Performing drip irrigation by the farmer managed Seguia Khrichfa irrigation system, Morocco

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Drip irrigation is represented in literature and agricultural policies as a modern and water saving technology. Because this technology is often associated with ‘modern’ agriculture and development, it seems out-of-place in ‘traditional’ farmer managed irrigation systems (FMIS). Thinking along the binary modernity-tradition leaves little room for the possibility that drip irrigation and FMIS could come together in a meaningful way as they place FMIS and drip irrigation in two mutually exclusive representational categories. Yet, the water users from the Khrichfa Canal, part of the Ain Bittit Irrigation System, a ‘traditional’ FMIS in Northern Morocco, opt for ‘modern’ drip irrigation as technology of their choice. To explain this apparent contradiction this PhD thesis develops an approach to rethinking the performance of drip irrigation in the context of farmer managed irrigation systems. The question “how does drip irrigation perform?” guides this research. In irrigation engineering literature the performance of drip irrigation is centred around the notion of water use efficiency – the prime task that drip irrigation is supposed to fulfil. However, to understand drip irrigation in FMIS, a more processual and less prescriptive approach to performance is explored. Drawing on actor-network approaches, the thesis understands performance as “the art of ordering the relations and interactions between people and objects, a process of ordering which emerges from practice and which results in contingent, surprising outcomes.”

This study starts by ‘unpacking’ the efficiency of drip irrigation by exploring what efficiency means, how the strong link between drip irrigation and efficiency was constructed, and what this association of drip irrigation as an efficient technology does. Because of its renowned efficiency, drip irrigation introduction is stimulated in many countries. Yet, efficiency is not an uncontested term. From the academic debate on efficiency complexity, it is clear that efficiency terminology is scale and context specific. Rather than studying drip irrigation with a pre-defined scale of analysis, this thesis focuses on how efficiencies, and their assumptions about scales and context, are used in irrigation projects and descriptions of drip irrigation performance. This PhD study critically engages with questions about efficiency and searches for alternative ways of understanding performance. To understand how drip irrigation and FMIS can come together in meaningful ways, this PhD study does not only re-define the performance of drip irrigation but likewise re-thinks conceptualisations of FMIS. FMIS are approached as dynamic entities that continuously change – which allows to see the introduction of drip irrigation as yet another change, rather than a disruption of ‘tradition’.

The farmer managed Seguia Khrichfa in Northern Morocco is selected as a case study to understand how drip irrigation performs in a FMIS with a historical analysis. The Moroccan government stimulates the introduction of drip irrigation because this efficient technology addresses problems of groundwater depletion ànd supports a growth in agricultural production. In the Khrichfa area, several individual farmers have converted to drip irrigation and the water users organisation is planning for a collective drip irrigation system. The existing drip irrigation systems and the collective plans provided fertile ground for exploring how ‘modern’ drip irrigation and ‘traditional’ FMIS can go together. This thesis begins with a literature review on the efficiency of drip irrigation in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 is an analysis of what efficiencies do in the field, how efficiencies are used to re-allocate water in (drip) irrigation projects. In Chapter 4 and 5 alternative conceptualisations of performance are explored: in Chapter 4 by analysing the intimate relation between technologies and institutions, and their capacity to mutually shape each other, and in Chapter 5 the focus lies on understanding the performance of drip irrigation as emerging from the interactions between the technology and its (potential) user.

The literature review in Chapter 2 aims to understand the scientific basis for the expectations that drip irrigation is efficient with water. Efficiency studies underscore the need for drip irrigation as a device to counter water scarcity, groundwater depletion and competition over water and align with a modernization discourse – aiming at improvement and upgrading of irrigation. The efficiency of drip irrigation is constructed at very localized experimental stations with a wide variety of efficiency terms and definitions used by different research communities. Although the term efficiency gives the impression of unity, the studies that measure and define efficiency have remarkable differences in conceptualizing water balances and measuring water flows. However, the resulting efficiency numbers are treated as if they were comparable amongst each other. This results in a widely supported consensus that drip irrigation saves water. This creation of unity might be strategic for continuation of research practices and funding, but it says little about how drip irrigation will perform in the fields of farmers. The practices of farmers are  left out of the experiments reviewed in literature. Besides local farming practices more ‘context’ is left out of the equations: with water-tight plastic borders all flows in the experiments are controllable. The research on the efficiency of drip irrigation is thus very technology-centred, i.e. the performance of the technology and its capacity to bring water efficiently to plants is attributed to the material objects.

