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Vol. 95 No. 2, 199208

June 2012

ISSN 0031-7454

Faulty Design Parameters and Criteria of Farm Water Requirements

Result in Poor Performance of Canal Irrigation Systems in Ilocos
Norte, Philippines
Wilfredo P. David1, Mona Liza F. Delos Reyes1, Manolo G. Villano1 and Arthur L. Fajardo2,*

Land and Water Resources Division, 2Agricultural Machinery Division, Institute of Agricultural Engineering, College
of Engineering and Agro-Industrial Technology, University of the Philippines Los Baos, College, Laguna 4031,
Author for correspondence; e-mail: ,; Tel.: +63 49 536 8746, +63
49 536 2792
Canal irrigation systems in the Philippines are characterized by their poor performance. For an insight
on the reasons for this situation, 10 canal irrigation systems were randomly chosen to assess the
soundness of the water balance parameters assumed in estimating their design crop and farm water
requirements. Paddy percolation losses were measured and were compared with the assumed values
during the project design stage. Farm ditch losses were also measured. Farm water requirements were
computed on the basis of the measured percolation and farm ditch losses and estimated net seepage,
evapotranspiration and other losses.
The ratio of the actual area served to the design service area was computed for each of the sample
irrigation systems. Data on actual area irrigated were determined based on the records of the farming
activities by season of the institutions or associations responsible for the operation and management
of the irrigation systems. The discrepancies between design and measured farm water requirements
were then related to the proportions of the actual area served to design irrigation service areas to help
explain, in part, the reasons for the poor performance of the irrigation systems.
On the average, only about 27% of the aggregate design service area of the sample irrigation
systems was actually irrigated during the dry season. This was mainly due to underestimation of the
assumed on-farm water losses during the planning stage of these systems. In fact, only one of the 10
systems studied had its value of the design farm water requirement within 100% of the values
computed by using the measured percolation and farm ditch losses.
Although the designs and operations of canal irrigation systems in the Philippines are carried out
by two agencies that are both under the Department of Agriculture, there is very limited interaction
between design and operation engineers. Such absence of a feedback mechanism could have resulted
in continuous use of the same flawed designs. Design shortcomings have not been corrected and the
same design faults can be found in most of the canal irrigations systems. Failure to properly identify
and rectify the design shortcomings could have been the major reason for insignificant increases in
rice cropping intensity even after massive rehabilitation efforts. It is, therefore, high time to give more
emphasis on the formulation of appropriate irrigation design criteria.

Key Words: canal irrigation systems, cropping intensity, design water requirements, irrigation system design

The canal irrigation systems in the Philippines have been
performing below expectations (Ferguson 1987; David
2003, 2008). These irrigation systems, which include
national irrigation systems (NIS), communal irrigation
systems (CIS) and small water impounding projects
The Philippine Agricultural Scientist Vol. 95 No. 2 (June 2012)

(SWIP), have an aggregate design service area of about

1.4 million ha of lowland rice farms at present. The total
area they actually irrigate is much less than their
aggregate design service area. On the average, less than
two-thirds of the design service area of a canal irrigation
system is actually served during the dry season (David
2003, 2008).

