An 2009 IFAD report highlights the importance of complexity for improving agricultural water management. It suggests that conventional project management approaches are not suitable for coping with complexity-oriented interventions, and also emphasises the importance of combining professional competence and complexity-related capabilities for achieving programmatic success.

The paper is ‘geared towards promoting further discussions and reflections, in the conviction that coping with complexity is one of the key future challenges for Agricultural Water Management’. It’s well worth reading – recommended for generalists and water specialists alike. (More complexity-related reports and books can be found on the Publications page of this blog.) 

An extract from the executive summary follows.

Overall water use and competition for increasingly scarce water resources are rising fast. Although this makes the excessive consumption of water for agriculture no longer sustainable, demand is growing in the wake of the current food crisis.

Depletion of surface and groundwater is putting unbearable stress on ecosystems. Water pollution degrades the remaining water bodies. And external factors such as urbanization and climate change compound these constraints. This is placing unprecedented burdens on agricultural water management.

As a result, agricultural water management professionals in developing countries feel confronted by ever-increasing complexity and uncertainty, which threaten to make interventions… unmanageable. This leads to a critical gap between the increasing sophistication of concepts for interventions to improve agricultural water management and the reality of implementation on the ground.

This paper suggests that complexity is one of the main stumbling blocks for agricultural water management practitioners as they struggle to achieve social, economic and ecological sustainability. Complexity will become a more important issue in the future, in the rapidly changing context of agricultural water management. The paper discusses essential aspects of meeting this challenge – of coping with complexity.

An important distinction is made between systemic and non-systemic interventions… Systemic interventions are tasks and services – such as the reform of water user associations or the drainage of wetlands – that need to take account of the complexity of the ‘target system’. Non-systemic interventions are those that do not have to do that, such as simple construction tasks. This distinction results in the differentiation of groups of interventions… that call for different management approaches. In particular, it highlights a central separation between two types of systemic interventions.

First, there are interventions that lend themselves to in-depth analysis and the elaboration of solutions… by professional experts. Second, there are interventions that squarely confront the limits of expert advice. Here, attempts to assume the role of expert – who conceives ways to change or ‘improve’ a complex system – may even be counterproductive. Neglecting this crucial differentiation is one of the most frequent reasons for the management failures of interventions in agricultural water management.

The essential differences in management approaches required by the various types of interventions are specified and discussed. These reflections result in the grave observation that conventional project management approaches are not suitable for coping with complexity-oriented interventions. The paper presents different management models compatible with the different types of interventions.

Coping with complexity requires capacities of those involved that go beyond the usual disciplinary competence. The paper examines the professional capacities needed by those who provide agricultural water management interventions. Moreover, it draws attention to the special capacities that clients of systemic interventions must acquire if they are to retain ownership. This sheds light on the crucial difference between professional competence and complexity-related capability and on the consequences of ignoring it.

Agricultural water management practitioners face specific pitfalls when confronted with complexity. These relate to the inscrutable nature of complex systems, which tend to encourage opportunistic behaviour such as rent-seeking and corruption. These ‘principal-agent problems’ often result in the misallocation of scarce (water) resources and discriminate against poor rural people. The causes of such problems are described, together with ways of counteracting their emergence.

Agricultural water management systems are nested systems. They are embedded within and contain other complex systems. Moreover, they are highly context specific. Given the importance of institutions to the management of agricultural water, special attention is attached to the issue of specificity of institutional context. The paper presents a ‘quick and dirty’ approach to assessing different institutional contexts that can serve as a basis for strategy discussions… This is an important step when coping with complexity. It can help avoid intervention designs that are incompatible with the prevailing capacities and capabilities.

Finally, the main implications for IFAD are highlighted. A range of suggestions are put forward for future steps and initiatives on how to cope with complexity in agricultural water management. Considering the emerging problems of water scarcity, food security and impact of climate change, IFAD needs to embark on a process of adjusting its future operations in agricultural water management to deal with complexity.


Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. Hi Ben,
    congratulations on the blog.

    Well I must say I read this IFAD report and it stumped the hell out of me! I have no idea what they are talking about, and to be honest, I don’t think they do either. The clearest recommendation is the one that you draw out in your rubric – that conventional project management approaches are not always relevant. As for the attempts at differentiating complex from complicated and managing in a way to decrease complexity, I’m afraid it leaves quite a lot to be desired. Complexity to these IFAD guys seems to mean when people don’t do what they are supposed to do and cheat and rent-seek. They are also locked into the same if-then causality that many commentators on complexity are. If you find yourself in this sort of situation, then manage in this way, and if in that kind of situation, then manage differently. How will you know? I can already see the two by two matrix a la Cynefin.

    Anyway, I suppose it is interesting to see the diverse ways in which complexity is taken up.



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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Agriculture, Institutions, Reports and Studies, Resilience, Water