A Study of Challenges Facing Small Land Improvement Districts and Strategies for Dealing with Them: A Case Study of Inami Town, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan

A Study of Challenges Facing Small Land Improvement Districts and Strategies for Dealing with Them: A Case Study of Inami Town, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan

Published: 2023.11.21
Accepted: 2023.11.21
Assistant professer
University of Hyogo, Japan


Local commons, which are necessary and indispensable for agriculture, have been managed autonomously by an organization composed of village residents (hereinafter referred to as "management organization"). However, due to the decline of agriculture and the aging of the population with fewer children, the management system has become weak. As a result, management tasks can be neglected, and this has had a negative impact not only on farming operations but also on local livelihoods, as it has induced more disasters and flood damage. In this study, we focus on small land improvement districts among the management organizations. The paper then clarifies the issues faced by the organizations, focusing on organizational management and human resources, and discusses measures to deal with them. The results of the interview survey revealed that there is a need to accumulate know-how on organizational management and to strengthen cooperation among regional organizations. It was also found that the burden of back-office operations which tends to be concentrated on certain persons. Therefore, regarding countermeasures, he explained the effectiveness of considering the reorganization of land improvement districts by taking the approach of strengthening the layering of local organizations. As for securing human resources, he explained that it is useful to first secure human resources who will take charge of the back-office functions of the organization, and that it is necessary to collaborate with external organizations.

Keywords: local commons, land improvement districts, irrigation pond


In order to live and conduct farming activities in rural areas, there are various local resources that are difficult to manage by individuals, such as agricultural water, water utilization facilities, and farm roads. These so-called "local commons" have been autonomously maintained and managed by various small and large community-based management organizations. In recent years, however, the management system in Japan's farming communities has become remarkably weak against the backdrop of declining agriculture and an aging society with a declining birthrate. As a result, management has become more careless, and more and more disasters and floods have been induced, resulting in negative impacts not only on farming operations but also on the livelihood of the local communities.

In this study, among the management organizations, we focus on small land improvement districts. As described below, land improvement districts are facing various challenges today, and studies on the organizational management of land improvement districts have been accumulated. However, most of these studies have been conducted on relatively large land improvement districts. Since the management resources held by the land improvement districts differ greatly depending on the size of the organization, it is considered that the problems and countermeasures faced by land improvement districts may also differ, but studies on the problems and countermeasures faced by small-scale land improvement districts have not been accumulated. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to clarify the issues faced by small-scale land improvement districts, focusing on organizational management and human resources, and to discuss measures to deal with these issues.


Current status of land improvement districts

Land improvement districts are public corporations established with local cultivators and farmland owners as members to implement land improvement projects (projects related to the construction and maintenance of new fields, agricultural land development, agricultural drainage facilities, pipelines, reservoirs, farm roads, etc.) to improve agricultural productivity and increase total agricultural production. There are 4,203 land improvement districts in Japan, and the total area of farmlands under their jurisdiction amounts to 2,464,059 ha (as of FY2021). This is approximately 57% of the total agricultural land area in Japan. However, land improvement districts vary in size in terms of organization and area. Table 1 shows the number of land improvement districts by area in Japan and Hyogo Prefecture. First, looking at the area, we can see that there is a large difference in area, ranging from less than 100 ha to more than 10,000 ha. In addition, it can be seen that small land improvement districts of less than 100 ha tend to account for a large proportion of the total area. The percentage of land improvement districts with less than 100 ha accounted for 44.5% in Japan and 73.7% in Hyogo Prefecture, indicating that Hyogo Prefecture has a higher percentage of such districts than the rest of Japan.

Next, we will introduce the challenges faced by land reform districts, focusing on organizational management and human resources. In the past, the majority of the members of land improvement districts were homogeneous farmers. In recent years, however, the number of community members and farming entities has been changing significantly, and the membership has been diversifying. For example, the number of non-farmers, land-owning non-farmers, and farmers who have entered the farming industry are increasing. In addition, there is a relative increase in the number of farmers' children with limited agricultural experience. This diversification of constituents has been noted to increase coordination costs in decision making within land improvement districts (Onimaru et al., 2018).

