Feed the Future
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Local Water Sharing in Tajikistan Requires Improved Coordination

In recent years, Tajikistan has created private commercial farms and new formal institutions for water governance. Food security in rural areas also continues to depend on kitchen gardens, which obtain water under informal arrangements. To address growing competition between different water uses requires improved coordination between informal and formal institutions, particularly in the face of large-scale out-migration.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the ensuing civil war in Tajikistan, the country underwent profound institutional changes. One was the introduction of local water users associations (WUAs). These are participatory water governance institutions, which provide irrigation services, including water delivery and dispute resolution.

WUAs are legally mandated to provide water only to commercial entities, so only they are entitled to membership. Kitchen gardens are primarily a direct source of food for households and are not explicitly addressed in the WUA law. With increased migration of male farm workers to Russia, kitchen gardens are growing in importance. They are managed by women, cultivating fruit and vegetables for home consumption and sometimes as cash crops. Recent research carried out by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) found that almost all rural households own a kitchen garden, and 57 percent of those surveyed have only a kitchen garden.

Since there are limited formal arrangements for providing water to kitchen gardens via WUAs, informal governance mechanisms have emerged to fill this gap in the legal framework. Many such mechanisms are based on traditions of governance that have existed for centuries across Central Asia. They often involve locally powerful village leaders or mahalla (village) committees. While not explicitly defined in the law, these informal institutions play an important role in regulating water for kitchen gardens and in preventing and resolving disputes over competing water uses.

In some places, village leaders collaborate closely with WUA leaders, agreeing on the irrigation schedule, for example, so that both farms and gardens receive water simultaneously through the same infrastructure. Elsewhere, a lack of coordination gives rise to conflicts between water users. Research has shown that governance arrangements vary considerably between villages, depending on local factors. A key question is whether the current hybrid arrangements have the necessary resilience to ensure equitable water sharing and adequate provision of water to kitchen gardens. Or do these mechanisms need to be strengthened or formalized?

Leaving informal mechanisms to develop naturally can result in robust arrangements that fit local needs and conditions. However, there are also options to achieve more comprehensive coordination among different institutions and water users. One option is to revise the WUA law so that membership is open to kitchen gardens, even if they remain non-commercial entities. By thus formalizing their status, this measure may help ensure equitable provision of water and resolution or prevention of disputes.

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