Home | TheWaterBlog

TheWaterBlog: If you want to share unique images and observations in this section, or would like to know about syndicating these posts, send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.!


posted by Frank van Steenbergen, courtesy Rajeshwar Mishra
February 25, 2013

They were sometimes created by the stroke of a pen – but also perished by it: Water Users Associations or WUAS.  For instance, in the Gezira system in Sudan – Africa’s largest irrigation system - a several years-long effort to reform the irrigation system with World Bank support came to an abrupt end last year with the abolishment of WUAs.

In other countries, WUAs were given large responsibilities overnight, asked to take over tasks that the government had been failing to do: collect funds for maintenance or control water thievery. This happened in Sindh in Pakistan where some organizations took it upon themselves to ‘create’ more than hundreds of farmer organization on large irrigation distributaries within a short time span– in an environment that is highly politically charged and power-imbalanced. Clearly this was going to be difficult.

The same in the canal areas of the Krishna Delta in Andhra Pradesh in India. Here hundreds of WUAs came into being overnight as the result of a drastic policy move, whereby the services of the lower tiers of the Irrigation Department were reformulated. The WUAs ended up primarily doing maintenance work against government payment which earlier had been put out to tender to local contractors. Nothing else changed very much.

The love-affair with WUA’s in irrigation systems started in the early 1990’s. There were a number of reasons. One was the ‘management deficit’ in irrigation, especially in the larger systems: the lack of management and quality services, the lack of routine maintenance, the perpetual dependency on external funding and the general disconnect between farmers and water bureaucracies. Things as they stood were insufficient basis to justify (donor) investment in irrigation. In a world of water scarcity irrigators were the lucky ones, so it was strange that they would need to be supported that much.

Against this background, WUAs presented themselves as the way-out and became a standard ingredient in irrigation investment projects. They were elevated as the main farmer partner in development projects: involved in participatory consultation, contributing in cash or kind and often – but not always - given extensive training. WUAs were the equivalent of community organizations, health committees or parent associations.

Twenty years later we are all sadder and wiser and we can make up a balance of some sort. Against the failures or aborted efforts of WUAs there are also considerable successes even within difficult situations. Take the water users association in Daraban Zam in DI Khab Pakistan (see picture). This association consists of two layers (local and federation) and has initiated an overhaul of the large spate system after the devastating 2010 floods. It planned new diversion points, set up a fund for emergency maintenance and managed by better water management to add the area irrigated with 6000 hectares.

There are a number of lessons of two decades of WUAs. One is that they are not the miracle cure for all what ails in water management. If there are conflicts, huge technical problems (drainage, water logging, severe shortage) or political manipulation WUAs can make things better but not perfect. Barring some outstanding examples  there is only so much a better local organization can achieve.

Second, water management is forever. However WUAs were often created as partner organizations in projects that came to an end. They then entered into a world where they had no clear place and support and risked being ‘out of context’.  If WUAs are to persist and contribute to better water management they should be an integral part of local governance.

Third, strong WUAs do not come about by ‘wishing they were there’. They are organizations and organizations need to start and mature. Often still there is the assumptions that ‘communities will do’ the trick: for instance in Ethiopia WUAs are so thinly supported that it is no wonder that they are not at all strong. There is the opposite risk as well: too much hand holding and pampering during an investment project by externally scheduled meetings, fancy trainings and formal paperwork. This may leave the WUA and its members ill-prepared for the life thereafter.

Probably a more promising principle is that of ‘self evolving institutions’.  The context needs to be there in which local organizations can establish themselves and fit within minimum legal provision and standard rules.  It is more or less like football clubs that have established themselves – following the same rules of the game (not more than eleven players on the pitch to name one)  and the requirements of national leagues and competitions. Massively successfully as they are there was never a development project that created ‘football clubs’. In fact some competition and peer pressure may also be healthy for local governance organizations such as WUAs: by meeting and engaging with each other they may compare themselves with others and learn and have the urge to do better.  By federating they may find what they have in common and where critical mass helps.