In addition, land improvement districts today face challenges not seen in the past and need to make a series of decisions to resolve them. One example is the depletion of management resources such as goods and money. As for goods, the aging of water utilization facilities can be cited. During the postwar and high-growth periods, many agricultural water facilities were constructed. Today, many of these facilities have exceeded their useful life, and the percentage is expected to increase in the future. In addition, the number of sudden accidents nationwide due to causes other than disasters are on the rise as facilities continue to deteriorate. In terms of money, while revenues are decreasing, expenditures are increasing. The financial resources of the land improvement district mainly depend on the current levy, which is levied on the members according to the area of farmland, but the levy tends to decrease as the number of farmers decreases. Expenditures for maintenance and management projects of the improvement districts are on an expansionary trend, including expenses for aging agricultural water utilization facilities and various measures (e.g., placement of safety facilities, water quality purification measures, and waste disposal) in line with the progress of urbanization.

In solving these problems, it is of utmost importance to secure human resources to take charge of the land improvement district. Generally, officers of land improvement districts are elected from among the members. However, as the number of members is decreasing, it is becoming difficult to secure adequate human resources both qualitatively and quantitatively. The qualitative aspect is to secure human resources who retain the skills and knowledge necessary for proper management. For example, knowledge and wisdom accumulated in the community, such as organizational management and complex water use practices, can be cited. As for the quantitative aspect, it has become difficult to carry out manpower-intensive tasks such as mowing and canal cleaning.


Various policies have been enacted to resolve the above issues. This section summarizes the trends in policies related to organizations and human resources.

One concrete measure to strengthen the organizational structure through the reorganization of land improvement districts is the merger of land improvement districts. MAFF has developed measures to encourage the merger of land improvement districts (on a water system or municipal basis) in order to reduce the appropriated expenses for personnel and operation costs and to improve organizational efficiency. In fact, the number of land improvement districts is decreasing while the area per district is increasing. However, there is a need for further verification of the effect of mergers on the efficiency of organizational management. Takayama (2007) analyzed the relationship between operational efficiency and the scale of projects undertaken by land improvement districts in Hokkaido. As a result, the study revealed that there was no clear correlation between the scale of land improvement district projects and operational efficiency, and that efficiently operated land improvement districts improved efficiency not by reducing maintenance and management costs, but by reducing administrative costs. The study also points out the possibility that mergers are not an efficient way to improve operational efficiency simply by increasing the levy area and the number of members and developing maintenance and reimbursement projects on a large scale.

As for policies related to human resources, policies related to the quality and quantity of human resources are found, with a tendency to enhance measures to solve the quantitative shortage rather than the quality of human resources. Regarding the qualitative aspect of human resources, there is a tendency to provide opportunities to acquire knowledge and skills necessary and useful for proper management of water, facilities, money, etc. For example, in terms of money management, it is necessary for union members to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to manage money. For example, in terms of money management, the introduction of accounting software developed specifically for land improvement district accounting and double-entry bookkeeping is being promoted in order to correctly inform members of the appropriateness of expenses incurred for projects, etc. and the property and financial status of the land improvement district.

On the other hand, as it becomes increasingly difficult for farmers alone to manage the quantitative aspect, policies have been developed to encourage the diversification of human resources involved in management. The aim is to manage the local commons together with various people inside and outside the region who receive the multifaceted functions of the local commons. For example, the "Multi-functional Payments System," which has been in effect since 2014, encourages the participation of non-farmers. In addition, the participation of female board members in land improvement districts and the introduction of a system to assign people from outside the region as board members are also being promoted.

Although these are nationwide trends, some unique efforts can be seen in each prefecture. For example, Hyogo Prefecture formulated the "Hyogo Prefecture Reservoir Improvement Concept" in 1998, which positions not only farmers but also citizens from various walks of life as the main actors involved in the conservation and improvement of reservoirs. In the Higashi-Harima area, the establishment of "reservoir councils" has been promoted as a body of activities to promote citizen participation.


