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Renegotiating Water Rights:

Directions for Improving Public Participation in South and Southeast Asia


Bryan Bruns and Ruth Meinzen-Dick


Prepared for presentation at "Participation in Turbulent Times"

1997 Conference of the International Association for Public Participation

Toronto, September 8, 1997





Learning processes for bureaucratic reorientation

Enhancing social capital

Rights and responsibilities

Administrative and hydrological units



Bibliographic Note


Abstract: As competition for water resources increases, how can we draw on the body of available experience with participatory approaches to develop better institutions for water resource allocation? This presentation tries to identify relevant directions for improving water resources management, focusing particularly on the experience of rapidly growing countries in South and Southeast Asia and lessons from earlier efforts to improve participation in irrigation.

Challenges are created by rapid economic growth in a context of diverse legal, practical and customary processes for claiming access to water. Water rights have often been implicit, poorly defined and subject to a presumption that the government can and should directly manage water resources on behalf of the national interest. Economic growth and pressures to reallocate water from irrigated agriculture to other users are occurring under conditions where legal institutions are often weak, and requirements for public notice, hearings and other institutional mechanisms for participation are absent or weak. The legitimacy of public participation in decision-making is still subject to question, there is often a legacy of dominating state authority and practical skills in using participatory approaches are often scarce.

Irrigation development has been one of the leading areas for efforts to help governments improve participation in international development projects. Recent assessments of this experience have helped identify many relevant lessons. The presentation is intended to contribute to current discussions about ways to enhance the effectiveness of participation in rural development and resource management. Focusing on the issue of renegotiating water rights, the presentation draws lessons from experience (including the author's own work), looks at processes driving changes and explores directions for utilizing new opportunities.



Over the past two decades, irrigation development has been an area of particular emphasis in efforts to improve participation in international development. This paper analyzes implications this experience for efforts to improve water allocation and basin water resource management, particularly in South and Southeast Asia. It draws on the authors' experience and several recent reviews which have assessed the achievements and shortfalls of this experience. Sources are discussed further in a bibliographic note at the end of the paper.

The first section introduces the context of increasing competition for water in countries of south and southeast Asia. Some of the lessons most relevant to water allocation are then discussed in more detail: emphasizing opportunities to influence significant decisions, using learning processes to reform agency procedures and enhancing existing social institutions. The following sections explore some of the more problematic aspects of participation in irrigation, which also pose challenges for improving water allocation: the differences between incorporating public involvement in existing agency procedures versus shifting to more empowering ways of working with communities, imbalances between rights and responsibilities; and the interaction of hydrological and administrative units in water resource management. The final section summarizes major conclusions and identifies issues for further work.


Rising populations, economic growth, urban expansion and industrial development are increasing competition for water in South and Southeast Asia. Under tropical conditions irrigation makes it possible to grow two or three crops a year. Irrigation has been the main user of available water supplies. Massive investments have been made through centralized irrigation bureaucracies to build and rehabilitate irrigation schemes. More recently concern has increased about poor performance, inadequate maintenance and the unsustainability of current approaches.

More attention has been paid to small scale irrigation development and to improving operation and maintenance of larger schemes. Attempts to increase the roles of water users in management echo concerns in other sectors to shift from augmenting supply towards better response to and management of demand. However, weakness and ambiguity in water rights has emerged as a key area of concern. Within individual irrigation systems, receiving water frequently depends more on bureaucratic benevolence than on any rights which farmers could assert and defend. Most efforts to improve participation have concentrated within individual irrigation systems, with little or no attention to management among irrigation systems, and between irrigation systems and other water users, for example industries and cities. Yet it is industrial and municipal demands that are growing most rapidly, and are likely to pose the greatest challenge to irrigation use in the coming years.

Institutions for managing reallocation of water from agriculture to other sectors are generally weak or nonexistent. At the national level water is usually defined as government property, although customary ideas about rights to water exist at the local level. Users usually lack government recognized rights which would enable them to transfer their water rights to other users, or receive compensation when water is transferred. Even within government, procedures for reallocation may be nonexistent, or dealt with on an ad hoc basis, to obtain water for new projects or as an emergency response to drought. Where disputants cannot resolve conflicts over water and other matters directly among themselves, matters are usually taken not to courts but to administrative authorities, for example a district chief or provincial governor.

