Key Recommendations

  • Apply corrective measures and adaptation for immediate vs long-term data collection. This should be taught to technical staff at secondary and tertiary canal systems.
  • Establish a cost effective way to maintain efficient functioning of irrigation systems and performance without additional investment.
  • Measure the performance of the irrigation system, describing the financial and physical sustainability of each type of irrigation system to assess the transfer of irrigation management to WUAs.
  • Promote training for WUA, assign the roles and responsibilities of different actors, and extend technical support towards management of the irrigation system. This should be done by central governments and irrigation departments.
  • Promote two additional performance indications to establish institutional reform measures- dependability of irrigation interval and main system water delivery efficiency.

Drip irrigation technology is the most efficient and is used for a wide variety of crops, such as vegetables, flowers, and plantation crops. As of 2012, about 4,100 hectares in Maharashtra were irrigated with drip irrigation systems.

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