Irrigation and Poverty in Central Asia: A Field Assessment


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Publication Title

Irrigation and Poverty in Central Asia: A Field Assessment

Publication Type

World bank Field Study


Publication Date

2001 (assumed)


Publication URL





Irrigation and drainage (I&D) play a critical role in the livelihood of many rural Central Asians, yet over the past decade the condition of I&D systems has deteriorated throughout the region. This study is based upon fieldwork conducted in 12 locales of the republics of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan where there are severe dysfunctions in the operation and maintenance (O&M) of I&D systems. Lack of funding for and disorganization in O&M, as well as declining agricultural productivity and incomes (needed to maintain irrigation and drainage), have made regular crop cultivation a highly problematic proposition in most of the areas studied. Although villagers try to adapt to this unwanted state of affairs by modifying irrigation and agricultural practices or emphasizing livestock production and/or non-agricultural pursuits, most of them lack the resources to successfully make the transition.

Although many stakeholders remember the period before the demise of the USSR in 1991 as a “golden era” of O&M, this view is informed more by the present dilapidated condition of I&D systems than their smooth operation before the ons et of independence and reforms. Largely because of rent-seeking by the Ministry of Water Management (Minvodkhoz) in O&M, many I&D systems, especially those in older irrigated areas that were not the focus of recent construction, were in need of repair. Moreover, the command style of planned water allocation implemented at the district level by Vodkhoz irrigation departments and (within kolkhozy and sovkhozy) farm management, while it left little room for farmer participation in decision-making, was characterized by manipulation of “plans” and rent-seeking in water delivery.

Many changes have taken place in the funding and management of O&M since 1991, especially in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan. Funding has dropped off sharply from previously high levels, and in all instances district irrigation departments have fewer resources than before. Water charges introduced in the last 5 years are not demandelastic and could not possibly cover the cost of O&M, although the rate of collection has increased. New institutions have appeared in the form of Water User Associations (WUAs) in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan, although those in the areas studied have little capacity with which to carry out O&M and possess little authority vis-à-vis many district irrigation departments and FSKs. Most sovkhozy and kolkhozy have been either privatized into family farms or remain as “cooperatives” (hereafter referred to as FSKs, or former sovkhozy and kolkhozy). The latter are predominant in Uzbekistan, although the number of family farms is growing. Whereas imperfect reform has created dislocations and distortions in input and output markets in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan, in Uzbekistan the same conditions exist owing to the dysfunction of the old system of planned production and supply of inputs for the cultivation of cotton and wheat on a grand scale (with which even the so-named “private” farmers must contend). In the former two republics, agricultural productivity dropped severely in the early 1990s, before beginning to recover. In Uzbekistan, the decline in productivity has been less, due to greater stability, yet many longstanding problems have not been addressed.

Falling incomes and a vacuum in management have reduced maintenance to a series of stopgap measures. Water users attempt to clean canals and collectors by hand, but most cannot afford the machinery required to perform the job adequately. In many areas, significant portions of I&D systems, especially drainage collectors and pipes, have not seen any maintenance for five or more years. Although in three of the four sites in Uzbekistan the condition of the canal system could be rated as “fair,” in all cases systems are becoming decrepit. The condition of systems is generally poorer in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan, because of greater shortfalls in incomes and state funding, as well as the disorganization of water management institutions.

The degradation of canal systems and institutional failure in water allocation and delivery has led to a reduction in the supply of irrigation water in all of the field sites except one (in Uzbekistan). Some canals examined in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan have become decrepit to the degree that they will not carry water to the end sections. In some areas studied, such as the Sokh River system of the Ferghana Valley, upstream communities take water that is earmarked in allocation schedules for use by those downstream. Unsanctioned withdrawals by upstream and/or elite farmers are even more common within the communities studied. In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan, the few wealthy and/or well-connected water users are commonly able to acquire well- located (upstream) irrigated land, as well as peddle influence or bribe their way to an inordinate share of water. In Uzbekistan, the primary tensions in water allocation are between FSKs and family farms, although the latter also includes a favored elite. The result of the breakdown of canals and unfair allocation is the shrinkage of the area irrigated, which exceeds 50% in some areas (all areas studied in Kazakstan), as well as tension and conflict within communities (especially in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan).

Because collectors and drainpipes are in worse condition than canals, land salinization encompasses more cropland than before. Ineffective drainage has led to a rise in water tables in many sites, which, along with the increasing mineralization of groundwater (as much as 3 grams per liter in sites in Kazakstan), has led to the moderate and even severe salinization of over half of the irrigated cropland in some cases. Yields are reduced on such land, although the exact degree of damage done to crop development is still in question. In general, areas in the middle and lower reaches of the Aral Sea basin are worst affected, although this sometimes does not apply within communities, owing to the fact that salinization often appears in a patchwork pattern. Yet location of land is as critical as in avoiding discharges of salt from upstream as in acquiring more water, meaning that less powerful water users also suffer inordinately in this regard.

