Irrigation Water Management in Kyrgyzstan


A review of Water, International Development and Collective Action: An Impact Assessment of an Irrigation Management Project in Southern Kyrgyzstan, by Heather LaRue McGee.  

Water is arguably the most valuable and potentially most contentious natural resource in Central Asia’s Aral Sea basin.  The well-worn ‘water is life’ adage certainly rings true in the desert and arid steppe portions of this region.  Access to water has conditioned locations and concentrations of human settlement here throughout history, and anchors the contemporary agricultural production sectors vital for most of the region’s employment and much of its export revenue.  This latter condition is made possible only with the Soviet-era irrigation network, among the world’s most expansive, permeating the basins of the Amudarya and Syrdarya.  Conflict over these rivers’ water is today a function of the contemporary trans-boundary nature of the rivers, the spatial imbalance of water supply and demand, competing water uses and variations in seasonal demand, and inequitable water distribution vis-à-vis user location along a given irrigation canal.  This last condition drives much of the local-scale conflict over water, compounded in part by a decaying irrigation infrastructure and increasing demand for irrigation water.

Heather LaRue McGee’s dissertation tackles a fundamentally important issue for the entire region – irrigation efficiency and equity in the face of water scarcity.  This research, and the results derived from it, should be of great interest to scholars of Aral Sea basin water issues, irrigation water management, common property natural resource management, or international aid/development projects.  Perhaps more importantly, the results of this research have important implications for the livelihoods of those water users in southern Kyrgyzstan whose region formed the study area for this dissertation.  The author has produced an excellent piece of research, well positioned in the midst of relevant scholarly discourses, methodologically sound and rich, with important findings for international development projects targeting irrigation water management in Central Asia and for local populations whose livelihoods are so closely intertwined with irrigated agriculture.  As a result, this dissertation represents an important contribution to both existing scholarship and to efforts aimed at improving the region’s ecological and socio-economic conditions.

The dissertation’s first chapter (Introduction) immediately convinces the reader of the research’s potential contributions while effectively setting the geographical, historical, scholarly, and methodological stage for the ensuing work.  The study area in question is the southern Kyrgyzstan region inclusive of the Batken, Jalalabad, and Osh oblasts.  One institutional mechanism instituted here (and elsewhere) to address water use efficiency has been the formation of Water Users Associations (WUA), bred of a larger Irrigation Management Transfer (IMT) policy incorporating community-driven development initiatives and enhancing local control of irrigation water.  A key component of the WUA is the implementation of an irrigation service fee (ISF), designed to instill a sense of ownership of both water and canal infrastructure and improving (in theory) overall efficiency in water use.  In the study area, however (as with WUAs throughout Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere in Central Asia), “the inability of WUAs to collect irrigation service fees from water users and conduct the necessary operation and maintenance on their canal systems translates into an acute threat to the viability of the irrigation system” (p. 6).  One international development project aimed at improving WUA performance in southern Kyrgyzstan, the Water Users Association Support Program (WUASP) (implemented by Winrock International with USAID funding) forms a focus of this dissertation.  Through an analysis of the impact of this particular project on WUA performance on southern Kyrgyzstan, this dissertation investigates the processes that link this program to WUA outcomes and in so doing bolsters our understanding of key factors determining WUA success or failure.

