Philippines takes a go-with-the-flow way to irrigation

When a farmer in the Philippine mountain village of Banguitan commits water theft -- by putting a hollow stick across a paddy embankment -- he is fined. He promptly pays because he fears the village elders, or lallakay, who practice witchcraft on errant farmers.

When young men go to religious gatherings at the village's dap-ay, they are reminded of such customs. If a canal needs fixing, for instance, a shout goes out early in the morning for all to help. Latecomers must bring refreshments, and when those who have not shown up are found later on in the village, they are subject to beating with a piece of wood. In the dry season half the fields are watered at sunup and half at sundown. A stick is stuck upright on a canal, signaling the start of rotation. The stick is as good as law in Banguitan.

Such local rituals are an important part of Asia's ancient customs of irrigating rice paddies. But they are usually not taken into account when an outside government agency comes into a village, builds new dams and canals, and turns the system over to the local association of water users, who have had to be passive bystanders.

''Engineers have focused on the physical systems and ignored the human systems,'' states Dr. Frances F. Korten, irrigation specialist with the Ford Foundation in Manila.

In some cases, Dr. Korten says, dam builders working with crude topographic maps constructed canals without seeking farmers' advice on the lay of the land. The result: canals were designed that would have required water to run uphill to a field.

But in most cases the consequences are modern irrigation systems either abused or ignored by farmers, who no longer take as much responsibility for their upkeep. Moreover, the rupture of cultural traditions around irrigation often increases water theft, thus reducing agricultural yield.

In the Philippines, however, officials have become alarmed at engineering mistakes and problems of excess water use in new irrigation systems.

''The old way of the government making the decisions -- and setting up new norms in place of old norms -- just doesn't work,'' says Benjamin U. Bagadion, deputy director of the Philippine National Irrigation Administration (NIA). About 175,000 acres become irrigated under NIA each year.

Now considered a leader in Asia for adopting a new approach, the Philippines has begun to seek farmer participation in new irrigation systems. One strong incentive is the reduced cost to the government: Fewer bureaucrats are needed for maintenence.

''You can't get government workers to fix broken dikes at 2 o'clock in the morning,'' says Dr. Bagadion. In Asia's tropical climate, vegetation must be continually cleared or canals will disappear in just few months.

With about half of a potential 7.25 million acres of rice land already irrigated, the Philippines has taken five years to turn the NIA bureaucracy around to the new approach. Only three communal irrigation systems have been completed in the new participatory way, and 24 more are in initial stages.

''The object is to shift the major responsibility to the farmers,'' says Dr. Bagadion.

One NIA technique requires farmers to pay for the system, usually interest-free over 50 years and equal to about 1 percent of a crop yield. But more important is the use of social workers living in a village nine months before construction begins on a new system.

The social worker interviews all the farmers, asking them where they want irrigation, helping them organize around the new waterworks, and electing new leaders. Farmers accompany surveyors and advise them on layout of the system and then are hired as construction workers. Disputes over rights of way or the best design are usually solved quickly and don't linger as permanent problems later.

''The process forces engineers to learn something about the farmers. And, you know, they are begining to prefer it this way,'' says Dr. Korten.

The new approach has nearly ended its pilot stage. ''We still can't call it a success,'' says Dr. Bagadion. ''But at least we now know that irrigation systems are not for the government, they are for the farmer.''

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