About the case subject

In this section, we examine the problems faced by small land improvement districts and their responses to those problems by looking at a specific case study. The case study is the Kusadani River Land Improvement District in Inami Town, Hyogo Prefecture.

Inami Town is located in the southern part of Hyogo Prefecture, within 50 km of the Hanshin metropolitan area. The population is 30,000 and declining, with an aging rate of 32.2% (according to the National Census 2020). Inami is located on the Inamino Plateau and has no major rivers, so since the Edo period, reservoirs have been constructed and new rice paddies developed. As a result, the town has various reservoirs of various sizes, and 38 management organizations are in charge of 88 reservoirs.

The Kusadani River Land Improvement District is located in the northern part of Inami Town. In 1997, the Kusadani River Land Improvement District became the parent organization, and the Maruyama Land Improvement District and the Shimokusadani Land Improvement District merged to form the present organization. The area managed by the Kusadani River Land Improvement District consists of two large villages (Kusadani and Shimokusadani). These villages were formed on terraces along the Kusadani River, one of the few naturally formed rivers in Inami Town (Photo 1). The village is divided into four agricultural villages (Honden and Kusadani Minami in Kusadani, and Uejo and Shitajo in Shimokusadani). The basic data of the four villages are shown in Table 2.

 The beneficiary area of this land improvement district is approximately 70 ha and the number of members is 161, making it one of the smallest land improvement districts in Japan. More than 60% of the beneficiary area has been developed through field improvement projects, and most of the land is paddy fields. The irrigation method is a pipeline using irrigation ponds (total length of about 13 km), and four irrigation ponds are managed and used for water supply (Photo 2).

A total of 17 officers are elected from the three election districts. The number of elected officers is determined by each election district. 3 officers (President, Vice President, and Treasurer) are elected from each election district, and each election district rotates which of the 3 officers is to be elected. The term of office is one four-year term, with Kusadani serving one term and Shimokusadani serving two terms. The majority of the board members are in their 70s, and all are male.

Local organizations closely related to the Kusadani River Land Improvement District include a water use committee, organizations receiving multifunctional payments, irrigation pond council, farmers' association, and neighborhood association. Figure 1 summarizes the areas of activity of these regional organizations. Farmers' associations and water use committees exist in each village, and land improvement districts exist across the four villages. Based on the land improvement districts, the Kusadani River Environment Conservation Council and the Irrigation Pond Council, which are organizations that are recipients of the multifunctional payment system, have been established. In terms of villages, some villages have water use committees, multifunctional payment organizations, and irrigation pond councils, while others do not. In Shimokusa Valley, irrigation committees, multifunctional organizations, and reservoir councils tend to be established in each village/pond.

Issues faced by survey respondents

This study examines the issues faced by small land improvement districts and their responses to them, based on the results of an interview survey conducted with Mr. A, the vice-chairman of a land improvement district. Mr. A, born in 1949, is a dual-income farmer living in the Shimokusaya area. He owns about 2 ha of farmland and grows rice. After working for a machinery manufacturer for many years, he retired in 2020 and became an officer of a land improvement district. He became aware of the actual operation of the land improvement district when he became a board member, and felt the issues as described below. In addition to serving as the vice-chairman of the land improvement district, Mr. A has also served as the chairman of the Inari Pond Water Use Committee since 2020. In addition, he is also the chairman of the Kusadani River Environmental Conservation Council and the Kusadani River Irrigation Pond Council, both of which are recipient organizations of multifunctional payments, in line with recent policy developments. The following is not an exhaustive list, but it will introduce some of the problems and issues that Mr. A. feels are important.

The first one is the challenges related to the management of water facilities, which can be divided into two main categories.

One is the issue related to the renewal of agricultural pipelines. In this area, the pipeline was newly constructed in 1976 and is now at the stage where it needs to be considered for total renewal due to its serious deterioration. Specific issues include reaching a consensus with association members on whether or not to implement the project and on the plan, and securing financial resources. In order to secure financial resources, the association is collecting information on subsidized menus and coordinating with government agencies, etc., while reducing expenditures, such as by reducing the remuneration paid to directors, and increasing revenues, such as by increasing the levy collected from association members.

