Communication between irrigation engineers and farmers : the case of project design in North Senegal

S.H. Scheer

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    <em>Introduction</em><p>Irrigation schemes all over the world are often marked by a large number of related problems that have an important human dimension and are too complex to be straightforwardly solved. A starting point of this thesis is that these problems have to be dealt with in a learning process that involves all groups and organizations that are relevant to the irrigation scheme. This thesis explores communication processes between irrigation design engineers and farmers in North Senegal and aims at finding out how they can learn from each other.<p>A closer look at the literature about the subject shows that there are two blind spots in the knowledge of design engineers. Both stand in the way of learning. The first concerns a lack of consciousness about the crucial importance of farmers' knowledge of physical phenomena in irrigation schemes such as water flow, soils, topography, etc. (i.e. <em>technical knowledge</em> of farmers). The second concerns a lack of knowledge about the procedures and methods that design engineers could use to improve farmers' participation in the design process.<p>Consequently, the following questions for research arise:<br/>1 What is the difference between the technical knowledge of design engineers and that of farmers?<br/>2 To what extent do engineers and farmers learn through exchange of technical knowledge, why and how does this exchange take place, and if not why not?<br/>3 What is the effect, of the exchange or non-exchange, on the design?<br/>4 How can the exchange of technical knowledge be optimized?<p>The research was exploratory and qualitative in nature. The research material was based on detailed observations, informal interviews, semi-structured interviews and group interviews and discussions. Reflection on the collected material led to new perspectives that were useful for experiments at a later stage. Some experiments were part of the development and implementation of a canal maintenance programme for the <em>Ile à Morphil</em> small-scale irrigation project. This required intensive interaction between farmers and myself as an irrigation engineer. The experiments were closely monitored and became, in due course, new research material, which provided in turn a base for new perspectives. In this way several learning cycles were completed during the field research. In the final stage I broadened my perspective and visited several project areas in northern Senegal, where I conducted semi-structured interviews with irrigation engineers as well as groups of farmers.<p>In this thesis, I approach the research material from different angles. I use Bourdieu's concept of <em>habitus,</em> 'a set of dispositions which incline people to act and react in certain ways', in order to explain why design engineers and farmers do not learn from each other. 'Re habitus can be approached indirectly by studying the environments where it developed, as well as by studying peoples' <em>practices,</em> their visible actions. The <em>social interface</em> concept of Long provides clues for what may happen when people who belong to a certain group or category have to deal with 'strangers'. The <em>Soft</em><em>Systems Methodology (SSM)</em> of Checkland indicates how a learning process can evolve when one faces problems in complex human situations.<p><em>Practices and environments of farmers and design engineers</em><p>The climate in northern Senegal makes it difficult for the <em>Haalpulaar</em> farmers to make a living out of the natural environment. Agriculture often did not provide them with enough to live on and already for some generations, migration work has become an important source of extra income. During a particularly dry period at the beginning of the seventies, farmers were eager to benefit from the extra support of government and donors and managed to integrate irrigated agriculture into their farming system. The <em>Haalpulaar</em> farmers are keen to spread risk and most often divide their efforts between irrigated as well as traditional agriculture and migration work. Although farmers are dependent on the government for the construction of their irrigation schemes and the repair of their pumps, they manage their own schemes and have developed their own technical knowledge, based on some simple initial rules of design engineers. The learning process was facilitated by the existing traditional organization and was adapted to the specific characteristics of the first village schemes.<p>The water potential of the <em>Senegal</em> river, the dry climate and the policy of government and donors to stimulate the Senegalese rice production meant that there were many Senegalese and foreign irrigation engineers in the valley. Irrigation design engineers usually act as natural allies of the government and donors, not only because they depend on them, but also because it is conform their solution-orientated education. This does not alter the fact that they may try to find ways of thinking <em>for</em> the farmers. Several design concepts have evolved since the early seventies. When old concepts seemed to fail or did not satisfy the planners, new concepts were designed. This meant that increasingly more sophisticated and more expensive irrigation concepts evolved. In this process, the gap between the technical design of the engineers and the technical knowledge of farmers gets wider and wider.<p><em>Differences in technical knowledge</em><p>Examples in this thesis make it clear that farmers and design engineers have very different perspectives on irrigation. Irrigation phenomena or design elements are given other priorities, are described differently and are arranged in other ways. They are also embodied at different levels of abstraction and may be or may not be split up into smaller parts.<p>The technical knowledge of design engineers is based on a scientific logic. Generally applicable rules regarding phenomena such as water flow and topography are used in order to be able to design in different localities. To this end, engineers frequently work with abstract models (maps, plans) and are orientated towards generating ideas for future situations. Many technical design elements and physical characteristics are considered separately and may be combined in a design later on. Despite their ability to combine these elements into the design, engineers often attach too much value to discerning these elements. Consequently they may lose sight of the fruitful ideas resulting from an orientation towards interrelationships between the elements. This is illustrated with examples of: water distribution and maintenance, of irrigation, drainage and soil characteristics and of water flow and topography.