The dissertation’s second chapter (Research Setting and Historical Overview of Irrigation Management) introduces the study area region, irrigation in the region, the history of irrigation management, and irrigation reform in Kyrgyzstan.  Significant attention is also paid to irrigation management transfer (IMT) initiatives in Kyrgyzstan, including the development of WUAs.  Two points made here with respect to the milieu of historical influences on Kyrgyzstan’s contemporary WUAs are particularly illuminating.  First, most of the state’s more than 500 WUAs today incorporate management functions from irrigation schemes going back to the Khoqand khanate period.  Included here are the mirab (water master), aksakals (elder leadership council), and ashar (local labor crews tasked with cleaning irrigation canals).  Second, current WUA boundaries conform to those of Soviet-era local administrative units or collective/state farms.  This chapter concludes with an insightful assessment of the institutional functioning of southern Kyrgyzstan WUAs as referenced within institutional design principles formulated by a the Nobel-prize-winner economist Elinor Ostrom in her classic Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).  The dissertation transitions seamlessly into its third chapter (Background on Water Users’ Associations and the Water Users’ Association Support Program (WUASP)) where the region’s social, political and historical characteristics are described as hindrances to effective irrigation water management and WUA performance.  This discussion draws heavily upon numerous interviews the author conducted with farmers, village leaders, international organization leaders, and WUA representatives in southern Kyrgyzstan.  Of the numerous obstacles discussed (a subset includes the Soviet legacy of free and unlimited water, much higher than legally mandated proportions of non-cash payment of ISF, and water for energy trade incentivizing cheap water), the prevalence of the blueprint approach to forming WUAs is directly targeted by the development program in question.  While World Bank WUA assistance programs target WUA leaders (top-down, or blueprint approach), WUASP sought to build institutional capacity and community mobilization through a ‘grass-roots’ targeting of water users.  Of southern Kyrgyzstan’s 188 WUAs, WUASP assisted 28 during the project’s 5-year duration (2004-2009).

The dissertation’s fourth chapter (Theory and Hypotheses) utilizes theory guiding WUASP program goals and collective action, common property scholarship to formulate a number of hypotheses on how the program impacts collective action through targeting four mechanisms (knowledge of WUA and irrigation management in general, participation in WUA activities, attitudes regarding the WUA and resource ownership, and social capital as it exists in the various WUAs) of collective action outcomes.  Additionally, other hypotheses related to the potential mediating effects of WUA population size, land area, economic and social heterogeneity, and ecological scarcity on program (WUASP) effectiveness are also developed.  In general, WUASP is expected to have a positive impact on all four collective action mechanisms (knowledge, participation, attitudes, and social capital), with more positive impact on smaller (in terms of population and land area) WUAs, on those with more heterogeneous populations, and on females and end-users (those located at the tail end of a given irrigation canal).  With respect to water scarcity, a quadratic relationship with collective action is posited, where no scarcity and extreme scarcity are both estimated to hinder cooperation.  Each of the hypotheses developed here are well formulated, and substantiated fully by relevant scholarship.  They in turn guide the subsequent empirical (econometric) analyses presented in the dissertation’s fifth chapter (Outcomes).  As this research seeks to evaluate the impact of a development program (WUASP) in southern Kyrgyzstan, extensive survey data are used to examine the program’s association with four collective action mechanisms (knowledge, participation, attitudes, social capital) and a sizeable panel dataset is used to empirically test the program’s impact on WUA performance indicators by using an interrupted panel design and fixed effects regression methods.  In general, WUASP was shown to have a significantly positive effect on WUA performance, particularly with respect to community participation, ISF payments, institutional capacity, and irritation infrastructure.  The processes through which the program improved WUA outcomes, generally, were as expected with respect to knowledge, participation, and attitudes.  One unexpected result centered on social capital, where (with the lone exception of ethnically mixed intervention sites) WUASP had no effect on social capital or in some cases worsened it.