Chapter 3 shows that efficiency numbers do have influence as they embed a promise of the creation of more water. Apparently previously ‘lost’ water would be captured, thus resulting in a water ‘gain’. This is not specific for drip irrigation – the promise of water ‘gains’ is also present in other irrigation technologies and modernization projects. For example, previous modernization projects in the Ain Bittit irrigation system, of which the Seguia Khrichfa is a secondary canal, focused on lining of the infrastructure in order to re-allocate the ‘saved’ water for drinking water to the city of Meknes. All modernization projects in Ain Bittit have been preceded or accompanied by a process of re-allocating yet-to-be saved water. For example, the many actors involved in the conversion to drip irrigation all claim that the water ‘gain’ would be theirs. As this is never openly discussed, it is only when projects are implemented that competition over the ‘saved’ water arises. Yet, this competition is not brought to the open and each actor claims the ‘saved’ water, resulting on multiple claims on the yet-to-be saved water. Within the irrigation system, the ‘saved’ water mixes with the rest of the flows in the basin. This makes it 1) impossible to know how much water is actually saved, and thus how much water could be re-distributed, and 2) invisible to others who actually uses the ‘saved’ water. Only silent actors in a powerless position – like the aquifer – lose out. Chapter 3 concludes with the suggestion that not measuring actual water gains is strategic because it de-politicises re-allocations, allowing several actors to appropriate the yet-to-be-saved water without confrontations.

Chapter 4 describes the performance of technology as co-defining the water distribution in an irrigation system, and its role in defining possible solutions. The technology has a function in co-shaping institutions, which forms also depend on the distributional questions that institutions aim to tackle. For drip irrigation, this means that the introduction of drip irrigation technology is shaped through and also provokes distributional questions. Which water users are in- or excluded from the system? What are legitimate reasons for accessing water? The introduction of drip irrigation brings with it discourses on efficiency, productivity and avoidance of waste – which shape the framing of distributional questions. Surprisingly, these questions do not lead to open conflicts in Khrichfa. The conclusions of Chapter 4 suggest that this is because technologies can play a role in de-politicizing change. Suggesting new technologies or drawing old technologies into new configurations allows actors to enforce changes in the irrigation system without anyone losing face. When difficult questions on in-or exclusion are defined as issues of efficiency and modernization – and thus as progress and the way forward – these are hard to openly oppose.

Chapter 5 explores socio-technical performances of drip irrigation in the Seguia Khrichfa area by approaching performance as emerging from practice. The positivity of drip irrigation (constructed through efficiency experiments in laboratories which travelled to agricultural policies and donor-led debates) radiates on drip irrigation users and the administration and works in the field to create identities and form alliances. In Khrichfa, drip irrigation contributes to a shift towards modern, entrepreneurial and clean agriculture, and strengthens the ties between the irrigation community and the State. These are performances of drip irrigation that come into being in wider networks in which the technology interacts. In other situations (at other moments, in interaction with other actors, another environment) drip irrigation could perform in different ways. In the most extreme cases, drip irrigation does not even have to be in place physically as an object to perform. Talking about drip irrigation, aligning with drip irrigation and its discourses of efficiency and modernity also performs. Yet, the socio-technical focus on processes of network ordering hints at the fragility of the performances of drip irrigation: actors need to actively keep the network they constructed in place to maintain identities and alliances. This understanding of performance also means that drip irrigation can perform in many ways, but this does not mean that these performances can be expected in other contexts. Likewise, one cannot expect that drip irrigation is always efficient. Drip irrigation only becomes efficient through practice, when actors, technology and the environment all work towards the goal of using water efficiently.

The general discussion concludes by answering the main research question on how drip irrigation performs. Drip irrigation performs as an efficient technology, which is often translated in irrigation policies as needing less water while increasing productivities. The suggestion that water is ‘saved’ that would otherwise be ‘lost’ creates a promise of water gains which can be re-distributed. Drip irrigation also performs as network builder and creator of identities. Both modern drip irrigation and notions of performance (such as efficiency) are strategic for de-politicizing re-allocation issues. Changing water allocations via efficiency arguments or transforming institutions via technologies is attractive as it silences opposition. This thesis also highlights how performance assessments – for example based on irrigation efficiency – perform (and are performed); they re-order the relations and interactions between people and objects. Likewise, FMIS, as a category to define irrigation systems perform. Any definition or categorisation implies certain possibilities or restrictions, and the water users of the Seguia Khrichfa know well how to use these in their favour. As implications of this research for the Moroccan agricultural policy, this study suggests that it is doubtful whether drip irrigation makes available the anticipated water, as the Moroccan government is not the only actor that claims access to the ‘saved’ water. Yet, this thesis suggests that drip irrigation does help farming communities to experience that they ‘count’ in modern agriculture – though other cheaper ways of attaining this could be possible. In addition, the suggestion is made to more explicitly measure multiple performances – to celebrate their differences rather than creating a suggestion of unity. Being open to the multiple performances of drip irrigation will help to explain for whom drip irrigation works and how, and at the costs of what. The thesis concludes with a personal reflection that drip irrigation and FMIS can very well go together, at the condition that both are re-conceptualized.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • de Fraiture, Charlotte, Promotor
  • Zwarteveen, Margreet, Promotor
  • Kuper, M., Co-promotor, External person
Award date31 May 2016
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789462577626
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • trickle irrigation
  • irrigation systems
  • efficiency
  • morocco


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