The second is to address various issues related to irrigation pond decommissioning. Currently, the Inari Pond Irrigation Pond Committee is considering the abolition of the irrigation ponds that it manages. The Inari Pond Water Conservancy Committee consists of nine water-using farmers, and each farmer is in a situation where it is difficult for them to continue to cultivate their land. In addition, the upstream slope of the irrigation pond being considered for closure has not been paved with asphalt and is heavily eroded, and a large amount of mud has accumulated. Currently, various government agencies are offering subsidized projects for irrigation pond abandonment, and Mr. A is considering collecting relevant information and applying for such subsidies. However, even if the irrigation pond were to be abolished, he feels that it is necessary to consider who would be responsible for mowing the grass and managing the waterway. In the near future, it will be difficult for the water conservancy committee to continue mowing the grass and cleaning and repairing the waterways, and they are concerned about how to establish a new management system. As one concrete measure, they are considering a method of continuous management in cooperation with other local organizations instead of the water users' organization, but it is difficult to obtain understanding from other local organizations.

Next, we will introduce issues related to organizational management and human resources. There are four major issues.

The first is the establishment of an organizational structure with a view to the long-term plans and prospects of the land improvement district. In many cases, the selection of board members is decided by mutual imposition, and there are few cases where people willingly engage themselves as board members. As a result, there is a tendency to fall into a " retreat to safe ground " until the end of their term of office, and in some cases, they are unable to take over operations. Therefore, they feel the need to manage the organization from a long-term perspective. Therefore, they are in the process of holding training sessions to reform the awareness of board members, discussing amendments to the articles of incorporation, and seeking ways to manage the organization that are appropriate to the situation.

The second is to secure diverse human resources, including women and personnel from outside the region. As mentioned above, the participation of female board members and the introduction of a system to assign human resources from outside the region as board members are being promoted. However, there are few networks of human resources who are interested in the operation of land improvement districts, and there are no candidates to be found. Therefore, in order to secure networks with people outside the region, activities related to urban-rural exchange are being implemented.

The third is to secure human resources capable of handling accounting operations. As mentioned earlier, the introduction of accounting software developed specifically for land improvement district accounting and double-entry bookkeeping has been promoted in Japan. In the Kusadani River Land Improvement District, one of the board members is an active bank employee, and as it happens, the district has been able to secure personnel with a wealth of accounting knowledge, and has introduced accounting software and double-entry bookkeeping, and is at the stage of attempting to carry out appropriate accounting duties. However, it is expected to be difficult to continue to secure such personnel in the future. Therefore, they are considering the future of accounting operations, including outsourcing.

Fourth is the concentration of administrative work. As mentioned above, Mr. A is the Vice President of a land improvement district, the chairman of the Inari Pond Water Conservancy Committee, and the chairman of the Kusadani River Environmental Conservation Council and the Kusadani River Reservoir Council. Therefore, they are considering securing personnel who can take charge of some of the administrative work or outsourcing it to outside companies.


Issue structure

Based on the results seen above, the structure of the problems and issues faced by small land improvement districts can be summarized. First, one of the basic issues is to strengthen the organizational structure. The organization lacks the ability to select and train the personnel who will play the core role in organizational management, and has not yet accumulated the know-how for organizational management. In addition, administrative work is concentrated on a specific person who is responsible for the core of the organization's management, and the organization is unable to focus on the various issues described below or on the farming activities themselves. These issues include the aforementioned problems related to the renewal of agricultural pipelines and the closure of irrigation ponds, securing diverse human resources, improving the efficiency of accounting operations, and responding to policies that support and promote these issues. Although these issues may differ from one land improvement district to another, the strengthening of the organizational structure, which is the basic issue that many land improvement districts need to address as soon as possible. In addition, there was also the issue of how to gain the understanding and cooperation of local organizations other than land improvement districts. Generally, in areas where land improvement districts exist, a multilayered management system has been established in which the land improvement districts are responsible for the management of basic water use facilities, and the end water users' organizations in villages are responsible for branch canals and other facilities. In this case, Mr. A served as an officer of both the land improvement district and the terminal water users' organization, and they were managing the facilities in cooperation with each other. However, this study also revealed a lack of dialogue and cooperation not only with the terminal water users' organization but also with other local organizations. In small land improvement districts, it is highly necessary to promote dialogue and cooperation not only with the water conservancy organizations at the end of the district, but also with other local organizations that have various functions.


