2.1. The Nexus Medium Approach
The starting point of the nexus medium concept I present here for the first time is a critique of blueprint, top–down nexus concepts to understand the interwoven challenges related to water, energy, and food resources. Nexus concepts seem to pay little attention to the micro-scale of the everyday lives of people, local understandings and manifestations of the studied problems, and the local effects and unintended trade-offs of externally initiated measures applied to address these interwoven challenges. The nexus medium approach, instead, applies an emic, bottom–up perspective that enables findings and results about the lifeworld and everyday lives of people, collaborative action, and social organization that primarily stem from the perspectives, perceptions, understandings, and assessments of local communities and their individual members. It is, therefore, a more inductive, explorative, and open-ended concept that does not try to test pre-formulated hypothesis but tries, instead, to understand the studied problem through mainly qualitative material obtained through the application of non-standardized empirical field research methods. In this regard, it represents an attempt to contribute a practical research approach to the growing scholarship on decolonizing knowledge production in, and about, the Global South.
The concept rests on three basic assumptions. First, a nexus medium has manifold vital and intertwined meanings for a significant share of a group of people. The second assumption is that nexus mediums are seen as a means by which local communities organize themselves, act together, and through which they interact with their social and natural environment. Hence, the first step of an investigation is to identify a substance, matter, or object that is distinguished by these characteristics. Third, the identified resource use and management regimes, as well as organizational arrangements are influenced by, as well as influence, the respective societal and environmental contexts. These arrangements are, therefore, local-specific (Figure 1
Depending on the respective societal and ecological contexts, forests, pastures, arable land, food, or any other conceivable substance, matter, or object can be seen as possible nexus mediums as long as they unite multiple vital meanings in themselves and function as connecting nodes between the people. They can, therefore, be seen as materialized means and socially constructed arenas of social interaction. The following brief explanation seeks to clarify this idea: In an arid rural area where people receive only limited external support, water can be seen as a nexus medium. Sufficiently available running water could allow irrigation agriculture for local food and fodder production and, for instance, the generation of electricity (economic meaning). The labor division within households, as well as health- and sanitation-related issues are often strongly related to the availability, quantity, and quality of water (social meaning). Water can play a central role in recreational and life cycle events and/or be charged with transcendental meanings (cultural meaning). Finally, water can also be seen as an important factor for local microclimates or be associated with natural hazards (ecological meaning). These examples are not exhaustive, and there are possibly many other meanings that can be ascribed to a nexus medium. Additionally, these meanings do not necessarily belong to just one of the four mentioned vectors but can serve multiple purposes depending on the knowledge, understandings, perspectives, and interests of the respective social group or individual persons that are involved in the interactions related to the chosen nexus medium. Finally, the people must autonomously implement nexus-medium-related management regulations and usage regimes to coordinate the many interests of the involved actors and the resulting practices, since there is no external player overlooking and controlling these interactions.
2.2. Methodology and Materials
The goal of this study was to generate an empirically based and locally informed understanding of how local communities in remote rural areas organize coexistence and address social and ecological challenges. This requires an open-ended approach to the research topics. Due to their non-predefined character, qualitative methods are particularly suitable to serve this purpose. It was expected that no single method would provide sufficient material to understand the complex features of the research topic. Therefore, a mix of different qualitative methods, including narrative and semi-structured interviews, a group interview, transect walks, observations, field notes, and mapping, was applied during several field research campaigns conducted between 2014 and 2018. This also allowed for a triangulation of the insights gathered to overcome ambiguities and check the plausibility of information and statements provided by the respondents.
The first studies for this paper were conducted in 2014 as part of a joint study project of the Centre for Development Studies at the Institute of Geographical Sciences of the Freie Universität Berlin (Germany), the State University in Gorno-Badakhshan’s administrative center of Khorog, and the local office of the German development corporation Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ) in which students in the settlement of Sizhd conducted a study on irrigation agriculture under my guidance as was proposed by the Tajik partners (see Section 2.3
). In addition to transect walks, mapping, and non-participatory observation, local officials and functionaries, a representative of the development organization Mountain Societies Development Support Programme (MSDSP) of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), contemporary witnesses, and representatives of local households were interviewed.
