Negotiating water rights

Water is essential for life and livelihoods. As demands for water increase — for drinking, domestic use, irrigation, industry, and environmental conservation — areas that were once water-abundant are increasingly challenged by conflicting claims and the need to better allocate water resources. This book offers examples of how several countries are handling this challenge. Negotiating Water Rights analyzes how water users can come together to negotiate fair and productive solutions to water conflicts.

Worldwide, water use more than quadrupled during the 20th century. As resources become scarcer, contesting claims usually drive attempts to determine more clearly who has rights to use the resource. In contrast to conventional approaches focusing on water rights as defined only by government laws, Negotiating Water Rights highlights the importance of understanding “legal pluralism,” the diversity and dynamism of local customs, institutions, and practices that actually regulate access to water in fields, villages, and cities. If government laws and agencies can create suitable conditions by respecting local institutions, providing technical advice, and helping enforce agreements, then users can draw on their local knowledge to cooperatively forge better ways to allocate scarce water, whether within a single irrigation system or within a larger river basin.

Irrigation has been a major contributor to the increase in food production that changed countries like Bangladesh and India from famine-prone regions to food-surplus regions. Beyond just producing crops, irrigation systems in developing countries are vital to rural livelihoods,providing water for livestock and fish production, domestic use, and many small enterprises. Although irrigation now has the lion’s share of freshwater use, demand for urban and industrial water supplies is growing rapidly around the world. Simply taking water away from agriculture—expropriation without compensation—is inequitable and likely to face increasing resistance. The much higher economic value of water for urban and industrial use creates the possibility of win-win agreements with farmers willing to transfer their water to other uses, but only if forums are available for negotiating mutually beneficial agreements.

Water is a great force for bringing people together. It is a classic common pool resource, where one person’s use affects another person, but when people work together they can accomplish a great deal. This work, which received funding from the Ford Foundation, shows how users can participate in creating better ways to allocate access to this vital resource.

Negotiating Water Rights uses case studies from around the world (Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Burkina Faso, Spain and New Mexico, USA) to show the range of ways in which people can come together to defend their water rights and how negotiation processes can help adapt to changing situations:

Nepal hill irrigation systems have rich traditions of water rights. A case study in this book shows that when disputes arise, farmers use varied strategies, including court cases, international aid projects, political patronage, and even sabotage and violence, to establish or defend their claims, but the most favorable outcomes arise when community leaders establish good relationships with each other.

When the government built a new large-scale irrigation system to expand an ancient tank irrigation system in southern Sri Lanka, farmers in the old and new irrigated areas had to negotiate over how water would be distributed during periods of scarcity. A project management committee with strong user representation from all areas, along with technical information provided by government agencies, was over time able to negotiate better distribution rules than when outside politicians were appealed to.

Even within the household, it can matter who has rights to water. An irrigation improvement project in Burkina Faso originally took land and water rights that had been held by women farmers and reallocated them to male heads of households. Productivity on the irrigation systems suffered as a consequence. However, at the suggestion of men in later project communities, the project revised its approach to involve women from the beginning, resulting in both more equitable distribution of rights and improved productivity.

Projects that implement what may seem to be only technical changes often have serious implications for water rights. In Bali, Indonesia, where indigenous subaks have created elaborate irrigation systems, government projects to “improve” water intakes or combine nearby irrigation schemes have been rejected when treated only as a technical issue, but with negotiations over how water would be shared among various groups, it was even possible to form a federation for river basin management.

A case study from India shows how, with local self-organization, the ancient ahar-pyne irrigation systems in Bihar have survived being misunderstood by government administrators in both the colonial and post-independence periods.

In Bangladesh, deep tubewells for irrigation are sucking dry the shallow tubewells and handpumps installed for household water supplies. Although tubewell owners do allow some people to use the water for drinking and bathing, such use is very restricted, especially for women who cannot go to the fields to bathe near the wells. Negotiation processes have not yet arisen to bring together dispersed well owners and users.

Informal water markets in which well owners sell water to other farmers have developed all over South Asia. A study from Pakistan shows that well owners do not sell the water at much of a profit, which is linked to complex local perceptions of water rights and good behavior. However, small farmers who have to depend on buying water from others’ wells do not get a reliable supply and would be better off in joint tubewell ownership groups, because the groups give small farmers stronger water rights.

One solution often proposed to control demand for water is to increase the price. But a case from Spain shows that farmers have resisted price increases that they felt infringed on their water rights.

In many parts of the world, development of cities and industries is drawing water away from farms. A case study from West Java, Indonesia, shows the many legal and illegal means by which textile factories and housing developments take water from an irrigation system. While some members of farm households benefit from factory employment, farm production suffers from the declining water quantity and quality.

Relying only on courts and bureaucratic procedures to allocate water can exclude poorer groups and those with less education. A case study from New Mexico (USA) shows how a public interest law firm has been able to educate farmers from acequias on their rights and on government procedures, enabling the communities affected by water transfers to have more say.

Negotiating Water Rights suggests that when users are involved in negotiating water claims and allocation, it is possible for everyone to benefit.

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Chinese Translation

A Chinese translation is available from China Water Conservancy and Power Publishing House.

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Author: 
Bruns, Bryan Randolph, ed.
Meinzen-Dick, Ruth Suseela, ed.
Published date: 
2000
Publisher: 
Intermediate Technology Publications