Photo credit: KOICA
Why do some development projects fail and some succeed? By looking at initiatives that are successful—despite everything seemingly going wrong—we hope to come closer to finding an answer to that question. A new GDI case study highlights how the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) and its partners in the Philippines overcame adversity to deliver a dam and irrigation infrastructure project in Isabela, a rice- and corn-growing province on the island of Luzon.
By the turn of the century, farms in Isabela regularly experienced both floods and droughts, and climate change was making both phenomena worse. To counter the problem, KOICA and the Philippines government planned to build a dam that could store excess water from heavy rains and distribute it to farms during dry periods through a canal-based irrigation system. With a year-round water supply, KOICA expected that crop yields would increase and farmers would be more resilient to climate change.
The solution seemed sound, but after finalizing a financing agreement in 2011 the Korean and Filipino partners ran into a formidable series of delivery challenges:
- Political interference during negotiations with local communities
- Bankruptcy of the main construction contractor
- A change in market conditions that drove up procurement costs
- Deforestation in the watershed, the area that channels rainfall and underlying groundwater toward the dam, which caused soil erosion and threatened the sustainability of the water supply
- Lack of expertise on how to manage the watershed and the irrigation infrastructure
- A typhoon that hit the near-completed dam in 2016 and caused nearly US$1 million worth of damages
- Threats from an armed rebel group, which caused all work to be halted for three months
According to KOICA, projects that experience these kinds of challenges often end up failing. Yet this project ultimately succeeded in building the dam, and in putting in place measures, such as reforestation, to ensure the sustainability of the watershed. Eager to learn more about what made the project a success—despite the challenges—KOICA partnered with GDI. Sooyoung Choi, a researcher and casewriter working with the GDI team, traveled to the Philippines and spoke with local officials, farmers, and project staff to find out what went right—and what went wrong—during implementation. GDI’s process-tracing methodology highlighted how specific approaches taken by practitioners and other stakeholders helped overcome implementation challenges—actions that are not always captured by traditional evaluation methods.
The case study found that cultivating a strong partnership with the local community—and sustaining engagement with partners throughout challenging periods—was a key factor that enabled the project team to overcome obstacles. From the outset, the team worked hard to build trust with community members. KOICA designated an experienced project manager, an agricultural engineer who had worked in the Philippines before, to spearhead engagement with local residents and other stakeholders. Project staff were conscious of delivering benefits to the community (for example, by constructing roads that helped farmers transport goods and employing local residents to undertake the construction. Strong relationships between the community and the project team helped the initiative sustain momentum when setbacks like the typhoon and rebel incursion caused long and unexpected delays to the project timeline.
The project team also placed a considerable emphasis on training—giving community members the knowledge and skills to take care of both the natural infrastructure of the watershed, as well as the physical infrastructure of the dam. The initiative broke new ground as the first international development project in the Philippines to include watershed management activities. By planting more than 100,000 trees and improving management of the watershed, community members working on the project reduced the threat of soil erosion and helped ensure a sustainable supply of water for the irrigation system.
Since the dam was finally completed in May 2018, the dam has provided a reliable water supply to farmers connected to the canal irrigation system. Although two typhoons struck in September 2018, the dam and irrigation infrastructure did not suffer any major damage. Farmers now have a year-round water supply, and crop yields have increased significantly.
To learn more about how KOICA and its partners overcame the delivery challenges, read the full case study here: Building a dam and irrigation system to help farmers in Isabela, the Philippines, adapt to climate change, 2011 - 2018.