In the spring of 2015, I undertook an exploration trip to GBAO’s remote southern district of Ishkāshim during which expert interviews were conducted with representatives of the development organizations GIZ and CAMP Tabiat, the latter being a branch of the Central Asian Mountain Partnership (CAMP) Ala-Too Public Foundation in Kyrgyzstan, on the general issues of resource management in the region. Additionally, I conducted narrative interviews with inhabitants of various villages, focusing on livelihoods, resource use, and everyday life. These conversations, as well as all future meetings and explorations, were carried out with local accompaniment. These knowledgeable persons established contact to representatives of the visited places, identified suitable respondents, and ensured that I had an appropriate introduction as a male researcher from a German university who is interested in rural livelihoods, self-organized management and usage of natural resources, collaborative action, and local social organization. Since Russian proved to be the language most interview partners and I shared, most of the interviews were conducted without translation. In the few cases where this was not possible, local assistants interpreted from Tajik or Wakhi, the Pamirian language spoken in the eastern part of the Ishkāshim District, into Russian. In the village of Shirgin (see Section 2.3
), direct contact was established even before the trip, which enabled long-term appointments and led to detailed conversations with representatives of the settlement about current and historical issues of local livelihoods, resource use with specific emphasis on irrigation agriculture, and aspects related to the everyday lives of the people. Based on this, I decided to select Shirgin as the second case study site for the coming year.
In the summer of 2016, the research focus was, therefore, entirely on this village, where further narrative and semi-structured conversations with local officials, functionaries, contemporary witnesses, and household representatives, as well as non-participatory observations, transect walks, and mapping took place. Further meetings were held in Khorog with the natural resource management expert of the MSDSP and an agronomist and plant breeding expert from the Pamir Experimental Agronomic Station of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan (PEAS). During these talks, I learned about the Water User Association (WUA) in the municipality of Porshnev (see Section 2.3
), which is one of the few existing WUAs in Gorno-Badakhshan.
In order to learn more about the supralocal approach to autonomous irrigation management in Porshnev Municipality, which I chose as the third case study, talks were held in the summer of 2018 in the course of another German-Tajik study project, this time implemented in cooperation with the University of Central Asia (UCA) in Khorog, with representatives of the WUA. I spoke with the local administration, and local households, as well as a doctor in a walk-in clinic and an amateur historian. Remaining open questions were asked and answered by email after I had left the study region. The electronic newsletter of the WUA provided further useful information on the work of this grassroots organization [21
]. Three additional meetings were held in 2018 with the MSDSP expert on natural resource management, the agronomist from the PEAS, and an agricultural scientist and expert for rural development at the UCA. Finally, a third short visit of Shirgin Village was conducted to identify the latest local developments by speaking with a teacher, a farmer, and the head of the village youth.
Overall, eight conversations took place with five experts representing the development organizations MSDSP, GIZ, and CAMP Tabiat; the research institute PEAS; and the higher education institution UCA. The general selection criteria for these respondents was that they were considered to be experts on societal, legal, and environmental issues relevant for resource use and management in the Pamirs, in particular related to water, as well as carriers of expert knowledge on the specific challenges of irrigation agriculture and external efforts to improve both resource use and management and the living conditions in the region.
Altogether, fifty-nine narrative and semi-structured interviews and one group meeting were conducted with representatives from the three rural study sites mentioned above and introduced in detail in Section 2.3
. The interviews included communications with heads of the villages (raiskho-i kishloq), representing the formal local administration; heads of farmers’ organizations (raiskho-i khojagi-i dekhqoni); employees of the WUA of the municipality of Porshnev; and local leaders and functionaries such as water masters (mirābon), religious dignitaries (khalifakho), a head of the village youth (rais-i javonon), and village elders (muisafedon/aksaqalkho). The latter are respected for their age, accumulated local knowledge, experiences, and standing within the respective community and, therefore, also considered to be local leaders, along with other knowledgeable people such as canal managers (mirjuikho), local amateur historians, farmers (dekhqonon), and teachers (omuzgoron). Most respondents were male adults, due to the dominance of men in the administration, as well as within the sphere of irrigation governance and management of the local communities. The low number of female interview partners may also be due to the combination of my positionality as a male Western academic and the widespread gender-based division of social roles and responsibilities in the studied local communities, which lead to the situation that it is usually men who take on the role of interview partners. However, three women working as a teacher, doctor, and a nurse, as well as two female heads of households were interviewed to consider female perspectives and knowledge. Table 1
provides an overview over the interviews conducted, as well as the institutional background, professional or social status, and gender of the respondents.
