Where Water Meets Agriculture: The Ambivalent Role of Water Users Associations

Timothy Moss and Ahmad Hamidov

Abstract This chapter investigates the role of water users associations (WUAs) in managing the Fergana Valley's irrigation system at a local level. WUAs were established in the Uzbek section of the Fergana Valley only from the early 2000s onwards and are generally not regarded as having been effective to date, although individual instances of modestly successful WUAs indicate their future potential as viable entities for collective modes of water management. This chapter begins by explaining the origins, purpose and structure of WUAs in the Fergana Valley as set out in policy guidelines and then contrasts this with a study of how they are working in practice. In the concluding section, the effectiveness of WUAs in the Uzbek section of the Fergana Valley is assessed in terms of criteria derived from the literature. This chapter reveals that Uzbekistan's WUAs lack the funding, water user representation and resources to tackle the major structural problems confronting Fergana Valley's post-socialist irrigation system. Their heavy dependence on powerful institutional regimes for irrigation and for agriculture also severely restricts their action. There exist important exceptions, where WUAs are exploring innovative ways of coping with the enormity of their tasks, in isolation and in collaboration, but these represent only a small minority of WUAs in the region and are, to a large extent, dependent on temporary donor funding.

Keywords Water users associations • Water governance • Institutions • Path dependency • Transformation • Fergana Valley • Integrated water resources management

• Participation • Irrigation • Education

WUAs in the Global Discourse on Integrated Water Resources Management

Over the past century, the world has witnessed an almost threefold increase in the total area of irrigated agriculture (Ostrom 1992). Representing 20 % of total cropland, irrigated agriculture produces more than 40 % of the world's total agricultural output (Perry 2007, p. 369). Expansion of irrigated agricultural areas has been a key component of nation-building processes (Kreutzmann 2015, in this volume) and, in recent decades, the construction and modernisation of large-scale irrigation facilities has become the target of massive investment programmes of international donor agencies in developing and transition countries. However, towards the late twentieth century, the management and operation of irrigation systems, particularly at the community level, proved an increasing fiscal burden for many governments. As central government funds in many countries were reduced, maintenance standards declined and irrigation infrastructure began to deteriorate at a serious rate (World Bank 2007). One of the main solutions widely voiced from the early 1990s onwards has been the creation of so-called water users associations (WUAs), in which farmers are given more responsibility to manage and maintain local irrigation systems themselves.

WUAs have been defined as “a voluntary, nongovernmental, non-profit entity established and managed by groups of farmers located along one or several watercourse canals” (Winrock International 2007, cited in Gunchinmaa and Yakubov 2010, p. 166). Ideally, WUAs are set up by a group of farmers and other water users along one or more hydrological subsystems or watercourses to collectively manage, operate, maintain and develop a local irrigation and drainage system. Membership is based on contracts and/or agreements between the members and the WUA. In accordance with WUA by-laws, their main responsibilities generally include:

• Ensuring reliable distribution of water amongst water users

• Determining and collecting irrigation service fees

• Resolving disputes on water use and management of the irrigation system in an appropriate, transparent and democratic manner

• Maintaining, refurbishing and improving the irrigation system in the WUA operational area

Within the global debate on water resources management, the wide appeal of WUAs can be attributed not merely to the inherent advantages emanating from the self-organisation of local irrigation infrastructures by the farmers that use them but also to the various ways in which WUAs – on paper at least – play to the dominant discursive paradigm of integrated water resources management (IWRM) (for a definition of IWRM, see GWP 2000, p. 22). Within the global discourse on IWRM, increasing the involvement and responsibility of water users in water management issues has become a central tenet for successful implementation. Decentralising decision-making powers and strengthening the role of local water users is also acknowledged as a core element of IWRM in Central Asia and post-socialist transition countries in general (Dombrowsky et al. 2011; Dukhovny et al. 2013). Globally, WUAs are projected to play a critical role in promoting IWRM reform at the community level.