Policies for water resources development in most countries of South and Southeast Asia have shifted to emphasize increased public participation, with substantial experience accumulated over the last two decades. Many countries are striving to devolve substantial responsibilities to local government, in the irrigation sector and more generally. Examples include transfer of irrigation management responsibilities to local government in the Philippines, to districts in Indonesia and more general strengthening of subdistrict councils in Thailand and village panchayats in India. Even so, procedures are often lacking for public notice or formal consultation through hearings. Even where policies for participation and decentralization have been enshrined in law, government officials and local elites often prefer to continue business as usual.

Empowering decisions

Some of the main impacts from improved participation in irrigation development have come through involvement of farmers in design and construction decisions. Facilitators have helped farmers to organize and represent their interests. Joint walk-throughs, socio-technical profiles and other means have improved communication, in particular providing better opportunities for design engineers to understand local priorities, and learn from local knowledge about water flows, property boundaries, past problems and other topics. In practical terms this has helped to increase benefits, as canals and structures are better sited, more in accordance with local priorities and more appropriate for local management, compared to what has happened without participation.

Similarly, it is likely that participation in basin management will be most effective where there is the greatest possibility of influencing important decisions, which would benefit from a better understanding of local knowledge and priorities. The key decisions are likely to concern farmers protecting their access to water, and negotiating a better deal when reallocation to other users occurs.

There are many ways in which basin water allocation can benefit from more detailed local information. Agency staff may lack understanding of how farmers currently respond to water shortages, for example the details of when and how farmers may shift from continuous flow irrigation of rice to rotational distribution. Farmers may adjust rules to fit local conditions and concepts of equity, for example allowing farmers with more porous soils to take greater amounts of water, focusing more on equity in outcomes rather than equal inputs. Local adjustments may be made to take account of non-agricultural uses, e.g. water for livestock and domestic use, which are crucial for local livelihoods. The decision on when to initiate or tighten restrictions on the amount of water an irrigation system can divert has a crucial impact on farmers. If forums exist for negotiating water allocation, then more scope exists for allowing adjustments to fit local conditions, rather than simply applying rules rigidly by agency staff.

Water rights only matter if water is scarce. Experience with developing water user associations has shown that in water abundant systems farmers generally show little interest in changing how they manage water. Attempting to elaborate institutions for water allocation in advance of needs is more likely to elicit apathy than enthusiasm. This is likely to hold both for water management within irrigation systems, as well as between systems. The main benefits occur where better institutions can help solve problems. More generally the greatest prospects exist where basin management can help solve problems in ways that yield tangible benefits for farmers, or where their continued access to water is already clearly threatened.

Learning processes for bureaucratic reorientation

Experience with participation in irrigation has repeatedly demonstrated that bureaucracies can change in ways which increase participation. Policy and practice have shifted to support more participatory approaches to irrigation development. These changes have certainly not overcome the construction imperative which still dominates water resources development, but they have helped steer investment in more productive directions.

In many cases these changes have been worked out in pilot projects, action research carried out to test and refine new methodologies. The goal has been to establish learning processes, avoiding rigid blueprints in favor of learning from experience. Working groups have established forums which can help link findings from the field with the need for major policy changes. University researchers have helped to document what happens in the field, analyze situations and offer an independent perspective.

Many irrigation agencies have already been through a process of learning how to use more participatory approaches. They are familiar with the vocabulary and methods. This should create a good foundation to develop more effective institutions for water rights. Similarly, an exploratory pattern of background research followed by action experiments should be relevant for basin water allocation, as it has been for earlier efforts. Previous experience with participation in irrigation should clarify pathways through which water rights institutions can be further developed.

Enhancing social capital

Efforts to increase participation have helped improve recognition of existing irrigation management institutions, which otherwise might have been neglected or destroyed. However results in setting up new organizations have been much more mixed. Often new formal organizations fail to last beyond the lifetime of the project responsible for forming them.

Experience indicates caution is needed about trying to set up new formal institutions. It is deceptively easy to set them up on paper, listing names of officers and members to fulfill formal requirements, without having the incentives and other conditions needed to continue. This is a justification for more efforts to involve existing institutions, e.g. how water is allocated between neighboring irrigation systems during periods of scarcity. This can provide a window who is involved, and on the allocation principles which are considered suitable, in terms of local criteria. These may differ from more abstract interpretations of criteria for equity, effectiveness and efficiency, and be both more practical and better integrated with local culture.