The aim of the conversations with local officials, leaders, functionaries, knowledgeable persons, and household representatives was to gather statements and information about, including assessments and perceptions of, the specific socioeconomic and environmental conditions, features, and challenges of the studied communities; the livelihoods of individual households; the diverse meanings ascribed to water; the spatiotemporal variance in water availability; irrigation water supply infrastructure and its maintenance; local water management bodies and institutions; the actors involved in water management; and the management and decision-making processes, as well as irrigation practices and daily tasks connected with the issue of practicing land cultivation for local food and fodder production. Adopting an oral history approach, in the sense of a “historical reconstruction of the past which is based on oral sources” [22
], elderly people were asked about their experiences, memories, and perceptions regarding the manifold meanings ascribed to water and information about the water supply and irrigation in the past and how this knowledge informs current activities and practices. The approach to talk to these contemporary witnesses was chosen because there are comparatively few detailed historical publications on local-specific water management and water use practices in the Western Pamirs available [16
The documentation of these conversation proved to be more challenging than expected. In the early stages of the study, it became clear that audio recordings of the conversations were oftentimes not desired by the interview partners. Therefore, simple notebooks were used to first record analog jottings during, or immediately after, the interviews, and then they were transposed into digital transcripts later the same day [25
]. The names of interview partners have been changed or omitted in this paper to ensure anonymity.
Information on the environmental conditions and physical components of the irrigation arrangements including natural features such as glaciers, snow fields, and creeks and the built environment such as ponds, canals, and locks were collected, also noted in analog notebooks, and mapped in the course of twelve transect walks: three in Sizhd, seven in Shirgin, and two in Porshnev. The collected material was used to generate schematic maps of the spatial arrangement of the main water sources or lines of the three study sites. These explorative inspections were combined with non-participatory observations of everyday life activities and of local monitoring and water distribution practices. Here as well, I kept timely systematic field notes of my observations and experiences, as well as impressions and assessments [25
]. These entries and the interview transcripts form the central basis of the results presented in Section 3
Finally, historical information was sought in the Archive of the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Archive of the Russian Geographical Society in St. Petersburg, the former capital of the Russian Empire, which was the colonial ruling power in Central Asia in the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century; the Russian State Military History Archive in Moscow; and the Central State Archive of the Republic of Uzbekistan in Tashkent, where the seat of the Russian Colonial Administration of the Governor-Generalship Turkestan was located. This historical research served mainly to identify place-specific information, contexts, and preconditions for current rural everyday practices, livelihoods, and autonomous resource management and usage arrangements. Reports, letters, and statistics including demographic numbers from representatives of the Russian and the Soviet military, diplomatic bodies, and the regional administration provided patchy but useful background information on the historical everyday life conditions, challenges, and livelihoods, as well as resource management and usage regimes of local communities in the Western Pamirs.
The data and information gathered during the empirical field work and the archival research were put into writing. These texts were subjected to a qualitative content analysis [26
]. As a first step, the texts were assigned to one of four text genres: interview protocols, historical testimonies of third parties (archival material), notes of own observations and experiences, and personal impressions and assessments. This step was followed by a systematic and separate review of the texts of each genre, and the assignment of individual text segments into different categories—meanings attributed to water, water management and use, collaborative activities, social organization, and socio-ecological conditions and challenges—by considering the social role and positionality of the respective informant or, in the case of historical sources, of the author. Each category included additional specifically coded subcategories, which allowed a more precise allocation of the contents [26
]. These subcategories encompassed differentiated meanings ascribed to water; practices, actors, spatiotemporal aspects, and social processes in the management and use of water, collaborative action, and social organization; as well as the nature, mode of operation, and effects of the respective societal and ecological conditions and challenges. From these systematized compilations, written and “thickly described” [27
] representations of the individual facets of the study were prepared by means of deliberate and reflected interpretation of the material.
2.3. Three Study Sites in the Western Pamirs in Tajikistan
The high mountain region of the Western Pamirs lies in the remote eastern part of the country. It is characterized by several environmental, historical, and socio-cultural features that make it an attractive place to study the everyday lives, collaborative action, and autonomous resource management and usage approaches to understand local social organization through the prism of the nexus medium of water.
