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A new approach to large-scale irrigation systems – ‘a global compact’

Bruce Lankford, working with scientists from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and Water Land and Ecosystems (WLE) Programme have published a paper asking for a new and renewed relationship with large scale irrigation systems.   Co-authors are Ian Makin, Nate Matthews,  Andrew Noble, Peter Mc McCornick and Tushaar Shah. 

The paper argues that large-scale irrigation systems (LSIS) are vital components of irrigated agriculture both globally and for those nations and river basins where large systems are present.  It goes on to highlight that these systems are not given a sufficiently high profile in international donor assistance.   But simply spending more on irrigation is not a solution – we must rethink its approach to how we support and transform large-scale systems.  Citing the alarming decrease in development investment in the field of irrigation, the authors believe that the business-as-usual poor functioning of LSIS is posing a serious endangerment of agriculture’s contribution to society throughout the developing world.  The study found that these systems encompass 130 million hectares of land, which amounts to a very considerable 40% share of the global irrigated area.

Utilizing prior irrigation studies and research findings, along with their insights, the scientists have concluded the LSIS sector is significantly underperforming. Deficiencies are evidenced by repeat cycles of irrigation “build-neglect-rebuild”, below par financial performance, low productivity, low levels of irrigation efficiencies, declining capacity building, and a low level of spending on irrigation research. These issues present a sizable policy challenge in the global governance of environmental and societal goods and services.

To transform the irrigation sector they propose the application of a ‘theory of change’, focussing on the application of a “global irrigation compact”. This compact promotes new forms of leadership, partnership and ownership. Part of the recommended approach is to encourage a switch from the current ‘patronage with participation’ system, where aid finances are controlled by government irrigation agencies, to a system with funding partnerships between private, public and NGO advisory and regulatory services, which should aim to develop strong leadership models and create new alliances with cities and nearby river basin neighbours.

Although it is likely some government subsidies will always be necessary, the Theory of Change proposal hinges on a ‘global compact’ that seeks much more robust forms of farmer leadership and ownership of the systems and crucial reforms that the public, private and charitable agencies become more cost-effective and business-like in supporting farmers.


Figure 1. A four-part theory of change to revitalise large-scale irrigation systems.

Figure 1. A four-part theory of change to revitalise large-scale irrigation systems.


Figure 2. LSIS ‘theory of change’; from patronage to a leadership-partnership-ownership 'ecology'.


The paper is cited as Lankford, B.A; Makin, I; Matthews, N; Noble, A; McCornick, P. G.; and Shah, T. 2016 A compact to revitalize large-scale irrigation systems using a leadership-partnership-ownership ‘theory of change’.   Water Alternatives 9(1): 1-32. 

The full paper is open access and available here:

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