Assessing the performance of smallholder irrigation in South Africa and opportunities for deriving best management practices.
South Africa is a water scarce country. With the increasing demand of water from other users, irrigation, as the largest water user, has to find ways to produce more per drop and meet the food demands of the growing population. Enhancing the performance of smallholder irrigation schemes (SHI) is one way of saving water since they are fast becoming the largest water users in South Africa and the world over. Performance in the smallholder sub-sector is reportedly below the expectations of stakeholders. However, performance in smallholder irrigation schemes is multi-dimensional and can be looked at from different perspectives. This study assessed the technical performance of the Mooi River Irrigation Scheme (MRIS) from the technical managers` and the farmers` points of view and integrated them into one to derive a comprehensive set of best management practices (BMPs) for the scheme. This was done acknowledging that the farmer is now the water manager in line with Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) and Irrigation Management Transfer (IMT). Three performance indicators related to water supply and delivery: conveyance efficiency, dependability of irrigation intervals between water applications and relative irrigation supply, and two agricultural performance indicators namely, output per unit irrigation supply and output per unit water consumed, were assessed during the spring and summer of the 2010/11 season. The field measurement method was used for the assessment of these indicators as opposed to the faster and more encompassing remote sensing method, due to resource constraints. The Velocity-area method was used to measure flow-rates in canals and crop water demands were estimated from FAO Cropwat 8.0 and Aquacrop 3.1. The results show an overall scheme conveyance efficiency of 86.4%, a maximum dependability of irrigation intervals between water applications of 2.57 in spring and a scheme relative irrigation supply of 1.48. Agricultural performance indicators, output per unit irrigation supply and water productivity per unit crop evapotranspiration (ET), were found to be 0.64 kg/m3 and 5.37 kg/m3 on average for cabbage, respectively. Farmers` satisfaction with taking an irrigation service can be used as a measure of the scheme`s performance. A questionnaire was administered among farmers to gather their views on the performance and to determine the factors that significantly influence their satisfaction status with taking the irrigation service at MRIS. Information collected from the questionnaire include age, gender, irrigation training, timeliness of water delivery, water distribution among the blocks, farming experience, farmer involvement in inspection of irrigation infrastructure and maintenance, among others. Farmers` were also asked for suggestions on improving the performance of their scheme. Their responses were analysed using a multinomial logit model. Results showed that 57% of the farmers are satisfied with using the irrigation service at MRIS, 30% are not satisfied, while 13% are neutral. Eight factors were found to be statistically significant in influencing the farmers` satisfaction status namely: location with respect to the water diversion point, location within a block from the main canal, age of the farmer, education level attained by the farmer, farming experience, the number of plots a farmer owns, fairness of water distribution across the blocks and the number of days a farmer accesses water The technical performance indicators assessed and the suggestions from the farmers on the way to improve performance of MRIS allowed the selection of the BMPs for the scheme. A set of seven BMPs based on farmer suggestions was derived. BMPs used as a guideline. The farmers were also tasked with the ranking of the derived BMPs according to their preference. The collected data was then ranked through an Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP). The results show that establishment of and adherence to an irrigation schedule was the most preferred BMP by the farmers, while volumetric measurement of irrigation water used by each block was the least preferred. This study concludes that the performance of MRIS is comparable to other schemes and that farmers are aware of the problems bedevilling their scheme. It is also concluded that the performance of the scheme meets the farmers`, the key stakeholders, expectations and that irrigation scheduling is the most preferred BMP. The study recommends that farmers be more involved in performance assessments and management of their schemes. It is crucial to ensure that the recommended BMPs are acceptable to the farmers in the scheme. The best way to achieve this is by allowing farmers to participate in policy formulation and decision making.