Water user associations: a review of approaches and alternative management options for Sub-Saharan Africa

Irrigated agriculture has once again risen to prominence among sub-Saharan Africa’s development priorities, after a long lull prompted by disappointment in the results of major investments during the 1970s and 1980s. This time, however, rising concern about the impacts of climate change on vulnerable rainfed agriculture lend special urgency to the task of expanding irrigation. Without it, Africa’s food security will likely continue to prove elusive and so will the increased resilience that farmers need to cope with climate change and other stresses. If irrigated agriculture is to succeed in Africa, then so must the institutions needed for its efficient management. Such institutions are important for both the centralized systems that have predominated until recently as well as for the various informal and private types that are now emerging. During previous rounds of investment, donor agencies bet heavily on local water user associations (WUAs) in an effort to decentralize irrigation management. WUAs seemed like just the right solution during the 1980s-1990s, a time when governments were striving to reduce public roles and expenditures in compliance with structural adjustment policies. WUAs are formal organizations created to bring together farmers (usually no more than a few hundred) for the purpose of managing a shared irrigation system. While Africa’s experience with them has been decidedly mixed and sometimes disappointing, a dozen or so countries have gained much experience and insight, which provide a solid basis for improvement. This is the spirit in which the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has published a new study, Water User Associations: A Review of Approaches and Alternative Management Options for Sub-Saharan Africa, which was prepared with support from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).