How does community-based irrigation water management impact water access in the southern and eastern Mediterranean?endif; ?>
In the arid and semi-arid climate of the southern and eastern Mediterranean (SEMED) region, the management and access to scarce water resources is one of the strongest factors affecting agriculture, food security and the livelihoods of farming communities. Climate change will exacerbate these factors and even less water is expected to be available for agriculture. More frequent and intense droughts affecting soils may leave the region vulnerable to pollution and overuse of water and desertification, while experiencing hotter summers, less rainfall, population growth and a surge of climate migrants. Rising sea levels also threaten coastal areas while transboundary water management presents a further challenge in the region where major river basins straddle sensitive frontiers. Technical and policy solutions alone cannot provide a firm and sustainable water management plan. Improved on-farm practices, including the reduction of water losses from evaporation or leaks during distribution and altering cropping patterns and irrigation techniques, are only part of the water management system and its implementation process. Given rising demand, intensifying competition over water and the resulting potential for conflict, these corrective actions require strong participatory support from the main agricultural water users – farmers.
Irrigation water scarcity in the SEMED region is both a natural and anthropogenic phenomenon that has led to tensions between farmers demands and government attempts to respond effectively. Governments have provided structured scheduling for irrigation allocation periods: farmers are given time slots to use water, which is itself a good practice to avoid overuse but the schedules often cannot meet the needs of farmers. Whether due to inefficiencies or lack of water, a vicious circle ensues whereby farmers accuse governments of inefficient and unequal water management, while public water officials blame farmers for inefficient and illegal water use. Whoever is to blame, small farmers are too often left with limited, irregular and unequal access to water. Undoubtedly, competition for water has led to access inequalities among farming communities, but there are examples where communal cooperation in water management, sharing and reciprocity practices have provided creative ways for enhancing water governance, equity and access for all. Community dynamics, common interest, social capital and cohesion, moral norms and the state all play an essential role.
Traditional knowledge, practices and the adaptive capacity of farming communities are pivotal to improving water management and sustaining water resources.
Physical and Constructed Scarcity
Different access mechanisms to water and alternative water sources allow farming communities to adapt with varying results to water scarcity. For example, diesel pumps, groundwater wells and boreholes have a positive effect on poverty alleviation and agricultural productivity. However, they also lead to the over-exploitation of groundwater, unequal access and less willingness to engage in collective action for managing, allocating and sustaining water resources. Here are some SEMED cases to help illustrate these dynamics of community water management:
In Zaouiet Jdidi, northern Tunisia, farmers using irrigation schemes previously received water through pipes fed from an aquifer managed by the government and whose allocation was based on schedules where only two farmers could irrigate during each allocation period. In 1998, the irrigation management of small delivery pipes was transferred to the community level, which led to a deterioration in water provision services and increased salinity. Though the amount of water allocated to the system remained unchanged, the rules went unenforced and farmers irrigated simultaneously. With increased pressure, more wealthy farmers sought individual strategies to secure water by drilling private wells (often illegally) and over-exploiting the deep aquifer. This exacerbated inequalities and left small farmers vulnerable to prolonged irrigation turns with low quality water. Similarly, in the Oued Merguellil river basin in central Tunisia, resorting to private wells became common practice among farmers dissatisfied with the unreliable irrigation water schedules, which have led to a sharp decline in the water table.
Individualistic actions to meet growing demand have aggravated the deterioration of access to water for all, and are an obstacle to the effective community management of irrigation systems.
In some circumstances, farmers rely on irrigation water from government-managed canals. While the government strives to meet demand, the scheduling and provision of water can be erratic often leaving canals dry for prolonged periods, which makes planning difficult for farmers and increases the feeling of scarcity. As a result, individual farmers tap into the canals simultaneously with their water pumps, causing irrigation water shortages downstream and unequal water allocations within the community.
While government scheduling has been effective in many instances, in parallel there are many documented cases of such unregulated private irrigation in SEMED countries that have led to over-exploitation and eventually a decrease in cultivated land areas. Individualistic actions to meet growing demand have aggravated the depleting access to water for all and are an obstacle to the effective community management of irrigation systems.
Collective Adaptive Capacity
Interestingly, in some parts of the region, farmers who drill private wells provide the water for free to all other farmers in goodwill, while incurring drilling costs. This is common charity in this context. The intricate social and family ties, as well as cultural norms of water charity foster a form of social cohesion within the community. These arrangements provide farmers with water entitlements and ultimately improve water access and security for farmers, counter-balancing the existing scarcity and inequality issues to an extent. The case of Tadla, Morocco also exemplifies how farmers may even resort to informal or illegal mechanisms to achieve this, with an estimated 20% of farmers benefitting from these informal arrangements.
In north-west Morocco’s Khrichfa Canal in the Ain Bititt irrigation system, villages have adapted to variable spring discharge, insufficient scheduled releases and tension and competition over water rights along the water course. The rotational irrigation schedule, based on a 14-day cycle, prevented farmers from being able to grow onions. Farmers developed an internal system to exchange and divide their water allocation periods to be able to grow and irrigate onions every seven days. Eventually, once the local Water User Association (WUA) came to take a more active and effective role, the official system switched to a shorter rotational schedule resulting in a more equitable water distribution for each farmer, thus preventing conflicts.
This case suggests that the “adaptive capacity” of communities to devise ad-hoc adjustments to deal with situations of water scarcity temporarily improves water security for farmers. The different ways farmers collectively adapt to enhance water access for all represents a valuable lesson for setting policies and improving government regulations to the benefit of farmers and ultimately food production and security. However, this system was made possible once the state intervened to provide improved infrastructure and technology by way of rehabilitating irrigation canals and installing gateways for famers to manage their irrigation allocation periods and to direct the water to separate fields.
Traditional knowledge, practices and the adaptive capacity of farming communities are pivotal in improving water management and sustaining water resources. If internalized into policy decisions, they can lead to better management outcomes. The south of Tunisia, for example, is an arid rainfed area but with highly irregular annual rainfall, ranging from 100 to 250 mm. Traditionally, farmers have been collectively engaging in rainwater harvesting. Through community trial-and-error, accumulated knowledge and adaptive capacity, communities have constructed the now widely-adopted Jessour (terraces) system of cultivation, which is both sustainable and resilient, being effective at storing water in the root-zone for the dry season and providing a shield from soil erosion and flash floods.
Findings from empirical research on collective action consistently show that users tend to manage their locally-shared resources in a more sustainable way when they cooperate to devise and enforce their own governance rules, compared to when rules are externally imposed. This is especially true with the presence of strong traditions and local leadership. Individual actions by farmers each wanting to secure water for themselves creates inequity in these systems. Practicing simultaneous irrigation and some farmers’ actions of secretly enlarging their irrigation canals to receive more water than their share in the case of Khrichfa, Morocco, caused water shortages for farmers downstream. In both cases, however, when working together, the farmer communities’ collective actions helped correct some of the inequities in water access.
When facing scarcity, holistic and fundamental reform of agricultural policy is vital, but it is only part of the solution. Of equal importance is the thorough understanding and recognition of the behaviour of people, with the most challenging part of policy implementation being initiating and maintaining a change in people’s behaviour. Community-based water management, equipped with adaptive capacity, social capital and cohesion, can be well-suited to respond to water competition. Public policy can benefit more from understanding local community governance systems of water management. The state still has a role in reinforcing the delicate balance between providing technical assistance and larger infrastructure, transferring management to communities, while boosting the sustainability and equitability of community-based management practices.