Towards more sustainable water governance

Socio-ecological analysis of water governance through Water User Associations in semi-arid Central Asia

water governance
Water User Association Council members assess irrigation infrastructure in Sugd province, Tajikistan. Photo: Oyture Anarbekov

Key messages

  • Common pool resources such as irrigation can be governed via common property regimes, where rights and duties are adequately enforced. 
  • Institutional change in the irrigation sector of Central Asia occurred without considering informal institutions, such as respect for local traditions, culture, and norms. These reforms were mainly targeted at adopting approaches based on other governments’ experiences of what was considered “successful” (e.g. in Spain and Turkey). 
  • In sustainable water management, an important role is played by the indigenous knowledge and informal institutions that exist in the Central Asian region.
water governance
This water wheel (“Chark-Palak”) is installed in Shakhimardansay watershed, between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and channels water to upstream fields. Requiring no electricity, it is an example of indigenous knowledge and technology in Central Asia that is still in use today. Photo: Oyture Anarbekov

Background and project goal

In the mid-1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian countries embarked on agricultural reform. Former large-scale collective farms were transformed into different modes of individual farming. This situation has brought chaos and conflict, especially in on-farm water allocation. Water User Associations (WUAs) were created to solve the problems. The main aim of this research is to understand and compare key potentials and limitations of WUAs in Central Asia by assessing the role of institutions and related socio-economic and environmental outcomes in view of enhancing collective action aiming at more sustainable water governance of on-farm irrigation water management.

water governance
During a workshop in Ferghana Province, Uzbekistan, stakeholders learn about common-pool resource management and the role of institutions. Photo: IWMI


The comparative case study approach is based on a household survey and semi-structured interviews with WUA members, and government and private development organizations.

Summary of results

The table below shows an initial comparison of the application of common-pool resource design principles in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, The Tajik and Uzbek case studies were in the Ferghana Valley, while the WUAs in the Kyrgyz case study were outside the Ferghana Valley part of Kyrgyzstan.

Project duration: 2013 - 2018