The decentralization of water management, often in the form of water-user associations (WUAs), has often been prescribed to promote a more equitable and efficient water distribution while empowering water users as decision makers [1
]. Although research on WUAs’ influences on efficiency, cost, and equity have revealed varied results, WUAs are often promoted for their potential to decrease water-management costs, improve incentive for farmers’ productive use of water, and promote timely problem-solving [3
]. Among the many countries that have implemented WUAs is the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan. There, WUAs were first established in 1995 to support the operation and maintenance of the irrigation system in the newly independent nation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. These WUAs allow for decentralized decision making and farmer participation, and as women are known to be key stakeholders in both domestic and agricultural water use [2
], it follows that their participation is key in WUA functions and sustainable water use.
Many researchers have studied women’s participation in WUAs, focusing specifically on the formal and informal barriers that limit their involvement despite being key stakeholders in water use. These studies have shown that WUA membership requirements that favor male positions in the community, such as land ownership or head-of-household status, systematically exclude women from participation in these organizations [4
]. In addition, social norms that dictate male dominance in public spheres limit women’s ability to lead, attend, or vocally contribute in community meetings [5
]. Thus, in places where participation would be outside of gendered norms, a female farmer may choose not to participate in WUAs in order to maintain her social status in the community [7
]. Women’s time-poverty due to household responsibilities also limits their ability to attend community meetings where knowledge transfer and decision making occur [4
]. Additionally, when women do participate in community management, it has been shown that their opinions and values may not be given much weight in the decision-making process [9
While much emphasis has been placed on gendered exclusions, the role of other socioeconomic characteristics, especially how they intersect with gender to shape participation in natural resource management, has not received much attention in the literature. As Sultana (2009) illustrates, class, ethnicity, and educational level influence women’s access to water [10
]. Hierarchies based on age, race, geographical context, and religion have also been shown to influence participation [8
]. As a result of these exclusions, initiatives intended to promote community decision-making processes have been criticized for supporting the status quo of gendered inequality, enabling existing power structures and exacerbating exclusions [4
Participation and access to information are seen as a key elements of empowerment [15
] but it has been demonstrated that there are multiple types of participation. Thus, it cannot be assumed that all types promote empowerment [13
]. In natural resource management, specifically, Agrawal (2001) presents six forms of participation ranging from nominal to interactive (empowering) participation [18
]. Furthermore, Cleaver (1999) argues that when access to an essential resource is scarce or difficult to obtain, participation becomes a necessity rather than an expression of agency or choice [19
However, water access is not solely dependent on participation. Rather, when faced with exclusions, Zwarteveen and Neupane (1996) demonstrate that women can effectively use informal means to access water and resolve conflicts [6
]. Thus, when female farmers are able to obtain water outside of WUAs through informal means, they could view their participation in WUAs as an unnecessary and time-consuming activity—costs that contribute to their choice not to participate. However, these informal ways of obtaining irrigation water are typically less secure than the formal means of the WUA. This non-participation can also contribute to low financial viability of the WUA if users are not paying fees and allows unregulated and potentially inefficient water use to continue [9
]. As these water resources are forecasted to become increasingly stressed [2
], promoting efficient management and increased inclusion is vital to sustainable water use and water security. The existing critiques of participatory development and WUAs juxtaposed with the need to promote sustainable water management prompts a consideration of the factors that influence female farmers’ participation within WUAs. This paper explores female farmers’ participation in WUAs to assess the ways in which they are included or excluded from the participatory processes within WUAs in southern Kyrgyzstan. Some research has demonstrated women’s membership and leadership in WUAs in Central Asia [20
] but not much work has been done on women who irrigate outside of the WUAs. In addition, there is little work done in Central Asia that assesses the determinants of female farmers’ participation in WUAs. This study adds to our understanding of the factors that influence female farmers’ participation in WUAs in Kyrgyzstan. We argue that exclusion, limited access to information, and choice limit female farmers’ membership in WUAs. Furthermore, the structure of WUAs offers disproportionate benefits to male farmers, causing female farmers to choose to irrigate their farms outside WUAs.
The next section of the paper describes the agricultural context and background of WUAs in Kyrgyzstan. This is followed by a discussion of the data-collection methods. The results of the study are then presented. Finally, we discuss how our results reveal the ways that exclusion/inclusion, access to information, and choice determine female farmers’ participation in WUAs.
