Increased water charges improve efficiency and equity in an irrigation system

Andrew Reid Bell, Patrick S. Ward, M. Azeem Ali Shah

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Conventional wisdom in many agricultural systems across the world is that farmers cannot, will not, or should not pay the full costs associated with surface water delivery. Across Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, only a handful can claim complete recovery of operation, maintenance, and capital costs; across Central and South Asia, fees are lower still, with farmers in Nepal, India, and Kazakhstan paying fractions of a U.S. penny for a cubic meter of water. In Pakistan, fees amount to roughly USD 1-2 per acre per season. However, farmers in Pakistan spend orders of magnitude more for diesel fuel to pump groundwater each season, suggesting a latent willingness to spend for water that, under the right conditions, could potentially be directed toward water-use fees for surface water supply. Although overall performance could be expected to improve with greater cost recovery, asymmetric access to water in canal irrigation systems leaves the question open as to whether those benefits would be equitably shared among all farmers in the system. We develop an agent-based model (ABM) of a small irrigation command to examine efficiency and equity outcomes across a range of different cost structures for the maintenance of the system, levels of market development, and assessed water charges. We find that, robust to a range of different cost and structural conditions, increased water charges lead to gains in both efficiency and concomitant improvements in equity as investments in canal infrastructure and system maintenance improve the conveyance of water resources further down watercourses. This suggests that, under conditions in which (1) farmers are currently spending money to pump groundwater to compensate for a failing surface water system, and (2) there is the possibility that through initial investment to provide perceptibly better water supply, genuine win-win solutions can be attained through higher water-use fees to beneficiary farmers.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Article number23
    JournalEcology and Society
    Issue number3
    StatePublished - 2016


    • Agent-based model
    • Efficiency
    • Equity
    • Irrigation
    • Pakistan
    • Water

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Ecology


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