Farmers as water managers: Local interventions, personal preferences, and system-level implications

Melle Jochem Nikkels

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Farmers are increasingly being called upon to help manage, invest and steer water systems towards a desirable state: farmers as water managers. Through on-farm soil and water management and investment decisions, farmers influence their own water availability but their local interventions also have system-level implications. Farmers influence water systems and are in turn influenced by the water system in which they operate. System-level implications of farmers as water managers are poorly understood. This thesis explores approaches and provides insights for a better understanding of the ways in which farmers can contribute to achieving system-level objectives, such as agricultural intensification and freshwater retention capacity.

This thesis starts by examining main challenges in assessing the regional impacts of local water storage. By systematically reviewing literature on local water storage, Chapter 2 identifies and discusses technical and socio-economic difficulties encountered in assessing the regional impacts of local interventions. It concludes that the focus of assessments must shift from storage ‘potential’ to storage ‘feasibility’. Feasibility is context specific and influenced by the spatial and temporal scales of analysis. The chapter then further explores farmers’ prefercens and personal motivations for investing (or not investing) in additional water for irrigation.

Chapters 3 and 4 present, apply, and evaluate a new framework that uses ‘crossover points’ to support dialogue on irrigation investments in case studies in Tasmania, Australia. The framework extends the use of crossover points in a novel way to facilitate dialogue in a participatory setting, termed ‘participatory crossover analysis’. Participatory crossover analysis proved to perform well as a tool for valuation of irrigation water and to foster social learning. Chapters 3 and 4 investigate farmers’ personal and evolving perspectives on a) their water demand; b) the value of a reliable source of high quality water; and c) their willingness to pay for water. Their personal preferences and reasonings turned out to be diverse and broader than just short-term economic gains. Lifestyle choices, long-term intergenerational planning, perceived risks, and intrinsic motivations were mentioned as factors influencing investment decisions. This has strong implications for the type of information that farmers considered relevant in supporting their decisions on water investments. In short, information and knowledge exchange was highly valued, particularly learning from and with peers.

Chapter 5 presents an assessment of social learning during a valuation workshop, using participatory crossover analysis as a tool to facilitate a deliberative dialogue between irrigators, scheme managers, and policymakers about the past, present, and future value of irrigation water. In the case under study, discussions between workshop participants led to new insights on the value of water, identification of potential improvements in management and governance, and cultivated a greater appreciation of the diverse perspectives in the room. These findings suggest that a single workshop can foster social learning.

Findings from the Tasmanian cases highlight that the rollout of new irrigation infrastructure triggers social change that is currently not accounted for in the design and management of irrigation schemes. New irrigation schemes are built to operate in a future that cannot be predicted. Conclusions from the cases suggest that management of water systems should be approached as an ongoing process of social learning with stakeholders. Chapter 6 offers a way forward, suggesting an approach to irrigation infrastructure that links insights from the literature on human-water interactions with insights on adaptive pathways. Adaptive approaches to water management better allow farmers to be water managers, today and in the unfolding future.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Hellegers, Petra, Promotor
  • Meinke, H., Promotor, External person
  • van Oel, Pieter, Co-promotor
  • Leith, P., Co-promotor, External person
Award date20 May 2020
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463953863
Publication statusPublished - 20 May 2020


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