2. Water-User Associations and Agriculture in Kyrgyzstan
The implementation of WUAs in Kyrgyzstan is a part of the wider establishment of similar participatory associations around the world in response to states’ failures in irrigation management. It is argued that participation decreases costs for governments as farmers take on responsibilities, improves farmers’ incentives to manage water productively, and increases efficiency through local management’s quick response to problems or changes [3
]. Neoliberal policies promoted by international donors increased the devolution and democratization of water governance [22
] and sustainable development initiatives also encouraged user participation in natural-resource management [23
]. Thus, irrigation-management transfer (IMT), often in the form of WUAs, has become an increasingly common prescription for addressing issues of infrastructure deterioration, allocation inefficiency, and economic infeasibility in water management.
However, because water management is embedded in social, political and cultural contexts and is not merely technological, the effectiveness of uniform IMT and WUA systems across diverse socio-political contexts has been questioned [24
]. Just as contexts are diverse, so too are the needs and desires of the farmers within these contexts. Thus, it has been argued that the transfer of irrigation management requires not merely improved implementation, but a complete paradigm shift away from assumptions of farmer homogeneity [25
In Central Asia, including in Kyrgyzstan, WUAs were established in the midst of the collapse of the Soviet Union and were a part of the land and water reforms backed by international donors in support of decentralization and privatization policies [26
]. While they were implemented in the 1990s, these associations continue to vary in functionality and capacity. There are cases of improved irrigation timing and fee collection in Central Asia through WUAs, but the efficiency and financial sustainability of some of these associations have been questioned [20
]. Problems that include farmers’ inability or unwillingness to pay water fees, infrastructure deterioration, and lack of institutional and technical support influence the effective functioning of these institutions [20
]. Indeed, farmers’ reluctance to participate in IMT has been documented throughout Asia [25
]. Furthermore, it has been argued that participatory management in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan has been largely influenced by local sociopolitical contexts and thus has not met the standards of IMT as set by the international community [24
]; and that the legacy of centralized Soviet policies is not conducive to the participatory process [28
In Kyrgyzstan, in the years following independence from the Soviet Union and as a part of the transition from communal ownership of resources to private ownership, the government enacted various policies to organize and regulate on-farm irrigation systems. In 1994 the government issued “Measures to Maintain and Finance Public Irrigation Infrastructure” which gave the responsibilities of on-farm irrigation to existing village councils. In 1995, four years after independence, the parliament passed the Water Code, marking the implementation of irrigation services fees (ISFs) in the Kyrgyz Republic as well as the first resolution to establish WUAs with support from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) [27
]. This resolution was amended in 1997 with several changes to address water conflicts, fees, and the rights of farmers [30
]. In 2002, the WUA law was amended again to become the present law that identifies WUAs as non-commercial organizations and establishes their current roles and functions. In contrast to the previous laws, the 2002 Water Law promotes the participation of farmers in decision-making processes, transparency in finances, and open access to information. It outlines the members’ rights to participate in setting water fees, electing council members, and approving budgets and work plans [31
]. In addition to the rights of members, it also outlines their responsibilities to pay ISFs in a timely manner and irrigate according to the WUA schedule [32
]. While these policies do support farmers’ participation, the Water Law does not explicitly address gender issues in water management and despite their role in agriculture, women’s participation in WUAs in Kyrgyzstan is limited. It is difficult to measure gender disaggregated participation nationwide, but the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (2016) estimated that in 2009, only 18% of WUA members were women [32
]. As of 2011, there were 478 registered WUAs throughout the country, covering about 72% of the country’s irrigated land [33
]. As of 2009, there were over 166,000 members in WUAs [20
WUAs in Kyrgyzstan are faced with infrastructural and economic inefficiencies as well as environmental pressures. First, the redistribution of land after the collapse of the Soviet Union drastically transformed the agricultural landscape, and the irrigation system that once served centralized kolkhoz
farms (collective and state-owned farms in the Soviet Union) is now utilized to distribute water to many smallholder farmers. Specifically, it is estimated that Kyrgyzstan’s irrigation distribution is operating at 55% efficiency due to the poor condition of the canals [34
]. Second, ISFs do not cover WUA costs [27
] and while there has been reported improvement in ISF collection rates, it is still low throughout the country with many in-kind payments being used to pay ISFs [27
]. Consequently, many WUAs are indebted to the RayVodKhoz
(District Water Administration) and rely on the support of the local government to sustain their organization. Third, according to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Kyrgyzstan’s winter precipitation is projected to increase while summer precipitation is expected to decrease, creating drier conditions during the growing season and a higher demand for water [35
]. For Kyrgyzstan, this means that water availability will become more variable, increasing the need for efficiency in distribution and use and requiring equitable participation to ensure all farmers have access to this resource. This will also be necessary for regional sustainability, as demand from countries downstream from Kyrgyzstan will continue even as supply decreases.
