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Water Users' Associations in northern Uzbekistan: opportunities or constraints for development?

The paper presents partial results from an on-going research being carried out in Northern Uzbekistan within the framework of the ZEF/UNESCO project, titled “Economic and Ecological Restructuring of Land and Water Use in the Khorezm Region (Uzbekistan): A Pilot Project in Development Research” and funded by the German Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and UNESCO.

Project background

The objectives of the parent project are: 1) to develop concepts for landscape restructuring in Khorezm, an intensively used agricultural region in the Aral Sea basin; 2) To develop proposals for both legal-administrative and ecological restructuring measures using sustainable natural resource management concepts; and 3) to promote and encourage scientific collaboration between Germany and Uzbekistan in the field of development research.

The expected output of the project is improved management of water and land use in the Khorezm region and more generally in the Aral Sea Basin, through an ecosystem approach, resulting in increased efficiency in the (sustainable) use of resources, with a socio-economic and institutional-administrative focus. The location is explained by the little attention that has been paid to this area although the province plays an important role in the water budget of the Amudarya river delta. The area is also typical of the agricultural systems in Uzbekistan, which are mainly based on irrigated cotton production.

Typical irrigation field in Khorezm (Forkutsa, 2002).

Irrigation of Uzbekistan

The Republic of Uzbekistan, like other Central Asian countries, depends on irrigation for productive agriculture. Uzbekistan is a landlocked country, with a total area of 447 400 km². The cultivated land under irrigation is estimated at 4.24 million hectares, of which 87 percent is under annual crops and 13 percent under permanent crops. In the Khorezm region irrigated land amounts to 262 000 hectares. In Uzbekistan irrigation was introduced many centuries ago. In the past, in the majority of cases, the governance of irrigation was under the responsibility of the communities; by people selected from the society based on public esteem. In the Soviet times, the governance of water resources was done under strong state regulation. Only recently, after Uzbek independence in 1990, the introduction of farmer-oriented management has become possible.

Water User Associations as a research topic

The objectives of the research presented herein was: i) to determine the factors that influence success or failure of the emerging local water management organizations (WUA); and ii) to investigate the role that pilot WUAs can play.

The establishment of water user associations (WUA) is the most important and an integral step of the reforms under the irrigation management transfer programme currently underway in the country.

The research focus lies on informal institutions and their impact on the functioning of semi-private water management organizations, the so-called water user associations. These are non-profit, non-governmental organizations, where the members are the farmers themselves. The principle of the administration of the WUA is based on free elections. However, during the period of transition, from government to private, the farmers elect the chairman of their WUA taking into consideration the recommendations of water specialists.

The Khorezm region is a pioneer in the complex formation of the new form of water governance. Two types of WUA exist: administrative-territorial and hydrographic. The first water users associations were organized in 1999 on the basis of the liquidated and unprofitable shirkats (collective farms). The organizational setup of water user associations on the basis of abrogated shirkats is referred to as an “administrative-territorial” form of WUA. On the other hand, the hydrographic WUA is the unification of farmers considering the location of irrigated area and the aryks (canals); users obtain water from the same canal.

However, the association principle of water users is not alien to the Uzbek people. Back in history, in the Khans’ time, there were such positions as aryk (canal), aksakal (white beard), mirob (engineer) and tuganchi (construction and O&M) performing certain specific functions within the systems. All these positions were based on public elections.

Research Methodology

The study takes place within large irrigation systems inhabited by family farms. Four established WUAs in Khorezm and four pilot projects in two other regions: Syr Darya and Fergana Valley, were selected. The average irrigated area of the WUAs in Khorezm was 2400 hectares, and the average number of members there was 143 irrigators. WUAs of both types in Khorezm have been selected for the investigation. This allows collecting different opinions and perceptions regarding the functioning of WUAs, and what advantages or disadvantages different establishment principles brought.

The research approach was based on modern social methods, atypical and new for Uzbekistan, which directs the water users to problem solving through their own strength and participation. Farmers describe the problems, present them and solutions emerge from the discussions. The training also targets elements of democracy, very important and significant especially during the period of transition to the market system. The seminars and training also help to recognize and train social leaders-mobilizers able to explain the role and function of WUA. Generally, these people can be formal and informal leaders who most clearly understand current processes of reforms and show interest in further development.

The expected outputs were guided and concentrated on three topics that are essential in the functioning of a WUA in Uzbekistan. These were issues of leadership, conflict resolution and mechanisms and user fee payments.

Findings and conclusions

With regard to leadership, the importance of the Chairman is clear. The role is essential for the overall execution and guidance of the work to be done, in the water rotation related activities and for conflict resolution. Users also see the water master in a leading position, especially and as could be expected, as it concerns water rotation.

In relation to conflict resolution, respondents also perceive the WUA Chairman as an important conflict mediator. That was confirmed by respondents in all three Uzbek regions. The water masters are also involved with conflict resolution and play a major role. Less contribution to the conflict mediation, in respondents’ opinion, comes from the WUA Council and general meetings.

The respondents perceive shortage of irrigation water as well as [non] cleaning of the canal as the main cause of conflicts between users. Volume of water delivery, state of the irrigation system and terms and conditions of water supply can be the main topics of disputes between the WUA administration and the management board of irrigation systems. Non-compliance of water delivery contracts and irrigation schedule are the main reasons of conflicts between farmers and WUA according to interviewees’ opinion. Finally, water users noticed that non-payment of user fees is also a potential conflict issue.

Regarding conflict resolution mechanisms the respondents prefer the so-called peaceful conflict resolution method, meaning that they prefer to talk to the offender, and forgive the violation. If not successful, only then will respondents report about the case to the Chairman.

The third issue, fee payment, is characterized by financial obstacles of WUA members. The first hindrance of non-payments by farmers is the current credit systems. A new “target“ credits replaced the transh system (agricultural inputs such as seeds, fuel and fertilizers provided by the government) starting from 2005. However, according to experts the new credit has not been popular because farmers have to pay high interest rate. Neither credit system transh nor target really consider user fees; users are equally dissatisfied.

The next obstacle for fee payment is characterized by untimely payments of cotton mills to farmers. Farmers in both WUAs, in Khorezm, as well as in pilot projects, in Fergana and Syr Darya, suffer from it. Arbitrariness of use of money from farmers‘ bank accounts by local officials is the third kind of obstacles that hampers the payment of water users. Officials have access to agricultural enterprises; using their power they give a directive to transfer money from farmers' accounts to other on-going strategic projects without the farmers' knowledge.

Based on the summary of findings above, a few recommendations at different levels can be made. Irrigation management at levels such as national, provincial, district, and local should collaborate more with each other: vertically (between subordinated levels) and horizontally (between different interrelated organizations).

At the local level, more real power should be given to the WUA Chairmen. The influence on decision-making authority of WUAs by local officials should be reduced. At the national level, since the major irrigation network is under state control, the state should invest in the construction and maintenance of the system. The role of the state should be revised or lightened.

Finally, at the WUA level it is advisable to increase members’ participation in everyday activities. Without the right to determine its production programme or free sale markets for their agricultural products the adaptation of farmers to WUAs is not possible.

For more information contact:
Darya Zavgorodnyaya at [email protected]

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