THE PIVOTAL ROLE OF CANAL OPERATORS IN IRRIGATION SCHEMES: THE CASE OF THE CANALERO

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  • THE PIVOTAL ROLE OF CANAL OPERTHE CASE OF THE CANALERO

    positions similar to those of the canalero exist. Canal operators seem to play similar key roles yet no systematic review

    dirrigation petite et moyenne chelle et grs manuellement ont aussi dvelopp des comptences similaires celle du

    IRRIGATION AND DRAINAGE

    Irrig. and Drain. (2012)

    Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileycanalero. Bien quil ny ait aucun examen systmatique ou aucune analyse comparative de leur activit, les ayguadiers semblenty jouer des rles cls similaires. Ce document est une premire contribution expliquer pourquoi ces agents de terrain peuventeffectuer ces rles importants et continuent de le faire. Copyright 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

    mots cls: canalero; canal dirrigation; personnel de terrain; gestion de lirrigation; Mexique; distribution deau

    INTRODUCTION* Correspondence to: Pieter van der Zaag, UNESCO-IHE, P.O. Box 3015.or comparative analysis of their position exists. This paper makes a rst contribution to explain why such eld levelstaff can perform such signicant roles and continue to do so. Copyright 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

    key words: canalero; canal irrigation; eld level staff; irrigation management; Mexico; water distribution

    Received 25 June 2011; Revised 21 November 2011; Accepted 25 November 2011

    RSUM

    Ce document prsente des donnes empiriques sur le rle des ayguadiers, encore appels canaleros, dans un systme dirrigationau Mexique au cours dune priode de deux dcennies. Linfrastructure de canaux ciel ouvert est quipe de portes et de prisesdeau rglables manuellement et manuvres par les canaleros. Pendant la priode dobservation la fois la conguration delinfrastructure et sa gestion ont chang. Le cas du canalero montre comment le personnel de terrain, a priori peu quali, joueun rle important dans la planication et la mise en uvre de la distribution deau. Le canalero apparait comme un acteurincontournable du fonctionnement du systme. Il a cr ses propres champs daction semi-autonomes ainsi quun domaine decomptence dont il drive un certain degr dautorit.Nous avons compil dautres tudes de cas et effectu des entretiens lectroniques avec des experts. Dautres systmesPIETER VAN DER ZAAG1,2* and EDWIN RAP3

    1UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, Delft, the Netherlands2Department of Water Resources, Delft University of Technology, Delft, the Netherlands

    3Irrigation and Water Engineering Group, Wageningen University, Wageningen, the Netherlands

    ABSTRACT

    This paper presents empirical material of the role of canal operators, canaleros, in one irrigation scheme inMexico over a period oftwo decades. The open canal infrastructures are tted with manually operated adjustable gates and intakes. During the period ofobservation, both management set-up and the canal infrastructure changed. The case of the canalero shows how low-ranked eldpersonnel play an important role in scheduling and implementing water distribution. The canalero emerges as a key actor whomakes the system work. Canaleros have created their own semi-autonomous eld of action; an area of competence from whichthey derive a certain degree of authority.The case study ndings are compared with relevant published sources complemented with electronic interviews with

    experts. In large- and medium-scale open canal irrigation systems with exible and manually operated irrigation devices,2601 DA, Delft, the Netherlands. E-mail: p.vanderzaag@unesco-ihe.org Le rle cl des ayguadiers dans les systmes dirrigation: Le cas ducanalero

    Copyright 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.ATORS IN IRRIGATION SCHEMES:

    onlinelibrary.com) DOI: 10.1002/ird.693The role that canal operators play in the water distribution ofirrigation systems around the world is not precisely knownAlthough the name of this eld-level staff varies (canalero.

  • P. VAN DER ZAAG AND E. RAPin Mexico, ditch tender in the United States, sectoristain Peru, tomero, aguador and regador in Spain, ghafr inSudan, lascar and neerkatti in India, oeloe oeloe inIndonesia, water bailiff in Australia), their roles are similar.They constitute an occupational group of eld workers whomediate the service relation between irrigation organizationsand their water users. Disperse footnotes from colonialrecords to contemporary studies make mention of this actorin everyday irrigation management, yet overall, their roleremains largely invisible and underappreciated. The goalof this study is therefore to visualize and recognize theircontribution to irrigation performance.This study describes in detail the activities of eld

