Small-scale irrigation (SSI) considered a key strategy for developing countries to maintain food security. However, they are under performing or abandoned. Excessive sedimentation and inadequate maintenance is the major causes of underperformance. This study considered four SSI schemes in Ethiopia, which differ in sediment-loads (light to heavily sedimented) and functionality (traditional and modern, fully functional and abandoned). Both a qualitative and quantitative approach was used to analyse four specific research questions.
First, the study determines that livestock-irrigation interaction is the primary factor causing sedimentation during the irrigation season. Second, the study disentangles the livestock-irrigation conundrum and explores the challenges of coming up with effective solutions, such as collective action for canal cleaning. Thirdly, the study presents a framework to understand sustenance or abandonment of SSI systems that goes beyond Coward’s hydraulic property theory and Ostrom’s institutional design principles for sustainable collective action. It addresses contextually established factors that affect farmers’ willingness to maintain small-scale irrigation systems, thus engaging with the governance process in action. Finally, a policy brief is presented offering suggestions for improving SSI sustainability in Ethiopia and elsewhere. The study concludes that policy support for small-scale irrigation systems is weak, lacking clear strategies to ensure the irrigation systems’ efficient user-based operation and maintenance.