Cultivating the Habits of Efficient Water Management in Central Asia
In Tajikistan and other countries of Central Asia, local water user associations have proved vital for efficient irrigation management, and reasonably prolonged training is the key for enabling the associations to perform well. As new challenges emerge, such as male outmigration, the training must be expanded, reaching women especially — a lesson that is important for this region and beyond.
Central Asia’s arid climate leaves little margin for error in the management of water for crop production, which depends almost entirely on irrigation. Farmers and society as a whole know all too well that shortfalls can have unacceptably high costs.
A prolonged civil war in Tajikistan during the post-Soviet period and the break-up of large collectives into thousands of private or dekhan farms led to major disruptions in irrigation management. This caused a sharp drop in the production of cotton, which has been a mainstay of Tajikistan’s agricultural economy since Soviet times.
In the aftermath of this crisis, it was clear that the problem is not so much one of water infrastructure but of water governance — the system by which decisions are made and tasks performed. Previously, Russian experts had handled all of these. With their departure, irrigation departments were unable to cope with the complex demands of providing water to thousands of dekhan farms, using the extensive network of irrigation canals that had been developed to serve the collective farms.
In an effort to address this problem, the government of Tajikistan implemented reforms, centering on the creation of water user associations, with support from USAID and other donor organizations. The idea was to empower rural people who have a direct stake in irrigation management.
One obvious challenge was how to cultivate the habits of local participatory decision-making in a country where for decades irrigation and the entire economy had been managed from the top down. The solution proved to be intensive training in the various duties and functions of the water user associations, from handling their finances and membership to managing and maintaining irrigation infrastructure as well as resolving conflicts.
Research carried out recently by a team from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) underlines several features of the training that are critical for its success now and in the future. These results were based on detailed household surveys and economic analysis of the performance of hundreds of farms in southern Tajikistan.
An especially decisive factor in the training proved, logically, to be the amount of time dedicated to it. Associations set up with USAID support involved training with a duration over twice that of training provided under government initiatives, using essentially the same content. As previously seen in neighboring countries, farmers who received training for a longer time were more likely to pay membership fees, sign a water contract and attend association meetings. They were also more inclined to view the associations as transparent, accountable, responsive and fair.
More training for water user associations is essential, as they face new challenges in an economy undergoing profound transformations. One factor complicating their work is the out-migration of male laborers, mainly to Russia. In our study, the share of dehkan farms operated by females increased from 11 percent in 2014 to 18 percent in 2016, and these were less likely to pay membership fees, sign a water contract and attend association meetings. Dehkan farms have historically been operated by males and previous training has consequently targeted them. As more women operate farms, training programs that also reach them should increase the share of members that participate and cooperate with their water user associations.
Expanded training offers a way to link water user associations more effectively with government organizations, enhancing the performance of both. District irrigation departments receive information from the water user associations on members’ anticipated water use, and this better enables them to plan and coordinate in response to competing needs. Training that improves the quality and timeliness of this information exchange should help improve the delivery of irrigation services.
Quantitative evidence on the positive effect of longer training for water user associations provides a powerful argument for getting one of the main success factors right.