Irrigation in a Changing World

Over the past six decades, the world’s irrigated area has doubled. Expanded irrigation contributed to the ‘green revolution’ which increased food security and lowered rural poverty.

More recently, however, competition for water has also increased dramatically due to rapid population growth and urbanization.

Changing dietary preferences, driven in large part by growing urban populations, and a global shift to market‐oriented irrigated farming is increasing farmers’ demands for improved irrigation service delivery. These developments are taking place within the context of climate change, which is disrupting rainfall patterns and threatening to turn water into an ever scarcer natural resource.

The World Bank has responded to the changing context in the irrigation sector by adjusting its lending and strategic focus over the years.

  • The Bank and other donors responded to food security concerns in the 1960s and 70s with high levels of investment in large-scale public surface irrigation schemes to support staple crops, which contributed to declines in the real price of food. 
  • By the early 1980s, rural electrification, private financing, easy access to drilling technology, and inexpensive small pumps led to over extraction and long-term depletion of aquifers, and the need to monitor and regulate groundwater use.
  • With the adoption of the Dublin Principles in the1990s and early 2000s, the Bank’s strategic focus shifted from engineering solutions to institutional solutions: delegating on-farm and lower-level canals in surface systems to community organizations and farmer groups.
  • In the last two decades, shifting demographics, competing uses for water, and increasing variability in the availability of water attributed to climate change have been driving the response of the World Bank and other donors to the irrigation sector. The World Bank’s 2003 Water Resources Strategy called for Integrated Water Resources Management and building appropriate skills in the World Bank to address those challenges.

Theory of Change

To test the adequacy of the World Bank’s response to past challenges and the evolving context for Irrigation and Development, this evaluation uses a theory of change that combines both traditional and emergent factors that affect the sector.

  • Traditional inputs and outputs cover infrastructure development and rehabilitation, and policy and regulation for the irrigation sector.
  • Emergent factors include policy and regulation for the urban municipal interface, land tenure, and recently recognized Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), in addition to related policy changes aimed at promoting climate resilient agricultural production, and resilient livelihoods.

In other words, the ‘traditional’ elements focus on the production of the service, whereas the ‘emergent’ elements focus on the outcome of the service for clients and the wider enabling environment, which include global markets for agricultural produce and water resources management among other critical factors.

View the Theory of Change
More about the evaluation methodology

Main Findings

An analysis of Key Performance Indicators for projects approved or closed from the 2009 fiscal year, which run from July 1st to June 30th, to the 2019 fiscal year shows a markedly low emphasis on emergent factors, especially water service delivery, water resources management (WRM), and climate resilience. Key Performance Indicators for outputs, outcomes, and impacts relating to emergent factors regarding water service delivery, WRM, climate resilience, and market linkages occur far less frequently compared with the traditional elements of infrastructure, institutions and capacity building, and agricultural inputs.

The analysis of irrigation projects in a specific country reveals the scope for improving the sequencing and complementarity of the World Bank’s projects, potentially with those of other multilateral and bilateral lenders and donors, to address the theory of change in a country context. The analysis shows two patterns in the World Bank’s country‐ level project portfolios: (i) a proclivity for repeat projects with a marginally expanding set of objectives and components, but with the focus still on infrastructure rehabilitation, and (ii) irrigation projects complemented by other climate change, WRM, or agriculture marketing and livelihood projects, but without apparent coordination between them to achieve development impacts in the irrigation sector.

More evaluation findings

Irrigation Scheme Types and the World Bank’s Portfolio

Irrigation Scheme Types

Type             Description  Key Management Challenges
Type 1. Large-scale public schemes Government-sponsored irrigation organizations responsible for water distribution systems and provision of a water delivery service to farmers or groups of farmers and irrigators. Usually over 1,000 hectares. Economic and financial viability and technical and managerial upgrading is needed to allow schemes to respond to the new needs of farmers.
Type 2. Small- and medium-scale community schemes Built, owned, and maintained by farmers and their local communities. Public sector involvement is limited, focusing on improvement, rehabilitation, or consolidation Schemes are rooted in communal knowledge and tradition that may not be equipped to deal with water variability through climate change.
Type 3. Individually managed schemes Self-provision by individual farmers through groundwater from borewells on their property or a surface water source. Developed around cities to take advantage of local markets for high-value crops. Farms are 0.5 to 2 hectares typically. Reliance on groundwater or wastewater makes schemes vulnerable to environmental and health-related problems, for both consumers and on-field workers.
Type 4. Corporate irrigation farms for cash crops Owned and operated by a single entity or company. Various partnership arrangements are possible between corporate agribusiness and community-farmed dimensions. Such arrangements require support to develop fair and transparent contracts and a regulator to ensure a balance of power between the private sector partners and community groups.

Source: Adapted from World Bank 2018a.


Over the evaluation period, World Bank’s irrigation and drainage portfolio is dominated by type 1 (large public) schemes covering 64 percent of the total number of projects in the portfolio, followed by type 2 (small and medium community-based) schemes with 20 percent and type 3 (individually managed) schemes with 16 percent. Type 4 (corporate irrigation farms) schemes only account for 1 percent of the portfolio. This pattern holds broadly for both closed projects and projects currently active in the evaluation portfolio.          

Types 1 and 2 irrigation schemes are likely to remain a substantial proportion of the World Bank’s portfolio in the foreseeable future. Type 1 schemes were designed to meet the demands for irrigation between the 1960s and 1980s. Overall, these large infrastructure schemes need rehabilitation and modernization to enable better water service delivery, integration with systems to support higher-value agriculture, and to make them more climate- resilient.

Types 3 and 4 schemes will be an increasing share of the World Bank’s future portfolio. Type 3 schemes are the fastest-growing segment in sub-Saharan Africa. If left unregulated, this area is likely to experience similar groundwater over extraction issues as South and East Asian countries have faced in the past two to three decades. Type 4 schemes are also likely to grow in importance as a response to growing urban migration, lower availability of farm labor, and growing demand for high-value and exportable produce, which require sophisticated production and marketing practices.

More in Chapter 2: Irrigation Service Delivery: The Evolving Context and the World Bank's Response


This evaluation proposes an expanded results framework for the irrigation sector that could help guide the transition from a predominantly infrastructureoriented design focus to a multisectoral effort to achieve sustainable and outcomeoriented irrigation service delivery and impacts.

The proposed expanded results framework emphasizes the various dimensions of water service delivery, integrated water resources management (IWRM), water accounting, marketing linkages, accountability, and increasing climate resilience.

The expanded results framework also places a premium on measuring outcomes from planning and implementing WRM by adopting appropriate institutional arrangements and widely available instruments. This is increasingly feasible owing to advances in information and communication technology and more affordable means of acquiring and sharing digital information, (for example, from sensors and water flow measurement devices, satellite data, and drones linked to cell phones and the internet of things).

View the expanded results framework
Read Chapter 6: Implications for Future World Bank Support to Irrigation

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