One vital characteristic is that the (semi-)arid conditions of the Western Pamirs permit the cultivation of land plots on alluvial soil that cover the flat valley bottoms and debris cones for local food and fodder production based on hill irrigation. Unfortunately, as for many other regions of High Asia, the network of meteorological stations in the Pamirs is patchy and provides only an incomplete picture of the climatic conditions within the study region. Many measuring stations are located in the valleys near the settlements and, therefore, are not necessarily representative for larger mountainous areas, especially for higher altitudes where the precipitation values are much higher [28
]. Despite this shortcoming, the climate diagrams of Khorog and the settlement of Ishkāshim provide an adequate picture of the (semi-)arid climatic conditions in selected cropland areas of the Western Pamirs where the study sites of this research are located (Figure 2
The results presented and discussed in the following sections are mainly based on information that was collected in three rural study sites: (i) the municipality (jamoat) of Porshnev of the Shugnan District (nokhiya) located north of Khorog; (ii) the village (dekha) of Sizhd at the Gunt River, which is also located within the nokhiya of Shugnan at a distance of about 35 km to the northeast of Khorog; and (iii) the village of Shirgin, situated within Ishkāshim District around 100 km to the east of the district center. Both the municipality of Porshnev and Sizhd Village are located at a similar elevation as Khorog, and in close vicinity to the respective meteorological station. Therefore, the climate diagram of Khorog is used to illustrate the climatic conditions in these two study sites. The situation of the third study site, Shirgin Village, is a bit more difficult. In the absence of a local meteorological station, the climate regime of Shirgin is best understood through data provided by the weather observation station in Ishkāshim, located in the same river valley. While it is very likely that the temperatures in Shirgin are lower than in Ishkāshim due to its 400 m higher location, no fact-based statement can be made about the precipitation regime in Shirgin. However, a humid climate can be excluded (Figure 3
The important conclusions that can be drawn from the presented climate data are that at both measuring stations, first, the mean annual precipitation is below the threshold for practicing rainfed agriculture successfully and, second, that nearly the whole vegetation period from April to September is characterized by a strong arid regime (dotted area within the two diagrams of Figure 2
). Due to these conditions, the controlled supply of irrigation water from wells, creeks, rivers, or the places of accumulation of frozen water stored at higher altitudes, such as for glaciers and snow fields, to the cultivated fields, orchards, and kitchen gardens has been necessary since historical times [14
]. This requires the labor- and cost-intensive creation, operation, and maintenance of irrigation arrangements encompassing physical components such as natural water sources and artificial water tapping, along with water-supply- and water-distribution-related infrastructure. It also requires social components such as local-specific management and usage regimes [24
]. Besides the spatiotemporally uneven distribution of water, potentially destructive gravitational mass movements typical for high mountains such as rockfalls, avalanches, mudflows, and landslides pose hazards that also represent serious threats to agricultural lands and the built environment, including irrigation infrastructure components as well as communication lines [36
In addition to these challenging environmental conditions, the selected study sites also share several historical and socio-cultural features and legacies important for this study. They lie within an area that historically represented a geopolitical frontier at the margins of the Russian Empire bordering China and Afghanistan and, later on, of the Soviet Union. During the Soviet era, Gorno-Badakhshan became a showcase for the socioeconomic achievements that the leading country of the socialist world was able to attain. Local social organization and economic affairs in the remote region of Gorno-Badakhshan became largely defined and controlled by the state. Profound transitions took place under the conditions of the socialist command economy: Local farmers were collectivized, the means of production were nationalized, the regional economy including the agricultural sector was modernized, and cost-intensive infrastructural development and infrastructure repair and maintenance works were initiated and covered by the state. Social services were extensively expanded, and the region received substantial external supplies from the Soviet political and economic centers [37
]. These voluminous state-run supportive measures vanished in the course of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the outbreak of a cruel civil war in Tajikistan in 1992. The loss of jobs and secure incomes in the course of the restructuring of the command economy, including the agricultural sector, became a widespread phenomenon. In remote rural regions such as the Pamirs, many additional social challenges, such as limited market integration and monetary incomes lower than the national average, exacerbated the already existing difficulties people faced to make a living [24
]. Against the background of these difficult conditions, the inhabitants of the Pamirs had to reorganize their own survival in large part independently or with assistance from external non-state actors. Along with labor migration and remittances, the use of natural resources became vital within the livelihood strategies of the majority of rural households in Gorno-Badakhshan. In this regard, both the extension of, and the return to, subsistence farming became unavoidable, especially for people living in remote settlements where wage work opportunities were especially scarce, salaries were low, and access to the markets in Khorog was cost-intensive. These developments were accompanied by the mandatory reorganization of the complex and expensive maintenance, development, and control of agricultural facilities, including irrigation infrastructure, which previously used to be the task of the large collective and state farms [24
]. Land cultivation is practiced today by the majority of rural households and, thus, most depend on access to irrigation water. Before displaying and discussing the study results, specific information on the three study areas to help ground the findings are presented.