    personnel in charge of water distribution in a medium-sized(approximately 10 000 hectares) irrigation scheme inMexico. They are locally known as canaleros: they mustensure that water is distributed from the main canal to thelateral canals and from these to individual farm plots. Theydetermine water distribution programmes and physicallymove the weirs and sluices. In this exible surface irrigationscheme, water distribution is quite complex since waterusers are free to choose the crop they want to cultivate,the date of sowing and time of irrigation. Furthermore,controlling the water ows is generally considered asensitive issue associated with power and political inuence.The canaleros form the frontline of irrigation systemmanagement since they are located closest to the farmers.Despite the fact that this position exists in virtually allnon-automated surface irrigation systems of scale, it hasreceived relatively little attention in the literature. This wasso in 1992 when rst mentioned (Van der Zaag, 1992a;1992b) and remains today a valid observation.What will emerge from the material presented in this

    study is that the role of water distributors has not beenradically transformed by new policy, organisational struc-tures and technological innovations. Irrigation ManagementTransfer (IMT), the transition from a government-managedto a user-managed system as well as technological moderni-zation, has not eliminated the crucial role of eld staff in theoperation of irrigation systems. There is continuity in howthey perform their tasks, even when the organisational andtechnological setups in which they operate change. This isindicative of the fundamental nature of their task.Notwithstanding, the literature on irrigation management

    has a peculiar blind spot regarding the contribution of eldpersonnel to the performance of irrigation systems. Thiscould be because many studies of irrigation performanceadopt the perspective of the engineers who design irrigationinfrastructure or those that manage it. Not surprisingly, theytend to focus on the role of engineers, government ofcialsand managers in irrigation institutions (Chambers, 1988;Wade, 1982; Uphoff, 1986). The literature on irrigationengineering is particularly geared to reducing the humanCopyright 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.element, which is frequently viewed as an obstacle toachieving efcient irrigation. Schuurmans et al. (1999) forexample states:

    Although operators are able to adapt to unforeseen changes inthe behaviour of the canal, their performance is limited byfatigue and loss of concentration, to compensate for which theyneed to work in shifts. Furthermore, one operator can operate alimited number of control structures at a time. As a result ofthese factors, the costs of operation are relatively high.

    Others have suggested that canal operators are rent-seekers: they ask and receive bribes for preferences in waterallocation and distribution (Wade, 1982; Huppert andWolff, 2002; Rinaudo, 2002). The engineering solution iseither to simplify the hardware (xed distribution works asproposed by Horst, 1990) or to add software to the hardware(automated water control as proposed by many includingPlusquellec et al., 1994; Clemmens et al., 2005).This paper takes a different view and argues that human

    competence is fundamental to making exible irrigationtechnology work. Canaleros are neither fully constrainedby the technical and organisational structures in which theyoperate nor do they simply execute managerial orders.Rather, they actively shape their working environments.The dialectic relation between canaleros and the socio-technical environment in which they operate makes it interest-ing and relevant while investigating their role over time. Thispaper is therefore a longitudinal case study of one irrigationscheme in Mexico located in the valley of Autln-El Grulloin western Mexico (Van der Zaag 1992a; Rap, 1993, 2004;Long, 2001; Schippers, 2009). The empirical observationsthat form the basis of this paper were made during threeperiods: 19871989, 19921993 and 2009. This allowedfor a unique analysis that spanned 22 years of continuityand change in the professional performance of irrigationpersonnel against the backdrop of institutional reform andinfrastructural modernisation. Research methods such asparticipant observation, discharge measurements, eldexperiments, interviews and document analysis made itpossible to systematically follow one irrigation system overmore than two decades and to compare, conrm and contrastoriginal observations with more recent ndings. In addition,we refer to studies performed in other areas of the world andconducted electronic interviews with 14 irrigation experts toassess the wider occurrence of the phenomenon under study.In the following section, we characterize the specic type

    of irrigation system where we observed the canalerospractices. Sections 3 and 4 describe the work routine ofone particular canalero, Miguel, and the strategies hedevised during the 19871989 period (Van der Zaag,1992a). Section 5 investigates the extent that the role ofthe canaleros evolved in the 1990s (Rap, 1993, 2004) andmore recently in 2009 (Schippers, 2009) as a result ofIrrig. and Drain. (2012)

  • the time of the rst research (19871989), Miguel was in

    ROLE OF CANAL OPERATORS IN IRRIGATION SCHEMEShis early forties. He was born in a small village in the valleyof Autln-El Grullo, the second child in a family of 12. Thefamily was poor and did not own land. Having followedinstitutional and technological changes. In Section 6, wepresent discussion and conclusions.