Based on the results of the above, we will examine measures to secure and develop human resources, largely from the perspective of strengthening the organizational structure and managing human resources.

First, I will discuss from the viewpoint of reorganization of land improvement districts in order to strengthen the organizational structure. In restructuring land improvement districts, as mentioned earlier, mergers have been promoted to a larger scale, but in this paper, the approach of "stratification" will be discussed. Stratification" means to consider the restructuring of land improvement districts from the viewpoint of how the functions of villages should be secured. The functions of villages include the "resource management function" to maintain and manage local resources such as agricultural and forestry lands, local landscapes, and culture, the "production complement function" to maintain and improve local production activities such as agriculture, forestry, and fishery while local residents complement each other through mutual support, and the "community management function" to facilitate the life and community activities in a socially unified community. The "livelihood support function" is to maintain and improve the livelihood of local residents by mutually supplementing each other in order to ensure the smooth operation of the community and their lives in a socially unified manner. In villages, regional organizations exist for each of these functions. In the days when human resources were abundant, it would have been possible to operate regional organizations by function, but today, when human resources are scarce, the personnel who play the core roles in each regional organization tend to overlap, and the burden tends to be concentrated on specific persons. In addition, as was also mentioned in the interview survey, it was confirmed that land improvement districts need to consider cooperation with local organizations such as community associations and farmers' associations, in addition to the end water use organizations of villages. Therefore, it is necessary to consider the reorganization of land improvement districts, taking into account the relationship not only with the land improvement districts but also with other local organizations existing in the village. As one perspective when examining the relevance of the regional organizations responsible for each village function, it is necessary to note the differences in the jurisdictional areas of each regional organization. As mentioned earlier, there are cases where the jurisdictional areas of land improvement districts and those of other regional organizations are different. The preferred jurisdictional area and size may differ depending on the functions of each village, but if the jurisdictional area of each organization is not consistent, cooperation may become difficult and complicated.

Next, let us look at the management of human resources. In the midst of a shortage of human resources, it is necessary to strategically consider what roles should be played by human resources and how they can be secured. As was also observed in the interviews, there is a need to strengthen back-office functions, such as accounting and clerical work. In general, back office refers to the departments that maintain the organizational infrastructure, such as accounting, administration, and human resources, while front office, on the contrary, refers to the departments that have direct contact with customers. While the activities related to the back office are highly specialized in terms of the expertise required, they are also unsophisticated tasks, and are among the most "unwanted" tasks in village work. For this reason, it is an area in which it is particularly difficult to secure human resources, and the burden tends to be concentrated on certain individuals. Today, "able-bodied" people are taking on back-office roles in various management organizations, and there are cases where they cannot focus on farm management activities, or where various front-office activities are carried out while the back-office functions are still weak, which can shake the management of the organization. In order to secure human resources for these back-office functions, it would be effective to reconsider the nature of training programs and to establish an intermediary support organization to take charge of back-office functions.


ONIMARU Tatsuji, SHINDO Soji, TOMOSHO Tatsumi, TANIMOTO Takeshi and OOWADA Tatsuki (2018). Changes in Water Management Entities Arising from Changes in the Structure of Agriculture and Rural Areas - Analysis of the 2015 Census of Agriculture and Forestry –. Bulletin of the NARO, Rural Engineering, (2), 57-80.

TAKAYAMA Taisuke (2007). Analysis of management efficiency in Hokkaido's Land Improvement Districts. Journal of rural planning association, 26 (Special Issue), 353-358.