The jamoat of Porshnev consists of nine settlements that lie at altitudes of between 2000 m and 2300 m. At the turn of the 20th century, there were approximately 280 inhabitants living in 59 households in the settlements. People mainly cultivated grains such as wheat, barley, millet, and legumes such as peas, beans, and lentils on an individual basis. The variety and amount of vegetables grown by the people was negligible [44
]. After the finalization of the Soviet collectivization campaign in the Western Pamirs in 1939, the agricultural sector experienced deep changes. Porshnev was turned into a collective farm (kolkhoz), which was repeatedly restructured and, finally, became part of the state farm (sovkhoz) “Shugnan” [45
]. At that time, agricultural production was shifted from cultivation toward animal husbandry under the national planned production system. While the collectivized agriculture had to produce mainly fodder, the highly subsidized food products for the people were imported [38
]. Due to the challenging conditions of the post-socialist time, people returned to individual irrigation-based cultivation of grain and legumes, as well as root crops such as potatoes and vegetables, which were only widely introduced during the Soviet era. Similar changes occurred throughout the western parts of Gorno-Badakhshan. In 2015, the population of the jamoat
of Porshnev had grown more than thirty times since the turn of the 20th century to more than 8500 inhabitants forming more than 1350 households [58
Over the last 120 years, the population of the village of Sizhd located at an altitude of 2500–2600 m has grown more than thirteen times, from less than 80 people in the 1890s to over 1000 people in 153 households in 2015 [44
]. After Tajikistan’s independence, Sizhd experienced the same fate as the two other study sites: The former state farm “Vatan” that specialized in animal husbandry and fodder cultivation was dissolved in the 1990s and land usage rights were privatized. The people had to switch back to subsistence cultivation and grow similar kinds of grains, legumes, and vegetables as the inhabitants of Porshnev Municipality [50
As with the previous examples, the people in Shirgin Village (altitude of 2800–3000 m) experienced a remarkable growth in population, from 110 people at the turn of the 20th century to nearly 900 inhabitants living in 100-something households in 2015 [49
]. Along with this population growth came the challenge of needing to extend the cultivation land and irrigation infrastructure and adjusting the corresponding irrigation arrangements to the shifting societal conditions of the socialist and post-Soviet societies [20
]. After experiencing similar developments during the Soviet era to the two other study sites, including collectivization and the establishment of a state farm named after Lenin in the 1970s, subsistence farming is widely applied in Shirgin today. The village is hampered by the challenges of water scarcity during the vegetation period and also a lack of water sources within the village boundaries and a particularly pronounced shortage of land [23
]. In this regard, the head of the village confided to me that basically “it is not a tragedy when people leave for training, new professions, and labor migration, but rather the right thing to do in view of the shortage of land and the weakness of the local economy” [57
Despite the commonalities, the socio-ecological conditions and irrigation arrangements of these three sites differ in many ways such as the sources of water, organizational aspects, and the administrative scope and spatial scale they address. These characteristics allow us to elaborate on how the inhabitants of rural areas of the Western Pamirs of Tajikistan collaborate, address socio-ecological challenges, and organize themselves around the nexus medium of water. Table 2
provides an overview of selected features of the three study sites, including demographic data and cultivation patterns since the turn of the 20th
century and some characteristics of the respective autonomous irrigation arrangement, which will be presented and discussed in the following sections. The first subsection of the results section introduces a systematic picture of the many meanings attributed to water by the inhabitants of the study communities and, thus, highlights central aspects of the lifeworld and everyday lives of the people in the Western Pamirs. The second subsection presents local-specific forms of autonomous irrigation arrangements and social organization around water in the studied communities.