This project was part of a number of efforts to support farmers who, as beneficiaries of a national government agrarian reform program, had just graduated from being tenants on a wealthy landowner‘s estate to finally owning the land themselves. These former tenants formed the Lagaosian Farmers‘ Irrigators Association (LFIA), which represented the farmers in the development and operation of irrigation systems. As several LFIA members still owed installments on the land, and thus had not achieved full ownership yet, to make payments they had to make the land productive ― an effective irrigation system was supposed to help the farmers do this.
March 2004 was supposed to be an auspicious month for farmers in Sitio Lagaoisan, a small community in the village of Callao in Villaviciosa, a town on the southwestern edge of the province of Abra, Philippines. Construction had started on a P5 million (US$116,000) communal irrigation system that would water 45 hectares of rice fields, potentially increasing harvests from three tons per hectare to 4.25 tons.
Laying pipes in a mountainous province like Abra was difficult. The pipes were to draw water from a creek three kilometers away from the reservoir, and the trip from water source to water storage required crossing a gorge that is 200 meters from end to end and as much as 100 meters deep.
The irrigation system was set to be completed by December 2005, but this date was moved to March 2007 due to various problems. By early 2008 the irrigation system was finally “complete” ― except for one problem: owing to faulty design the system could not actually deliver water.
Engineers from the government‘s National Irrigation Administration (NIA) had implemented a “catenary” system, in which the pipes would sag from the weight of the water as it tried to make its way across the gorge. Unfortunately, there was not enough momentum for the water to rise from the low point of the dip and flow to the land on the far side of the gorge. Originally the water transport system was designed as a “parabola” where steel towers would be built near both ends of the gorge, which would keep the pipes from sagging from the weight of the water. However, early in the project the NIA abandoned the parabola design because the towers had cracked as a result of a misalignment of the pipe cables.
When the farmers reported that the irrigation system was a failure, the NIA said there was nothing it could do because the funds had been depleted. In a report on the project in the Irrigation Project Monitoring Manual, NIA engineers also told the farmers “to accept the project as it is, in its present state of disrepair, so that fresh money could come in, which would enable repair of the poor and ailing irrigation system.”
By February 2008 the farmers had sought the assistance of the Concerned Citizens of Abra for Good Government (CCAGG), a civil society organization (CSO) that had established a reputation as the go-to group for complaints on government infrastructure projects because of its extensive monitoring of such projects in the province. CCAGG then presided over meetings with the NIA and other involved agencies.
The LFIA took the position, supported by CCAGG, that the irrigation system was neither a gift nor a grant from the government, and so not only did the farmers have a right to demand that it be fixed but the government had a responsibility to do so. This position was based on the fact that the farmers had shouldered much of the cost of the system, in part by providing labor for the construction, and because the LFIA was required to pay the amortization costs. As a communal irrigation system ― a small-scale project covering less than 1,000 hectares, for which the NIA advanced the project construction cost ― it was to be taken over by an irrigators‘ association, which had agreed to repay the cost. Thus the farmers had paid, and would continue to pay, for a nonfunctioning system, so the government was obliged to remedy the mistakes and deliver a working system.
In discussions, CCAGG and the farmers convinced the NIA to agree to contribute more funds to rectify the faulty irrigation pipes and to defer the LFIA‘s amortization payments. It took the NIA two more years to fix the irrigation system, which finally became operational in 2010.