In the midst of WUA inefficiencies and environmental change, access to irrigation water is vital to the livelihoods of the vast majority of farmers in Kyrgyzstan. Agriculture is the largest employer of both men and women in Kyrgyzstan and 80% of the cultivated land (1.02 million ha) relies on irrigation water [34
]. Additionally, 50% of all employed women and 68% of all employed men work in agriculture and the share of women has increased over the past decade in part due to male employment opportunities in other sectors coupled with the migration of men out of rural areas [32
]. Specifically, it is estimated that 20% of the Kyrgyz population is working abroad, predominantly in Russia and Kazakhstan. Young, male migrants make up a majority of this group: of the migrants to Russia, 65% of them are under 30 years old and 62% of those under 30 are male [37
] and this does not include the many internal migrants who move to urban centers within the country. This out-migration of men leaves rural women with increasing responsibilities and opportunities in what were once male-dominated spheres such as agriculture and more specifically, in irrigation. It is within this context that this study sought to examine female farmers’ participation in WUAs in southern Kyrgyzstan in order to answer the following questions: (1) Which female farmers have access to information about WUAs? (2) How do female farmers participate in WUAs (e.g., users, members, leaders)? and (3) What influences female farmers’ access to information and participation?
Data collection for this research occurred between April and July of 2016 in five WUA service areas (each service area is a geographic unit under one WUA’s management) throughout southern Kyrgyzstan. (Research was approved by Institutional Review Board, Office of Responsible Research, Iowa State University.) These service areas were chosen to capture participation across a diversity of hydrological contexts: three of the areas receive water from a reservoir within Kyrgyzstan, one irrigates from a river, and another from a reservoir in Tajikistan. Because WUAs in Kyrgyzstan can vary significantly in capacity and governance, sampling from five WUAs allowed us to capture trends of participation across WUAs. Purposive sampling was employed to identify respondents who were contacted through gatekeepers in the community. While using gatekeepers has been questioned due to the bias that they bring by excluding certain groups or individuals from participating, it is also seen as an effective way to develop connections with individuals [38
] and in cross cultural research performed by an outsider, gatekeepers provide necessary connections and introductions to the community [39
]. In order to avoid bias from within WUAs, gatekeepers connected to the associations were not used. Respondents included 49 female farmers, nine WUA staff, and two government officials in these districts (see Table 1
). Semi-structured in-depth interview methods were employed in the data collection. This approach to data collection is known to promote flexibility in exploring participants’ responses while maintaining the structure needed to address key questions and topics [38
]. We enquired about participants’ experiences and beliefs surrounding water management and WUAs from the governmental, WUA official, and female farmer perspectives. Questions also focused on family background and demographics, agricultural activities, water access, irrigation management, WUA information and knowledge, and participation in the WUA. All interviews were conducted in Kyrgyz. (As language is a fundamental tool of qualitative research, the translation process can be especially complex and problematic. Translators have a significant influence on the data as they interpret, clarify, disregard, filter, or miscommunicate language [39
]. Furthermore, language is embedded in culture; therefore, words and phrases can lose their true meaning when translated into another language and translations can create inaccuracies and misunderstanding of meanings even when the literal translation is correct [39
]. In this research, interviews were translated into English during the interview process by the research assistant. The recordings were later listened to and re-translated into English to check for accuracy. The English was then transcribed verbatim. These translation processes were conducted by the same research assistant and myself, creating a bias of her singular translation of the interview. However, my [Rebecca] basic knowledge of the Kyrgyz language allowed me confirm or question translations when necessary and she often consulted colleagues if there was confusion about a translation. This translation process was a part of the cross-cultural methodology in which both the researcher and research assistant sought to reduce cultural and linguistic barriers. For an in-depth discussion on cross-cultural research that informed our methods, see Liamputtong, 2010 [39
].) Descriptive statistics were used to identify basic trends in participants’ socioeconomic characteristics, land use and ownership, and WUA participation. Grounded theory was then used to report patterns and topics in the qualitative data based on themes that emerged from the data by coding, sorting, and interpreting the coded data [38
As expected, the majority of the respondents were classified as users, defined as farmers who utilize irrigation water but do not participate in decision making and management in the WUAs. For the purpose of this study, WUA members were self-identified members who pay ISFs, attend WUA meetings, and are aware of WUA roles and regulations in the community. Because WUA membership is based on household, we relied on self-reported data to identify individual membership rather than a WUA roster. A leader is a respondent who holds an official position in the WUA. Non- participants are respondents who did not use irrigation water (see Table 2
The average age of the respondent was 46 years old. Age of respondents was weighted towards older farmers largely due to the cultural respect for elders as it was usually expected that the interview took place with the oldest female in the household. Younger women were usually less willing, or had less available time to participate in the interview. The average household size of respondents was 5.7 persons, nearly reflective of the regional average of 5.3 [36
]. The range of total land owned was from 0.2 ha to 2.15 ha and average land owned by respondents was 0.95 ha, less than the regional average of 1.7 ha [33
]. The below-average size of land owned by our respondents may suggest that poorer segments of the communities with fewer resources and less land are less likely to participate in a WUA or afford ISFs. However, because the respondent’s average land size is lower than the region’s average, our data does not fully represent the spectrum of wealth in the community and female farmers’ experiences in WUAs. This bias should be taken into consideration in the interpretation of the data.
