Uzbekistan is an incredibly dry country, receiving an annual rainfall of just 100 to 300 mm. Nevertheless, Uzbek farmers have managed to significantly increase productivity since the early 1990s, raising the availability of diverse foods and halving the number of unnourished people in just ten years.
But these gains - representative of a trend across virtually all the post-Soviet countries - are putting pressure on natural resources. Farmers here still have limited access to the kind of technology and tools needed to enhance productivity and incomes in sustainable ways.
In Uzbekistan one problem is mis- and overuse of water by farmers. The amount of water farmers use to irrigate their fields often exceeds, by several orders of magnitude, what their crops actually require. Therefore, the government of Uzbekistan is actively searching for new practices and technologies that can ensure effective and rational water usage.
Looking to modern market mechanisms and asking farmers to pay fees for water delivery can help balance out demand and supply. This idea is reflected in Uzbekistan's recently approved agriculture policy, which calls for rolling out new, electronic tools across to the country, so that such fees can be accurately, transparently, quickly and easily determined. Research trials have shown that these tools help build both trust and sustainable water usage.
Water is scarce and unaccounted for
Today, agriculture consumes more than 90% of Uzbekistan's total water withdrawals, and water demands - from agriculture, municipal and industrial consumers - are set to increase. At the same time, water resources are becoming become scarcer and scarcer for reasons that are both biophysical and historical.
First, Uzbekistan, already arid and dominated by large desert plains, is particularly susceptible to climate change impacts. The water flowing through the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, which feed into the Aral Sea and provide much of the country's water supply, is by 2050 expected to decrease by up to 5 and 15 percent, respectively. Increased temperatures, more frequent and extreme droughts, decreased rainfall and changes in weather patterns that shift the growing season also all represent major threats to the country's agriculture sector and economy.
Second, infrastructure and institutions with roots in the Soviet era complicate water governance. During that time, irrigation canals and drainage facilities were constructed to fulfill the water needs of large-scale, state-owned cooperatives, but as a result of extensive, post-independence land reforms most Uzbek farmers now cultivate smaller plots, of 35 to 40 hectares on average.
Local water consumer associations have been established to meet the individualized water needs of these newly independent farmers. The associations oversee the delivery of water for irrigation through intricate canal systems - with many plots receiving water through the same canal. While farmers are expected to pay the associations a fee for their services, funding their operations, many associations have struggled to ensure the timely delivery of sufficient water to farmers, who in turn are reluctant to pay their irrigation service fees. These challenges reinforce each other.
With associations not accounting for exactly how much water has been delivered to whom, conflicts between farmers and water consumer associations are common. Farmers complain of unfair charges, and, what's more, this inaccurate accounting for water delivery undermines whatever financial incentive farmers might have to restrict water use.
How to make markets work for water
So what's the solution? Scientists from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) have completed research trials that have seen dramatic improvements in water accounting. We worked with three water consumer associations, serving about 500 farmers, to test new, electronic tools that enable the associations to automatically account for how much water has been delivered to which farmers.
The tools include so-called smartsticks, which are electronic water-accounting devices that can quickly determine the volume of water flowing out from the on-farm irrigation canal and into farmers' individual plots. These devices are briefly lowered into mini-gauging stations, placed at the boundary between a farmer's plot and the central canals, and produce an electronic reading of how much water is discharged to the farmer during an irrigation session.
This information is used to fairly price the fee due to the association; each farmer's fee is based on the exact volume of water delivered. This fairly accurate, transparent and easy accounting for water delivered resolved conflicts related to water distribution and incentivized the farmers to pay irrigation fees in full and on time, securing the schemes' long-term maintenance and operation.
The trial was carried out under the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) and with support from the European Union delegation in Uzbekistan, the GIZ Water Programme in Uzbekistan, and the iMOMO initiative, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. It yielded extremely promising results: over-irrigation was reduced, and water was used more effectively. Conflicts between farmers and water consumer associations also decreased, and farmers were content to pay their fairly priced irrigation fees.
A priority in Uzbekistan - and beyond?
Since early 2019, we have regularly met with Uzbek policy-makers, reporting on the emerging outcomes from our trials. As a result, implementing smartsticks and mini-gauging stations in irrigation schemes across the country was made a priority in the 2020-2030 national agricultural development strategy and its roadmap. The tools are to be put into use to facilitate effective water delivery and payment for water services, helping to alleviate water scarcity.
Leveraging market mechanisms incentivizes farmers to use water judiciously, and it is an approach that could be adopted elsewhere in post-Soviet states, where agriculture is intensifying, but water resources are running out. Importantly, establishing fees for the cost associated with the delivery of water, rather than commoditizing water itself, is what builds trust and upholds local institutions key to sustainable water management.
With checks and balances in place - and farmers using just the right amount of water - agriculture may continue to underpin food security and economic development in Uzbekistan, and beyond.
Also published on Smart Water Magazine.
Thrive blog is a space for independent thought and aims to stimulate discussion among sustainable agriculture researchers and the public. Blogs are facilitated by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) but reflect the opinions and information of the authors only and not necessarily those of WLE and its donors or partners.