Rights and responsibilities

Governments have been much more willing to hand over the dirty work of canal cleaning than to transfer ownership of assets and water rights. Experience from participation in irrigation indicates that establishing effective water rights is likely to be an uphill battle. Governments have been motivated by the prospects of mobilizing more farmer labor and other resources and reducing demands on government budgets, but reluctant to cede authority. Even where irrigation management responsibility and authority have been transferred, it is usually the infrastructure and not water rights which are transferred.

Mexico and Turkey have produced the most dramatic examples of reforms to transfer irrigation to local management. However, closer examination shows that what has been transferred is responsibility for operation and maintenance within irrigation systems, while agencies retain control of the headworks. Mexico's program involved establishment and transfer of water rights, but working this out in practice is proving complicated. Irrigation officials in Indonesia have shown substantial reluctance to actually move staff who have been responsible for operating gates. Accountability is easy to call for in principle, but much more difficult to put into practice. At a minimum this is a signal that introduction of stronger water rights will probably not be easy. It may also indicate the need for rethinking current approaches, which, in the process of implementation, tend to be reshaped in ways which do more to favor agency interests than the priorities of farmers.

Administrative and hydrological units

A key point of debate has been whether irrigation management should be based on administrative units or hydrological units. Water does not stop at administrative boundaries. Traditional irrigation organizations are often based on the logic of who shares a common source of water, not where people's homes are located. Domestic water supply has usually been the domain of villages or other administrative units. Heads of administrative units have priorities which may give little weight to the concerns of those who depend on water flowing on downstream, outside their area of jurisdiction. However, attempts to form irrigation organizations purely based on hydrological units have often experienced problems. A key weakness has been that without support from village leaders, WUA lack the authority needed to enforce rules, collect funds and carry out other necessary tasks.

One possible exit from the dilemma is more explicit recognition that both administrative and hydrological linkages are essential for effective water management. Attempts to create powerful basin management units are unlikely to succeed, unless administrative authorities, such as provincial governors and district heads, have a commitment to continuing cooperation, without which management is easily ignored and undermined. Conversely, attempts to ignore the ways in which water crosses administrative boundaries are similarly likely to be futile. Rather than trying to establish the dominance of a single principle, it would be more productive to search for ways to ensure that both aspects of coordination are effectively embodied in water management. To the extent that conflicts over administrative and hydrological units are surrogates for turf battles between different government organizations, then more devolution to users may bring management more in the hands of those interested in improving performance rather than just maintaining bureaucratic fiefdoms (Bruns 1997a).

Blomquist (1992) analyzed "polycentric" governance of groundwater in southern California. A heterogenous mix of public and private entities evolved institutions for regulating groundwater extraction and replenishment, in a chaotic pattern very different from conventional models of hierarchical, centralized management. The state provided an enabling legal framework and supportive technical advice, which facilitated self-management among users. This constitutes a useful demonstration of how institutional options may go well beyond conventional stereotypes, and the possibilities which can be realized through institutional innovation.


Experience with efforts to improve participation in irrigation provides a valuable foundation for efforts to improve water allocation and the processes through which water rights are allocated and reallocated. Participation is likely to be most effective where it allows water users immediate benefits, protecting or enhancing their access to water, improving water quality or solving other problems. The techniques of pilot projects, working groups, involvement of university researchers should be fruitful in introducing reforms. The greatest impact is likely to come not through creating new organizations from scratch, but through better recognizing and involving existing institutions, formal and informal, through which water is already being allocated. There is a need for approaches which can integrate both administrative and hydrological units, rather than trying to manage water on a single basis. Progress is likely to be limited unless ways can be found to strengthen water rights, not simply add responsibilities.