For the purposes of this research, de facto household heads (HHs) are female heads of households where the male head is absent or otherwise unable to act as HH for the majority of the irrigation period. De jure HHs refers to widows or unmarried, divorced or separated women who are HH. Of the respondents, 20% were classified as de jure HH, largely due to the frequency of the labor migration of men, and 8% as de facto HH because their husbands were working in urban centers. These percentages are collectively reflective of the national estimate of 27% female HH [40
Analysis of respondents’ demographic data reveals interesting trends in participation by age and amount of land owned. On average, leaders were older than members, who were older on average than users. Similarly, leaders owned more land than members, who owned more land than users. The causes for these trends may vary and as this study did not employ random selection, it is not representative of the population. However, the influence of age and class (as indicated by land tenure and ability to afford ISFs) on WUA participation is supported by the interview data.
Drawing on existing literature (see especially [8
]) and insights from this study, we present a system of participatory processes in natural-resource management (Figure 1
). It shows that the socio-economic characteristics of female farmers’ influence their access to information, inclusion in the organization, and the decision of whether or not to participate in WUA activities. These determinants of participation in turn impact the level at which an individual may participate in a WUA (i.e., as a user, member, or leader). These users, members, and leaders make up the natural-resource management process that should be equitable, efficient and empowering. This process is cyclical in nature; that is, a resource-management system characterized by inefficiency, inequity, and disempowerment can adversely affect access to information, opportunities for inclusion, and the choice to participate that female farmers ultimately make. Conversely, an efficient, equitable, and empowering process of natural-resource management promotes participation. Examining participation with this framework recognizes the complexity of socio-economic characteristics beyond gender that influence access to information and inclusion and, furthermore, that some users may choose not to participate.
In Kyrgyzstan, WUAs have been tasked with the management of irrigation water in a context of high rural out-migration of men and increasing stress on the region’s water resources. Furthermore, low financial viability and deteriorating infrastructure hinder efficiency and equity in water distribution. Female farmers’ inclusion in WUAs is key to sustainable community management of resources in this context; however, this study has revealed female farmers’ low membership in WUAs is influenced by lack of access to adequate information, choice, and gendered exclusions. Furthermore, female farmers’ limited participation in WUAs reflects a structure of participation that favors male farmers’ membership. As stated above, literature on participation in natural-resource management often emphasizes the benefits of the participation for all resource users in the management process, citing increased efficiency, empowerment, and equity. However, if participatory structures systematically favor men, these processes with be neither efficient, equitable, nor empowering as female farmers will continue to be both excluded and choose to irrigate as users rather than WUA members. Examples highlighted in this paper include participation arrangements that require time outside of the household and information networks dominated by male relationships. Thus, most female farmers often irrigate as users rather than members due to a deliberate choice made by the farmer, gendered exclusions, or lack of access to information. Rather than promoting female farmers’ participation in existing WUAs, transforming the WUAs to eliminate these structural barriers will be key to increasing their inclusion. For instance, hiring female myrabs may promote communication among female farmers and providing written information so that they do not have to attend meetings could promote participation in ways that are beneficial to female farmers.
This study confirmed that participatory structures cannot be assumed to be inclusive; rather they are subject to the reinforcement of existing exclusions dictated by farmers’ complex socio-economic characteristics and community dynamics. Gendered exclusions have been discussed and assessed in development initiatives since the 1970s; however, this study acknowledges that inclusion is not influenced by gender alone. Instead, promoting the full participation of female farmers in WUA activities would require a more nuanced discussion of identity and the ways in which the intersections of socio-economic characteristics influence participation. Specifically, this study illustrated that participation in WUAs was influenced not only by gender, but also by farmers’ class and age. For example, an elderly female farmer with more land may have fewer barriers to membership than a younger female farmer. In this sense, our findings support the post-modernist view that women are not one homogenous group; it cannot be assumed that all female farmers experience the same advantages or disadvantages [42
]. Furthermore, WUAs themselves exist within a complex socio-political context. Consequently, processes seeking to promote inclusion and equity should address participation in ways that acknowledge both the complexity of identity and context. These processes should not be implemented uniformly, but in context-specific approaches that acknowledge the heterogeneity of farmers’ needs in order to promote their inclusion, choice to participate, and access to information to create a more efficient, equitable, and empowering participatory process.