    THE AUTLN-EL GRULLO IRRIGATIONSYSTEM IN THE 1980S

    Constructed in the 1950s, the Autln-El Grullo irrigationdistrict is a medium-scale irrigation system that receiveswater from an upstream reservoir. It was designed andconstructed by a competent Mexican hydraulic engineeringconsortium. The scheme consists of a network of opencanals and exible division structures, with the main systembased on the principle of downstream control. In 1987, theAutln-El Grullo system irrigated 8,700 ha of which 6,000ha were planted with sugar cane. Water distributionefciency, dened as the volume of irrigation waterreaching the elds in proportion to the volume entering thesystems head works, was estimated at around 60%. Untilthe late 1980s, water distribution and canal maintenancewere performed by the district: the local ofce of theMinistry of Agriculture and Hydraulic Resources (SARH).In 1990, irrigation management was transferred to the localWater Users Association (WUA) and some of the eldpersonnel was employed by the new management entity(Rap, 1993).The head of the district operation department is responsi-

    ble for water distribution and is supported by staff at thedistrict ofces. The lowest level staff in the department arethe six canal guards or canaleros, the eld personnel whodistribute the irrigation water. They ensure that water isdiverted from the river into the main canals, then from themain into the lateral and sub-lateral canals, and from thereto individual farm plots. The canaleros physically movethe manually operated and adjustable weirs, sluices andvertical sliding gates. They elaborate rules of thumb as tohow water ows change after lowering a particular gate bya certain number of screw threads. They work out (in theirheads, not on paper) the water distribution programmes.Canaleros form the frontline of the district since theycommunicate every day with both farmers and districtengineers. Farmers put forward requests for irrigation turnsto their canalero and if the requests are deemed reasonable,the farmers will receive water normally within one to vedays. Farmers themselves are not supposed to move gates.

    The daily work routine of a canalero

    To appreciate the position the canalero nds himself in, thissection describes the practices of one canalero, Miguel. AtCopyright 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.four years of primary school, Miguel was sent at 13 to anaunt in Guadalajara to work in the shoe industry. Hereturned home at the age of 17. His father, who had workedas a labourer in the construction of the irrigation systemduring the 1950s, eventually managed to arrange him apermanent job in the maintenance brigade. Miguel workedfor two years with his machete cutting weeds in the canals.Then, in 1970, he was asked to become a canalero. In1972, he married Celia and they had three children. Hebought a house from his brother-in-law, and with the sevencows Miguel had accumulated over the years, he bought asmall shop. In 1981, Miguel was able to buy a second-handpick-up truck from the melon prots produced on four ha ofshare-cropped land.In 1987, Miguel is responsible for an area of 1,700

    hectares divided into 500 elds to which he has to allocateirrigation water. In total, he deals with 350 water users.He controls the gates over 50 kilometres of lined canals.There are 30 gates and main intakes along his 18 km stretchof main canal. He is responsible not only for his ownwater ow (700 to 2,000 litres per second) but also the owsdestined for the downstream zones of Gabriel and Pedro.Normally, between 2,000 and 5,000 lps ow through hiszone. This creates an extra burden to his task: his colleaguescan easily accuse him of using part of their water. Thismeans he has to be careful in adjusting the gates in the mainchannel. Similarly, it is also a great advantage: an upstreamzone is never short of water. During the irrigation season,Miguel works 60 hours per week. Each day he drives hismotorbike between 50 and 80 kilometres through his zone.The major task of his work is to check that all the irrigationturns are running well, adjust gates and talk to the farmers ortheir labourers (Figure 1).In addition to his role in distributing water ows, the

    canalero also plays a role in managing information owsin the eld and with the ofce. When he is driving throughhis zone observing cautiously all the elds, sluices andgates, farmers have little difculty in signalling him.Arriving at a plot where someone is irrigating, Miguel willpause. In seconds, he can observe the situation and judgewhether it is to his expectation. He will often chat with thefarmer or labourer irrigating. This chat is partly aboutirrigation matters but invariably other subjects are discussed.This is useful because the canalero needs a lot of informa-tion: how his farmer is doing, what is happening on this orthat plot,...

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