Faulty Design Parameters and Criteria of Canal Irrigation Systems

The proportion of actual maximum areas served to

the design irrigation service areas of irrigation systems in
the Philippines has been the subject of a number of
studies. In her evaluation of representative NIS during
the period 19651983, Ferguson (1987) reported that the
maximum area irrigated during the dry season was only
75% of the design service area on the average. Larger
systems seemed to be less efficient than smaller systems.
What was striking was the rapid decline in the ratio with
vintage. Newer irrigation projects only served 56% of
their designed service areas in 1983 in contrast with the
high 94% served before 1965.
Analyzing the National Irrigation Administration
(NIA) statistics, David (2003) reported a very low
average annual irrigation intensity of 129% in the
combined NIS and CIS service area in 1990 and 1994. In
1998, the average irrigation intensity was only 118%.
Irrigation intensity is the ratio expressed in percent of the
actual area irrigated over the irrigation service area. The
annual irrigation intensity is the total of wet and dry
season irrigation intensity.
The dry season irrigation intensity is the more
important indicator of the quality of irrigation service
and, hence, of the performance of irrigation systems.
Low irrigation intensity in the dry season is usually an
indication of inadequate water supply or low water use
efficiency as a result of design mistakes and poor water
Recently, David (2009) analyzed the irrigation
intensity in NIS and CIS service areas by season. His
analysis showed very little or insignificant improvement
in irrigation intensity even after the implementation of
the Agriculture and Fishery Modernization Act (AFMA)
of 1997 which was aimed primarily at accelerated
irrigation development in the country. For example, the
NIA reported average wet season and dry season
irrigation intensities in NIS and CIS service areas for the
pre-AFMA crop year of 19931994 were 68% and 54%,
respectively. For post-AFMA year 20032004, the
average wet and dry irrigation intensities were 68% and
61%, respectively. In crop year 20042005, the
corresponding wet and dry season irrigation intensities
were only 55% and 51%, respectively.
During the post-AFMA years, the dry season
irrigation intensity for both NIS and CIS irrigation
service areas fluctuated from about 5061% depending
on the weather. On the average, 3950% of the NIS and
CIS service areas cannot be supplied with irrigation water
during the dry season despite the fact that most of the
countrys gravity irrigation systems were designed for
80% water supply dependability.
David (2003, 2008 and 2009) reported not only the
very poor performance but also the rapid deterioration of
the gravity irrigation systems service area in the
Philippines. The deterioration rate of about 70,000 ha per


Wilfredo P. David et al.

year in the total NIS and CIS service areas during the
pre-AFMA years (19921996) earlier reported by David
(2003) had increased to about 134,000 ha per year during
the post-AFMA years of 19982004 (David 2008, 2009).
This trend accounted for the very slow annual rate of
increase of only about 10,000 ha in the actual NIS and
CIS service areas despite massive efforts of rehabilitating
an average of 124,597 ha per year and constructing new
irrigation facilities at 19,285 ha per year during 1995
Delos Reyes and Jopillo (1986) studied the
performance of CIS in terms of the proportion of the
design service area actually irrigated under participatory
and non-participatory systems of water management. The
results also revealed low ratios of 64% and 74% under
non-participatory and participatory systems of irrigation
water management, respectively.
Research findings in the Philippines and in other
Asian countries pointed to over-optimistic assumptions of
irrigation service area during the planning stage and
faulty and unrealistic design criteria as the main causes of
the poor performance of canal irrigation systems (World
Bank 1996; Rice 1997; Horst 1998: Plusquellec 2002;
David 2003, 2008). The design shortcomings include
overestimation of surface water supply availability, and
underestimation of seepage and percolation.
A review of the performance of World Banksupported large-scale irrigation projects by Plusquellec
(2002) showed that the main cause of the lower-thanexpected performance of such projects was related to
over-optimistic assumptions regarding efficiency. The
impact of poor physical performance in terms of water
distribution and concurrent poor construction standards
on agricultural productivity was often overlooked.
Plusquellec (2002) also cited the results of a formal
evaluation of 21 irrigation projects by the World Banks
Operations Evaluation Department (OED) in 1990. For
the 21 projects, the estimated average economic rates of
return were 17.7% at appraisal, 14.8% at project
completion and only 9.3% at impact evaluation.
Another study (World Bank 1996) on the impact of
investments in 6 gravity irrigation systems in Thailand,
Myanmar and Vietnam showed that the economic rates of
return not only fell short of appraisal projections by a
substantial margin, but were all below 7%. The gap
between appraisal expectations and actual results was due
largely to excessively optimistic estimates of crop areas
served, irrigation project design faults and construction
Horst (1998) and Ersten (2009) postulated that the
problems in irrigation in many developing countries are
rooted in the technology of the colonial era and the lack
of adaptation to the new socio-economic environment of
the post-colonial period. During the colonial times,

The Philippine Agricultural Scientist Vol. 95 No. 2 (June 2012)