The dissertation’s sixth chapter (Mechanisms) enriches the econometric results presented in the previous chapter by further examining the manner in which WUASP positively impacted WUA performance and why WUASP yielded collective action improvements in particular cases and not others.  The resulting discussion is greatly enhanced by an analysis of a wealth of qualitative data collected through exploratory survey research, a focus group project, and a set of open and semi-structured interviews, all obtained within the study region.  Most substantively, a 39-item survey instrument was distributed across 1,160 randomly sampled land units within six of the study area’s WUAs (three treatment WUAs with WUASP presence, three control WUAs).  These survey data were analyzed using a mix of multiple regression techniques – logistic, multinomial logistic, and OLS employed where appropriate.  Models were constructed using knowledge, participation, attitudes, and social capital as dependent variables, viewed as a function of a host of independent variables (all fully described within the chapter).  In general, an overall positive association between WUASP and the collective action mechanisms knowledge, participation, and attitudes were found.  Regarding social capital, however, WUASP either had no impact on community relations or in some cases may have heightened intra-community tensions.  In addition, women and end-users (those at the tail end of given irrigation canals) did not receive positive WAUSP program effect across the behavioral mechanisms.  Indeed, for these disadvantaged groups, there appeared to be a negative program effect for social capital.  Following this discussion of the statistical analysis of the survey data, the author very effectively delves into each of the four behavioral mechanisms, contextualizing the statistical results by offering her interpretations based on extensive fieldwork and interviews.  In investigating why WUASP was not successful in generating social capital, the dissertation proffers two well-developed and articulated explanations.  The first has to do with a priori socio-economic inequality existing in most Kyrgyzstan WUAs, itself a direct result of the 1990s land reform that simply reproduced and exacerbated Soviet-era inequality.  In such a structurally unequal environment, much of the IMT and WUA efficiency gains are argued to be coming at the expense of equity.  Secondly, an important question is raised with respect to expectations of a short-term international development program.  Such an intervention seems unlikely to change existing social structure within a community or WUA and pressure to justify funding often leads to a focus on infrastructure rehabilitation – perhaps an admirable outcome, though distinct from loftier goals of empowerment and social mobilization.

The dissertation’s final chapter (Implications) positions the research within scholarly and policy work in international development and natural resource management/collective action research scholarship.  The program in question (WUASP) was shown to have a positive impact on WUA performance and irrigation water management outcomes in southern Kyrgyzstan.  This success was shown to have been mediated by a given WUA’s size, socio-economic heterogeneity, and ecological scarcity.  The program was also shown to have a positive association with knowledge, participation, and attitudes mechanisms.  Despite these beneficial results, the program failed to provide targeted benefits to disadvantaged water users (women and those at the end of irrigation canals) and was unsuccessful in generating social capital or motivating collective action.  The program may, in fact, have heightened social and economic inequality in WUAs, particularly those where large landholders and elites could maximize their own benefit at the expense of others.  Beyond the well-reasoned and rigorous program assessment, the dissertation’s findings additionally have “important implications for collective action theories, methodological approaches to the study of collective action, and development work on irrigation water management in Central Asia” (p. 105).  The chapter concludes with the author’s future research plans, which envision utilizing a more up to date demographic dataset and expanding this dissertation’s work into a comparative treatment of both Northern and Southern Kyrgyzstan.

This dissertation is an excellent work of research and scholarship.  It is largely an empirical study, an investigation of the effectiveness of a particular international development program targeting WUAs in southern Kyrgyzstan.  In addition to investigating how the program impacted water users and WUA performance, this research also offers important insights into why such programs succeed or fall short of their goals.  In this sense, the dissertation certainly has the potential for scholarly and/or policy impact, in particular with respect to development projects aimed at improving irrigation water management in Kyrgyzstan and the wider Central Asian region.  Much of this is enabled by a sound methodological richness, an approach that incorporates a panel data econometric analysis, quantitative analysis of a large number of survey respondents, and ‘on the ground’ insights derived from focus groups, interviews, and immersion in the local environment.  Among a number of competing strengths, it is this diversity in analytical techniques that just may be the dissertation’s strongest point.

Kristopher D. White
College of Social Sciences
KIMEP University, Almaty

Primary Sources

39-item Survey Instrument
WUA economic and budget data from World Bank On-Farm Irrigation Project
Open and semi-structured interviews with farmers, village leaders, international organization leaders, and WUA representatives in southern Kyrgyzstan

Dissertation Information

University of Michigan. 2011. 207 pp. Primary Advisors: Elisabeth Gerber and Zvi Y. Gitelman.

Image: Photograph Lakes of Kyrgystan.  Wikimedia Commons.

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