In Mexico1? Sept. 1, 2007 In trying to answer the above question, this study was conducted by the author for the Water Program of the World Bank Institute (WBI). Mexico is among the pilot countries to implement an Irrigation Management Transfer (IMT) program since 1990. There has been a lot of world attention to it. For the purpose of developing a training module, the team at WBI has designed this study a little differently, i.e. to tell the story of the formation of Water Users Association (WUA) and IMT through interviews with farmers, WUA managers, and former staff of the national water agency (in Spanish Comision Nacional del Agua, CONAGUA). One example of WUA is illustrated to show its evolution.
The general approach to the WUA has a lot of similarities all over the world. However, cultural, social and economic settings of a country, local politics, institutional set up, and specific geographical location of a water user group made all the differences on the evolution of each WUA. For example in Mexico, in some irrigation districts (ID), there had been certain level of water users’ participation in the past and the water users there accepted IMT more easily than those without past user participation. In other places, farmers have had low confidence in government as irrigation service provider, and they took the IMT program as an opportunity to take over control to improve irrigation services to their benefits. In yet other places, strong local farmer leaders or local champions emerged to take up steps toward reforms.
Mexico’s IMT program – How was it born?
Irrigation in Mexico. Irrigated agriculture in Mexico is essential to crop production due to its climate. Irrigated agriculture is 3.7 times higher in productivity than rain-fed. Although it represents less than 30 percent of the total area harvested in the country, it contributes to 56% of the total agricultural production and accounts for 70% of agricultural exports. There are 20 million hectares (Mha) under cultivation, 6.3 Mha of which have irrigation and drainage infrastructure: 3.4 Mha in 86 large-scale irrigation systems, known as ID, and 2.8 Mha, in numerous small-scale irrigation systems, known as Irrigation Units (CNA, 2005). The former were initially managed by the government and were thus the subject of IMT. The latter were built with government support but have traditionally been managed by water users, and were thus not subject to IMT.
The Breaking Point. The main shift of management in the operation and maintenance (O&M) of the ID was closely related to the country’s economic crisis and political shifts. The ID infrastructure was constructed by the government starting in 1930 when the country was experiencing an economic booming and a centralized government gave significant subsidies to the irrigation sector. O&M costs of irrigation were covered by the government and farmers (through paying irrigation service fees – ISF). Infrastructure was managed by government through different agencies in history: National Commission of Irrigation, 1930-1934/ 1945-1946; Agriculture Credit National Bank, 1934-1944; Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, 1947-1951. It was during the period of 1952-1976, the Ministry of Hydraulic Resources consolidated large-scale irrigation schemes. It was commonly considered as golden days for the irrigation sector. Former staff of the ministry thought that any agencies that followed never reached that glory:
“… the Ministry of Hydraulic Resources was an internationally renowned institution. It was the era of the great hydraulic works. In those days, technical abilities were what counted …When it merged with the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry, which formed the Agriculture and Hydraulic Resources Ministry (1977-1988), less emphasis was given to technical aspects.…” (Mr. Galdino, a former CONAGUA2 staff)
“…it had very well defined tasks. Afterwards, the government mixed water issues with agriculture, fishery, etc. From my point of view, it was a big mess to try to cover may aspects besides water.” (Cobian, former staff of CONAGUA and now staff of El Grullo WUA)
During the 1980s, the Mexican peso devaluated against the US dollar. The economic crisis (1982-1988) depleted government funds for O&M of public infrastructure, leading to deferred maintenance and declining services in irrigated agriculture. Farmers, dissatisfied with the top-down approach of the irrigation agency and the poor quality of services, refused to pay service charges, reducing further the funds available for O&M and creating a vicious cycle -- lack of O&M funds --poor services -- low willingness-to-pay—lack of funds, etc. When the economic crisis was over, the government requested a loan from the World Bank to rescue the ID infrastructure. The Bank set, as a loan condition, that farmers should have joint responsibility in management over infrastructure and there should establish a financially self-sufficient water fee. As a result, and in line with the local economic and political conditions to reduce government subsidies, the IMT program was born. Mr. Gadino recalled:
“The IMT was driven by financial crisis, this was its origin. Water user participation and co-responsibility were requirements for getting a loan oriented to rescue the hydraulic infrastructure of the large-scale irrigation systems…The vision was something like this - make farmers work for getting something they appreciate and care about … This really worked … If something costs you, you care about it; if it is free, you don’t take care about it.”
There wasn’t a manual to implement IMT; it was a challenge for the Mexican government to design an implementation strategy since there wasn’t previous experience anywhere in the world. How to convince water users to take over infrastructure, given the deteriorated ID? How to organize water users who had always been under the care of a centralized government? The process of water user involvement in IMT evolved over time.