By Svenja Fox, Freie Universität Berlin. Institutions matter: much focus has been put, by scholars and donors alike, on crafting well-designed and healthy institutions for effective, participatory and sustainable irrigation management. The emphasis on the institutional dimension has replaced the former focus on the „hard path“ in irrigation management, namely the development of infrastructure. As a „one size fits all“ model, participatory irrigation management (PIM) is implemented across the world, often supported by international donor organizations, such as the International Network for PIM. As part of these reforms, water user associations (WUAs) exist in developed as well as in developing countries today, in the global North and South alike. This has led to substantial improvements in water supply and agricultural productivity in many countries (see Ostrom 1990 and 1992, Saleth/Dinar 2004).
The key idea is that water users share a common interest in well-functioning irrigation systems if they are directly involved in the management, operation and maintenance works. However, evidence from various countries shows, that even the most carefully designed IMT projects are no promise for success: in fact, it becomes clear that institutions are of critical importance, but that the environment of their implementation plays a similarly crucial role. Insights can be drawn from works by Wegerich (2010), Molle (2008) or Sehring (2009), displaying experience that so-called blueprint models do not always yield comparably positive results. Instead, the context matters.
Taking the example of water user associations in Azerbaijan, it becomes clear that the implementation of WUAs, similar to findings from Central Asia, does not respond to the initial idea of strong farmer participation and effective responsibility transfer: WUAs have been implemented in a top-down perspective with a persisting predominance of government officials also at the local level (raion irrigation departments). Farmer participation has been marginal in early stages of WUA creation and continues to be minimal: most farmers do not feel represented in WUA structures, some are even unaware of their WUA membership. In many cases, a WUA is not perceived as a collective „we“ but much more as an alienated „they“. If a net improvement of (on-farm) irrigation infrastructure is considered an indicator of successful participatory irrigation management, it can be said that we witness a story of failure: the need for rehabilitation work and canal construction is still felt to be urgent. While farmers equally complain about poor quality of water supply, other voices (irrigation engineers, government officials) see an improvement since WUA introduction. This, however, is not very hard to achieve: the desperate situation after the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the subsequent liquidation of state and collective farms needed reform and innovation. If the current design of irrigation reform is being done carefully and will lead to the desired results remains questionable, though.
One may ask the question, how suitable a participatory approach is for a society where individuals were not used to take over responsibility and to self-organize for a collective goal. Two decades time might allow for reform of formal rules and policies. For transformation of informal rules and habits, however, much more time and effort might be necessary.