Faulty Design Parameters and Criteria of Canal Irrigation Systems

design and operation resided in one ministry that gave

feedback from operation to planning and design possible.
Consequently, technology developed in balance with the
management capability. In the post-colonial era,
however, design has been carried out mainly by foreign
consultants while government agencies have been
responsible for operation. They argued that this
separation of design and operation has led to
discrepancies between design assumptions and
operational realities. Together with shortage of technical
personnel and expansion of areas under irrigation,
irrigation in developing countries has been haunted for
decades by a multitude of problems such as low
performance, low water use efficiencies and deteriorating
physical structures.
Meijer (1992) argued that a major pitfall in irrigation
design is too much adherence to high water use
efficiency per se which results in water distribution
schedules that tend to be much too complicated and far
too rigid for everyday practice. He contended that apart
from crop water requirements, additional water is needed
to facilitate a fair and simple water distribution.
The design shortcomings of an irrigation system
manifest themselves in the engineering performance of
the system such as actual area served in relation to its
design irrigation service area and the ease of its operation
and maintenance. The persistently very low irrigation
intensity of existing NIS, CIS and SWIP in spite of the
massive efforts exerted during the past two decades
toward their rehabilitation is both an indication of
inappropriate or erroneous criteria used in their design
and the inability to carry out necessary adjustments in
design and operation during rehabilitation (David 2003,
Conventional rehabilitation works have focused on
restoring the original physical structure. The design
philosophy and design criteria based on water balance
parameters and hydraulic design assumptions of the past
continue to be used in incumbent system rehabilitation
without review.
There are several ongoing rehabilitation projects for
irrigation systems. These include Phase 1 of the
International Bank for Reconstruction and Development
(IBRD) Supported Participatory Irrigation Development
Project for NIS (World Bank 2009), Phase 2 of the
IBRD-supported Mindanao Rural Development Project
for CIS in Mindanao (World Bank 2007) and a pipeline
of large irrigation projects such as the Balog-Balog
Multipurpose Project (NIA 2010). There is a pressing
need to evaluate the soundness of some of the design
criteria used in the planning and development of
irrigation projects in order to avoid repeating previous
mistakes and incorporate corresponding design
adjustments in ongoing and future irrigation systems
rehabilitation and modernization efforts.

The Philippine Agricultural Scientist Vol. 95 No. 2 (June 2012)

Wilfredo P. David et al.

A study to assess the soundness of design criteria

used in the planning of canal irrigation systems in the
Philippines was carried out during 20062007. The first
part of the study investigated the validity of the water
balance parameters used in estimating the farm water
requirements. The results of the second part, which
looked at some design issues concerning the headwork
and water distribution and control facilities, were
reported by David et al. (2012).
This paper reports the findings of the first part of the
study which measured some of the on-farm water balance
parameters in sample canal irrigation systems. The
measured parameters were used to compute crop and
farm water requirements. The measured and computed
water balance parameters were compared with those
assumed during project preparation. The discrepancies
between the assumed and the measured design criteria
were then related to the ratios of the actual area served
over the design service area of the sample irrigation


In the selection of irrigation systems, a sample region
(cluster of provinces) was drawn at random from the 14
regions of the country. From the sample region, a
province was also drawn at random. From this province,
the sample irrigation systems were then drawn at random.
Ilocos Norte, which belongs to Region 1, was drawn
as the sample province. Two (2) NIS, 6 CIS and 2 SWIP
were then selected at random as the sample irrigation
systems for the study.
The engineering performance of the sample NIS,
SWIP and 4 out of the 6 CIS were evaluated. The actual
areas irrigated were estimated based on the records of the
agencies or associations managing the irrigation systems
and information obtained from farmer-irrigators and
irrigators associations through interviews.
Measurements of percolation and seepage and farm
ditch losses were carried out in the 10 sample irrigation
systems from May 2006 to April 2007. The locations
(latitude and longitude) of these measurement sites were
determined using a Global Positioning System (GPS)
receiver unit (Fig. 1). For each site, the measurements for
percolation and seepage losses were carried out until at
least three replicates showed comparable results.
Measurement of Percolation and Seepage
For each of the sample irrigation systems, a tertiary canal
(main farm ditch) and a representative farm ditch of this
canal were selected. A sample field paddy for each of
these farm ditches was selected as measurement site for
percolation and seepage losses. The criteria for the
selection of field paddy included proximity to a water