Water users try to adapt to water scarcity and land degradation in a variety of creative ways, yet the overwhelming majority of them do not possess the resources needed to succeed in this endeavor. Farmers sometimes revert to traditional water-saving methods or seek substitute sources of water, which often ends in irrigation with saline drainage water from collectors. Many change cropping patterns in favor of lower water consumption and heightened salt tolerance (in Uzbekistan, this can only be done on the 35% of cropland not subject to production plans). Because of lack of capital, many farmers cannot afford even stopgap alterations of I&D systems, e.g. the iv installation of hand pumps. Lack of capital, the disorganization of institutions, and systemic corruption prevents many villagers from successfully making adaptations. Whereas the system of planned production constrains incomes in Uzbekistan, inequitable privatization, bottlenecks and distortions in input, finance, and output markets prevent most farmers in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan from acquiring sufficient capital.

The degradation of I&D systems in the fieldwork sites, in combination with the downturn in various aspects of agriculture, results in the decline of crops yields. In fieldwork sites in Uzbekistan (for which historical data are available), crop yields per hectare have dropped by as much as factor of two. The drop is even more precipitous in areas covered in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan. According to villagers, yields within communities are 1.5-2 times higher in upstream than in downstream areas.

Aside from adapting agricultural production, farmers respond to the degradation of I&D systems by de-emphasizing crop production in favor of livestock breeding or seeking non-agricultural employment. In some sites in Kazakstan, irrigated area has contracted to the degree that considerable expanses of former cropland have become pasture. Yet this land is limited, and in some locals land salinization has rendered it unfit even for pasture. Moreover, in many areas the lack of adequate pasture makes the irrigation of land for feed and fodder production imperative. Aside from moving away from crop production, some farmers move away from agricultural production altogether, which, given the lack of non-agricultural jobs in rural areas, usually involves migration as a far away as Russia for employment as a menial laborer. The numerous impediments that migrant workers must face, such as internal passport and registration regimes in Uzbekistan, lack of training, regional discrimination and nepotism in hiring, etc. frequently prevent them from sending home remittances that justify the move away. Few migrate permanently, and even fewer do so with their families.

The breakdown of canal and (particularly) drainage systems lowers the quality of drinking water and, in the extreme cases covered in this study, degrades the foundations of houses. Rural water supply systems are for the most part decrepit, and families often use water from canals and even drainage collectors for household needs. Funding for rural water supply systems has shrunk to a fraction of the previous amount (with the exception of Uzbekistan), and, as in irrigation, institutions operate within a vacuum. In some areas of Uzbekistan, the allocation of drinking water is inequitable and thus a subject of contention among villagers. The degradation of I&D systems negatively affects the quantity of drinking water available through its diversion for irrigation by opportunistic (and typically upstream) farmers, while the decline of the of the quality of water in canals impacts those who use this source for household purposes. Moreover, in many areas wells and reservoirs are hydrologically linked with canals and drainage, i.e. drinking water quality declines along with that in the I&D system. In areas with severe drainage problems, water slowly seeps into and damages the foundations of houses and public buildings. Medical specialists in the areas concerned commonly linked low quality drinking water with a high incidence of intestinal and other maladies and the damp conditions created by seepage into foundations with rheumatism, especially among children.

As one might expect the degradation of I&D systems occupies a prominent place in the villagers’ perceptions of poverty. Stakeholders noted the increase in poverty, especially over the last 2-3 years, and most estimated that 70% or more of the residents of their village lives in poverty. Water figures quite prominently in Uzbek stakeholders’ perception of what constitutes wealth, while perceptions in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan are focused at least as much on possession of livestock and an adequate input supply. The same is true of rankings that communities assigned to their problems— stakeholders in the communities studied in Uzbekistan placed difficulties associated with the degradation of I&D systems at the top of their list of problems, while those in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan also included lack of working capital, inputs and machinery, and unemployment.

Villagers in Uzbekistan ascribe a much greater role to the state in solving the problems associated with irrigation and drainage than those in Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan. In the former case, farmers remain rooted in the Soviet legacy of dependence on the state. In the republics where substantial, albeit highly imperfect reform, has taken place, the sever decline in subsidies of agriculture, coupled with the often-venal actions of many officials under “market” conditions, has led to disillusionment with the state—many have taken the resigned approach that the population must overcome existing problems on their own, since no help will be forthcoming from the state.



See also

Irrigation in Central Asia: Social, Economic and Environmental Considerations - The follow-up report with recommended World Bank action

External Resources



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