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Water User Associations and Collective Action in Irrigation and Drainage  

Bryan Bruns

If there is too little or too much water, farmers may be able to work together to control water and grow more food. Even before the rise of cities and states, people living in ancient settlements cooperated to create better growing conditions for useful plants and animals by diverting, retaining, or draining water. Local collective action by farmers continued to play a major role in managing water for agriculture, including in later times and places when rulers sometimes also organized construction of dams, dikes, and canals. Comparative research on long-lasting irrigation communities and local governance of natural resources has found immense diversity in management rules tailored to the variety of local conditions. Within this diversity, Elinor Ostrom identified shared principles of institutional design: clear social and physical boundaries; fit between rules and local conditions, including proportionality in sharing costs and benefits; user participation in modifying rules; monitoring by users or those accountable to them; graduated sanctions to enforce rules; low-cost conflict resolution; government tolerance or support for self-governance; and nested organizations. During the 19th and 20th centuries, centralized bureaucracies constructed many large irrigation schemes. Farmers were typically expected to handle local operation and maintenance and comply with centralized management. Postcolonial international development finance for irrigation and drainage systems usually flowed through national bureaucracies, strengthening top-down control of infrastructure and water management. Pilot projects in the 1970s in the Philippines and Sri Lanka inspired internationally funded efforts to promote participatory irrigation management in many countries. More ambitious reforms for transfer of irrigation management to water user associations (WUAs) drew on examples in Colombia, Mexico, Turkey, and elsewhere. These reforms have shown the feasibility in some cases of changing policies and practices to involve irrigators more closely in decisions about design, construction, and some aspects of operation and maintenance, including cooperation in scheme-level co-management. However, WUAs and associated institutional reforms are clearly not panaceas and have diverse results depending on context and on contingencies of implementation. Areas of mixed or limited impact and for potential improvement include performance in delivering water; maintaining infrastructure; mobilizing local resources; sustaining organizations after project interventions; and enhancing social inclusion and equity in terms of multiple uses of water, gender, age, ethnicity, poverty, land tenure, and other social differences. Cooperation in managing water for agriculture can contribute to coping with present and future challenges, including growing more food to meet rising demand; competition for water between agriculture, industry, cities, and the environment; increasing drought, flood, and temperatures due to climate change; social and economic shifts in rural areas, including outmigration and diversification of livelihoods; and the pursuit of environmental sustainability.