Whilst the aspirations for WUAs are high, it is now recognised that, to be successful, they are hugely dependent on favourable conditions. On the basis of past experiences worldwide, Merrey (1996, p. 4, also cited in Gunchinmaa and Yakubov 2010, p. 168) cites four principles as preconditions for an effective WUA. These are

(1) a supportive institutional environment, (2) the capacity to operate and maintain infrastructure, (3) the benefits of user participation exceeding the costs and (4) effective collective choice arrangements. We will use these four principles to assess the performance of the Fergana Valley WUAs in Sect. 11.4.

Experiences from around the world indicate that some WUAs do live up to the aspirations placed in them and benefit from favourable institutional frameworks, at least in part. Frequently cited instances of largely successful WUAs include those created in Mexico in response to the economic crisis of the late 1980s, when responsibility for local irrigation management and infrastructure was transferred to water users (Rap and Wester 2013). In Turkey, WUAs were set up as part of a national decentralisation policy in response to the inability of the State Hydraulic Works (DSI) to continue funding the operation and maintenance of irrigation infrastructure (Uysal and Atis 2010). In Nepal, experience indicates that farmers with long-term irrigation management traditions can, through the development of autonomous and self-governing WUAs, improve communication, develop their own agreements, regulate compliance and sanction those who do not comply with their own rules (Ostrom 2000, p. 4). Such groups were able to distribute water equitably and keep their irrigation systems better maintained than those systems run by central government agencies (ibid). These examples corroborate the expectations placed in WUAs to enable people within a community to pool their resources (e.g. knowledge, expertise and money), to allocate water more effectively amongst members, to keep irrigation and drainage infrastructure in a good condition, to resolve water-related disputes and to impose sanction mechanisms against noncontributors or rulebreaking individuals.

Many other examples from around the world, however, present a very different story of failure and conflict. The difficulties encountered in setting up and operating WUAs are manifold and include financial, political, institutional and administrative constraints. The driving forces for establishing WUAs differ hugely from country to country, depending on political and economic circumstances (World Bank 2007). In most places, the development of WUAs was promoted either through government programmes or by external donor-funded investment projects. These reforms often disregarded local knowledge and experiences. Instead, policies drew on blueprint models with little consideration for the specific sociopolitical context of a country and its institutional capacities. Moreover, implementation mostly followed a topdown bureaucratic approach, allowing little space for the active involvement of civil society (Theesfeld 2005; Yalcin and Mollinga 2007; Abdullaev et al. 2010).

A closer review of the literature on post-socialist countries shows that the strong push of the World Bank and other donor agencies to establish WUAs in communities neither provided for functional local irrigation sector management nor involved local water users in their creation (Theesfeld 2005). As a result, many WUAs (e.g. in Bulgaria) terminated after one irrigation season (ibid). Sehring (2009) reports that newly established WUAs in post-socialist Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are undermined by informal practices such as patronage and unauthorised water withdrawal. If the WUAs' tasks are to deliver water to its members in due time, keep irrigation and drainage canals maintained, punish those who do not comply with rules and resolve conflicts within the WUA, they were barely effective on the ground (ibid). Instead, when the head of the WUA was a local patron, he/she was in most cases able to ensure compliance with water rules using the authority of his position (Sehring 2009). Despite Central Asian governments issuing decrees on the establishment of WUAs and creating thousands of WUAs within a very short period of time, in reality most of them exist on paper only (Wegerich 2009; Abdullaev et al. 2010). Consequently, many commentators see WUAs in Central Asia as inactive and not financially viable (Wegerich 2000; Abdullaev et al. 2010). A low level of user participation and frequent external interventions into WUA internal procedures are additional constraints for WUAs' malfunctioning in Central Asia (Schlüter et al. 2010). In the following section, we take a closer look first at the origin and purpose of WUAs in the Fergana Valley (Sect. 11.2) and then study how they are working in practice (Sect. 11.3) before assessing their effectiveness in terms of the criteria listed above (Sect. 11.4).

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