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Cooperation by water users: Does it work?

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

World Water Day is celebrated annually on March 22nd.  This year’s theme, water cooperation, often evokes images of water treaties being signed between countries. Indeed a lot has been written about cooperation among countries in managing their shared water resources. Shared water resources and conflicts thereof have led some to conclude that ‘water wars’ are inevitable and a host of others to provide evidence that cooperation is more common than ordinarily imagined. As important as inter-country cooperation is, I am more excited by stories of cooperation forged at the level of farmers.

Community managed irrigation systems

Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues demonstrated in meticulous detail that people can and do work together to manage shared resources sustainably.  Their work on common pool resources showed, quite convincingly, that farmers do indeed come forward to invest and then sustainably manage traditional irrigation projects.  This body of work was then used to draw parallels between farmer-managed irrigation systems and public irrigation systems. This also coincided with global discourse on community based natural resource management and led to a paradigm shift from centralized management to Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) and Irrigation Management Transfer (IMT), where communities were involved in managing irrigation systems.

PIM/IMT was the main form of institutional reform promoted by international financial institutions and there was buy-in from the national governments. Since then, 50 and more countries have adopted PIM/IMT. Thus, PIM/IMT have remained buzz words in the irrigation sector for around 40 years now. However, in spite of years of implementation and hundreds of documented case studies, evidence of the impact of PIM/IMT has at best remained sketchy.

Has community management been successful?

IWMI, in partnership with FAO and with funding from ADB, undertook a systematic review [1] of 108 documented case studies of PIM/IMT from 20 countries in Asia.  We located all case studies on PIM/IMT in Asia in the post 1994 period and coded them based on context specific parameters: bibliographic indicators, location indicators, technical specification of the system, socio-economic and agricultural indicators and IMT/PIM implementation related indicators.  We then ranked each case study in terms of its success or failure based on its unique composite success score, which is comprised of nine outcome and impact variables.

Figure 1. Distribution of successful and failed cases of PIM/IMT

What were our main findings?

First, most studies failed to address issues of causality and could not convincingly link outcomes with PIM/IMT interventions. Only a handful of studies (14% or so) combined ‘before-after’ and ‘with-without’ comparisons and attempted some semblance of causal attribution.

Our second main finding is that out of the 108 cases that we studied, 42 cases could be ranked as successful in terms of outcomes and impacts, while, the remaining 66 cases showed no overall improvement in outcomes and impacts after the projects were handed over to local communities (Figure 1). The majority of these success cases were from East Asia, more specifically from China; while outcomes in other regions were more mixed.

So, our next question was what determines success?

We found a few common patterns – successful schemes were almost always ‘non-paddy’ systems (i.e. those that did not grow rice), where water control was crucial and incomes of farmers higher; schemes where a NGO was involved during the transfer process and provided needed support to the farmers also tended to succeed more – this was especially true in South Asia, while strong government policies and innovative incentive schemes seemed to encourage successful turnover in China.

But does it mean that once we identify ‘triggers’ of success, they can be easily replicated? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be no.

We found that successful cooperative action in large scale public irrigation systems takes place under a set of very context specific and process intensive conditions – conditions that are difficult and costly, if not impossible to replicate elsewhere.

We also found that lack of replicability of successful cases of PIM/IMT is not an issue of poor implementation or enabling conditions, as it is generally thought, but is related to conceptual weakness of the PIM/IMT model itself and therefore there is a need for a paradigm shift in the way publicly owned irrigation systems are managed.

Conceptual weakness often lies in the fact that communities are given responsibilities without adequate power or resources, while the unequal power status between the local communities and government bureaucracies continues unabated.  So, the first step towards such a paradigm shift is reorganization of the irrigation bureaucracies; they need to become more service oriented, treating farmers as customers and not as mere ‘beneficiaries’.

[1]: A systematic review differs from a literature review in that it tends to be more evidence oriented and creates a uniform template against which all evidence can be measured and compared. This uniform template, often called the review protocol, is publicly available and therefore can be replicated by other researchers in future.

Read the paper here:

Irrigation Reform in Asia


You could have referred to the parallel study by your IWMI colleague Francois Molle and others on the Middle East experience -- far more negative than your study. Exprience in Africa is not very encouraging either. But I agree with your last point on the need for a paradigm shift, which a relatively younger person like you, "untainted" by past experience, should help lead. And whatever emerges in Asia's large schemes will be quite different from what emerges in other areas and types of schemes.

Looking back, as a "tainted" participant, I would point out a major reason for not achieving what had been hoped; the failure of governments to reform their own irrigation bureaucracies and policies. We see revolultions in many sectors but dinasaurs are alive and well in the irrigation sector in Asia, Middle East and Africa. Most of us always said this larger reform was a critical requirement for sustainable effective IMT. See chapter 5 in the Comprehensive Assessment book edited by David Molden.

Thanks Doug for your insightful comments. A large part of WLE's research portfolio should now focus on how to bring about bureaucratic reforms. To begin with, one can look at various reform initiatives undertaken by different countries. LGED in Bangladesh is doing interesting stuff, as is irrigation department in Vietnam and Indonesia I am told. In Indonesia, there is a new agency that looks only into issues of operation and maintenance and thier stated goal seems to be to reduce maintenance backlog. Malaysia's change program also seems interesting. I am sure there is a lot of innovative stuff happening out there, someone just needs to go and figure out what is working and what is not.