This is the first in a series of posts on self-evolving institutions. Watch this space for more posts in the coming weeks, gathering examples and insights from around the world. 

  • Cactus, the Arid Miracle

    posted by Ahmed Albakri, Bothinah Albakri, Sharafuddin A. Saleh and Frank van Steenbergen February 18, 2013Cactus is a miracle plant.  It grows in arid areas where no other fruit ‘fears to tread.’ During the most severe droughts, the dried pads are the lifeline of cattle that have no other means of support. Cactus is a regular feature in dry areas, from Mexico to Morocco.For a long time the ...

    Read more

  • alt

    The World We Want: Governing & Managing Water Resources for Sustainable Development

    posted by Joakim Harlin, UNDP February 11, 2013 The pressures on water resources that more and more countries are experiencing will undoubtedly increase by 2030. Insufficient access to water resources is often not driven by water scarcity, but by ineffective and fragmented institutions, management systems and investments and insufficient human capacities. The ability of countries to alloc...

    Read more

  • Moon Water

    posted by Frank van Steenbergen February 4, 2013In the nineteenth century, as white farmers moved up north in what is now South Africa, the original ‘Bushmen’ inhabitants of this area were chased out and hunted. They were marginalized and slowly their culture practically disappeared.  Some groups like the /Xam completely vanished, only leaving behind a heritage of rock paintings (see image: c...

    Read more

  • Use of rock dust in bio- fertilizers.

    posted by Ruben Borge January 28, 2013The Usambara Cooperative Union (UCU) in Tanzania is proud of their fair trade certified organic coffee. For more than forty years, returns from this crop allowed farmers to pay the bills of their children’s education. It has always been cultivated without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, but also without any fertilization.  After four decades of continue...

    Read more

  • The Power of Dew

    posted by Frank van Steenbergen January 21, 2013Even as surface water is overcommitted and even new groundwater resources get scarce, one major frontier of water remains untapped: water from the atmosphere or, to be more poetic, dew.Dew is formed when the temperature of air with a certain moisture level cools below a certain temperature. The air becomes too cold to carry all this moisture and dew ...

    Read more

  • Managing Mega Irrigation

    posted by Frank van Steenbergen January 15, 2013 It is the world’s largest irrigation system, also called ‘the Indus Food Machine’-  14 Million hectares of irrigated land in Pakistan, distributed over more than 40 interconnected canals commands.  This mega-system produces, among others (in 2012), 9 million tons of rice (including the famous ‘basmati’ variety), 23 millions tons of whea...

    Read more

  • The Origin of Measuring Time

    posted by Frank van Steenbergen December 31, 2012Several sociologists such as Johan Goudsbloem have chronicled the fascinating story of time – how uniform systems of measuring time developed even in the unconnected world of the past– with hours being equally long all over the world, minutes starting at the same time and calendars synchronized. Trade and international travel were major driver...

    Read more

  • Good Neighbours

    posted by Frank van Steenbergen December 24, 2012The coming year will be the International Year of Water Cooperation. While there has been much debate on coming ‘water wars’ and there are sordid examples of international conflicts,  there is a much larger amount of cooperation fortunately  – especially at local level where people know each other and are friends, neighbours and fellow hu...

    Read more

  • Mekong: A River, its people and Big Dams

    posted by Michael Victor, CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. document.getElementById('cloak955f198a1d9df1d79357535fc0dfef29').innerHTML = ''; var prefix = 'ma' + 'il' + 'to'; var path = 'hr' + 'ef' + '='; var addy955f198a1d9df1d79357535fc0dfef29 = 'm.victor' + '...

    Read more

  • Controlling the micro-environment

    posted by Frank van Steenbergen December 13, 2012Whereas pressurized irrigation systems- such as drip and sprinklers- are widely promoted to save water, their largest benefit may lie not in the water saving, but in the higher production they make possible. While this is not new (the so-called Comprehensive Assessment estimated already that micro-irrigation systems achieve 5-56% higher yield), it o...

    Read more