Bryan Bruns is a consulting sociologist, based on Chiang Mai, Thailand. C-723 Lanna Condo, T. Pa Tan, A. Muang, Chiang Mai 50300 Thailand. Fax 66-53 872-226. E-mail address: BryanBruns@BryanBruns.com

Ruth Meinzen-Dick is a research fellow at the International Institute for Food Policy Research. 1200 17th St., NW Washington DC 20036. Fax 1-202-467-4439 E-mail address: R.Meinzen-Dick@cgnet.com


Bibliographic Note

In addition to the authors' experience, this paper draws on several reviews of experience with participation in irrigation which have helped clarify lessons, successes, problems and questions. Influential pilot projects were carried out in the Philippines (Korten and Siy 1988) and Sri Lanka (Uphoff 1991). A synthesis of lessons from early efforts was carried out by Norman Uphoff and colleagues (1985, 1986). Experience as of the early 1990s was reviewed by Bruns (1992) for Southeast Asia and Goldensohn (1994) for Asia and Egypt. Ostrom (1992) analyzed characteristics of local irrigation institutions, and problems in sustainable infrastructure development (1993). The World Bank has supported assessment of comparative international experience with participation in irrigation (Meinzen-Dick et. al. 1997) as part of its larger work on ways to improve participation. Experience with programs to transfer irrigation management to farmers and local organizations has been recently reviewed (Turral 1995, Vermillion 1997) though both these reviews, and most earlier work (for example Ambler 1994), emphasize the gaps in information and need for further, more systematic study. Shifting of attention towards competition, reallocation and basin water resources management is reflected in a World Bank Policy Paper (1993) and Asian aspects of these issues are discussed in more detail in the proceedings of a recent ADB conference (Arriens et al. 1996) and in Rosegrant and Meinzen-Dick 1996.



Ambler, John. 1994. Small-scale surface irrigation in Asia: Technologies, institutions and emerging issues. Land Use Policy 11 (4):262-274.

Arriens, Wouter Lincklaen, Jeremy Bird, Jeremy Berkhoff, and Paul Mosely. 1996. Towards Effective Water Policy in the Asian and Pacific Region: Proceedings of the Regional Consultation Workshop. 3 vols. Manila: Asian Development Bank.

Bloomquist, William. 1992. Dividing the Waters: Governing Groundwater in Southern California. San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies.

Bruns, Bryan. 1993. Promoting Participation in Irrigation: Reflections on Experience in Southeast Asia. World Development 21 (11) November:1837-1849.

Goldensohn, Max. 1994. Participation and Empowerment: An Assessment of Water User Associations in Asia and Egypt. Washington, D.C.: USAID Irrigation Support Project for Asia and Near East.

Korten, Frances F., and Robert Y. Siy, Jr. 1988. Transforming a Bureaucracy: The Experience of the Philippine National Irrigation Administration. West Hartford, Connecticut: Kumarian.

Meinzen-Dick, Ruth, Meyra Mendoza, Loic Sadoulet, Ghada Abiad-Shields, and Ashok Subramanian. 1997. Sustainable Water User Associations: Lessons From a Literature Review. In User Organizations for Sustainable Water Services, edited by A. Subramanian, N. V. Jagannathan and R. Meinzen-Dick. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank. Technical Paper 354.

Ostrom, Elinor. 1992. Crafting Institutions for Self-Governing Irrigation Systems. San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies Press.

Ostrom, Elinor, Larry Schroeder, and Susan Wynne. 1993. Institutional Incentives and Sustainable Development: Infrastructure Policies in Perspective. Boulder: Westview Press.

Rosegrant, Mark and Ruth S. Meinzen-Dick. 1996. Water Resources in the Asian-Pacific Region: Managing Scarcity. Asian-Pacific Economic Literature 10 (2):32-53.

Turral, Hugh. 1995. Devolution of Management in Public Irrigation Systems: Cost Shedding, Empowerment and Performance. London: Overseas Development Institute.

Uphoff, Norman, Ruth Meinzen Dick, and Nancy St. Julien. 1985. Improving Policies and Programs for Farmer Organization and Participation in Irrigation Water Management. Ithaca, New York: A report prepared at Cornell University for the Water Management Synthesis II Project.

Uphoff, Norman. 1986. Improving International Irrigation Management with Farmer Participation: Getting the Process Right. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Uphoff, Norman. 1991. Learning from Gal Oya: Possibilities for Participatory Development and Post-Newtonian Social Science. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

World Bank. 1993. Water Resources Management. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.




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Chiang Mai 50300 Thailand Fax 66-53 872-226