<p>Compared to engineers the technical knowledge of farmers is closer to physical phenomena in irrigation schemes. It is highly adapted to the specific qualities of the environment (soils, topography) and the simple concept of the village irrigation schemes ( <em>PIVs</em> ). Farmers sometimes use trial and error methods in the field to improve their scheme. In this way they have direct feedback to their design actions. However, in the case of an entirely new design, farmers lack a general overview, not only because their knowledge is bound to a locality, but also because they are so clearly focused on their own plot that most of them do not bother to look at an entire irrigation scheme. Farmers regard physical phenomena and elements as closely connected which often permits them to respond accurately when problematic situations like canal breaching or water scarcity occur.<p><em>(Non) exchange of technical knowledge</em><p>In northern Senegal communication between design engineers and farmers is limited. With regard to the few situations where communication takes place beyond a superficial level, technical issues receive little attention and the design engineer remains in control of the technical information. At best, a design engineer thinks <em>for</em> the farmers and the irrigation scheme itself often turns out to be the only 'message' of design engineers. One explanation for this is that their employers rarely stimulate and most often discourage communication with farmers. But the lack of communication can also be traced back to design engineers, of whom the majority are not interested in communicating with the fanners. Likewise farmers are not inclined to communicate beyond a superficial level. They prefer not to ask questions because they reason that they may lose the entire project if they do. Besides, their attitude is often a dependent one, as they try to attract new irrigation projects. It is shown that this attitude of farmers strengthens the attitude of planners and design engineers. The reverse is also true. In other words, the habitus of the one triggers and reinforces the habitus of the other.<p>Misunderstandings between design engineers and farmers about technical subjects occur frequently. It has been shown that these most often concern topography, soil suitability, irrigation and drainage requirements, water flow, structures, water distribution and maintenance. The misunderstandings have many dimensions and are difficult to unravel. The explanation for these misunderstandings can be found in the mechanisms of habitus, causing the technical knowledge to change into a <em>technical image</em> that reconfirms itself without engineers or farmers being conscious of it. This implies that design engineers and farmers do not learn from each other, even worse, both draw the conclusion that the technical knowledge of the other should not be taken seriously. They feel justified to be reticent towards the idea of communication about technical issues. A vicious circle occurs: in further design processes communication between design engineers and farmers will only be superficial.<p><em>Result of the non-exchange</em><p>In many ways the technical knowledge of design engineers is complementary to that of the farmers. Therefore, both are losers with regard to the quality of the technical design. Although new practices could be useful for them, farmers continue with old practices and are not open to suggestions from the design engineer. The new technical designs of engineers are not adapted to the practices of farmers, although these could certainly be useful in a new locality. This thesis shows that the mutual lack of adaptation is costly and has a negative impact on sustainability. It provides examples of farmers who destroy structures or have to adapt the lay out considerably, examples of deterioration of new schemes due to old practices, as well as of designs that are not adapted to the soils and topography of a site. Of course farmers and design engineers blame each other for the resulting problems.<p><em>How can the exchange of knowledge be optimized?</em><p>The <em>Soft Systems Methodology (SSM)</em> of Checkland is useful to achieve the shift that is required to deal with the lack of exchange of technical knowledge. It can be used to bring about improvement by activating in design engineers and farmers a learning cycle which ideally is never ending. Learning takes place by means of the iterative process of reflection, discussion, action and again reflection. The reflection and discussion are structured by a number of system models, which may represent desirable future situations. Because of their explicit character the models invite to discuss.<p>This thesis treats a number of experiments with these models. Especially a threedimensional scale- model of a village irrigation scheme that allowed for the imitation of irrigation practices served beyond expectations. It facilitated the exchange of technical knowledge, covering a broad range of technical issues such as water distribution, maintenance, water flow, structures and topography. The scale model bypasses language problems because it is so tangible that it allows both farmers and design engineers to explain their points of view: they just demonstrate what they mean. Other useful explicit models like adapted maps and plans, combinations of drawings, a simple levelling instrument, as well as field visits to other irrigation schemes, may structure a discussion about change. In general, it appears that these models have unfreezing effects that facilitate the communication between design engineers and farmers.<p><em>Model of a learning system of engineers and farmers</em><p>The emerging perspective of my thesis is condensed in a model. The (diagrammatic) model represents a learning system that may eventually lead to the implementation of an irrigation system that is feasible and desirable. The system is meant to avoid the technical misunderstandings as much as possible.<p>The model makes explicit several stages of the learning process. Tile stage during which the irrigation system, or parts of it, is discussed by means of system models is crucial, because it connects the separate learning cycles of design engineers and farmers. During this stage, the learning experiences of both sides are shared, providing a basis for the joint technical knowledge that is required for quality design. Applied research is another stage of the learning system. For this stage, the research methods and the concepts that I presented in this thesis may be useful.<p>In the view of Checkland, models should be tentative, can never replace reality and should not be followed rigidly. The emerging model in this thesis should therefore be seen as a preliminary model that, in the first place, serves to continue a discussion about how to proceed in the context of complex situations in irrigation schemes.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Horst, L., Promotor, External person
    • Röling, N.G., Promotor
    • Huibers, F.P., Promotor, External person
    Award date14 Jun 1996
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789054855460
    Publication statusPublished - 1996


    • irrigation
    • products
    • information
    • sociology
    • communication
    • nonverbal communication
    • participation
    • senegal
    • technical information

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