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Water user groups

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Agriculture, livestock, fisheries

A Water User Association (WUA) is an organisation for water management made up of a group of small and large-scale water users, such as irrigators, who pool their financial, technical, material, and human resources for operation and maintenance of a local water system, such as a river or water basin. The WUA is usually run out of a non-profit structure and membership is typically based on contracts and/or agreements between the members and the WUA (IWMI and SIC ICWC, 2003). WUAs play a key role in integrated approaches to water management that seek to establish a decentralised, participatory, multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary governance structure.


A WUA is a unit of individuals that have formally and voluntarily associated for the purposes of cooperatively sharing, managing and conserving a common water resource. The objectives of a WUA commonly include:

1. Conservation of water catchments;

2. Sustainable water resource management;

3. Increase availability of water resources;

4. Increase the usage of the water for economic and social improvements;

5. Development of sustainable and responsive institutions,

The core activity of a WUA is to operate the waterworks under its responsibility and to monitor the allocation of water among its members. Key functions of a WUA include:

  • Exchange information and ideas on water resource use;
  • Monitor water availability and use (Box 1);
  • Provide technical assistance in areas such as soil, water and crop management, livelihood diversification, marketing, finance and savings;
  • Discuss potential projects and developments (including climate change) that may affect water usage;
  • Operate and maintain a water service or structure (such as water mill, canal, or irrigation);
  • Management of a water distribution system, including setting tariffs and collecting fees;
  • Resolve conflicts related to water use;
  • Representation of stakeholder needs at higher institutions of water management.

A WUA can contribute to adaptation to climate change by providing a cooperative mechanism through which the following activities can be undertaken:

  • Monitor the impact of climate change on water resources.
  • Empower water users and decision-makers to manage and allocate water resources with consideration for climate change, the environment and other technical information through consultative processes.
  • Promote basin-level participation in national climate change and water management processes.
  • Develop and disseminate awareness materials on the implications of climate change and various likely water resource scenarios among local authorities, decision makers, communities and the private sector.
  • Provide data for modelling possible environmental, economic and social impacts of climate change resulting from changes in water resources.
  • Prioritise investment needs for water management adaptation strategies, such as irrigation, and monitor their effectiveness.
Advantages of the technology top

WUAs can play a critical role in changing from centralised control of natural resources to local management. This is particularly important for climate change adaptation efforts whereby local monitoring of water resources, improvements in infrastructure (such as canals and irrigation) and public participation in decision-making leads to more reliable and equitable distribution of supplies. This can lead to improved agricultural productivity, which in turn helps to raise incomes and contributes to local and national food security. An analysis of seven schemes in Nepal found that by supporting livelihood diversification and making improvements to water management infrastructure, WUAs had a direct role in increasing agricultural productivity and income-earning opportunities of farmers (INPIM, 2010). In the province of Mendoza in Argentina, the organisation of 21 WUAs to administer inspections of a canal that supplies water for 13 985 hectares of agricultural land has led to annual benefits estimated at US$ 41 000, 2.1 times the annual budget of the inspections (Chambouleyron, 1989). The formation of a WUA can also generate positive impacts for the environment. For example, improvements to canal and irrigation schemes can reduce water logging and salinity problems. By providing technical assistance to local farmers, WUA members can also have a direct impact on improving soil, water and crop management practices (UNESCO, no date).

Disadvantages of the technology top

The cooperative model of organisation on which the WUA approach is based can have disadvantages if the area of operation does not match a hydraulic boundary and may actually stimulate conflict over resource use (for example, in the Cauvery River in Southern India). Conflicts related to irrigation farming occur between upstream and downstream farmers when the upstream farmers are (perceived as) using too much water. A WUA could heighten conflict between users where its membership is based on an existing community boundary rather than a representative selection of all water users within a particular system.

Financial requirements and costs top

The cost of establishing and maintaining a WUA will depend on its size, management structure, area of operations and functions. WUAs usually levy a joining fee, and then an annual membership fee. During initial formation phase, additional financial support may be required to ensure the establishment of the WUA. Where the establishment of WUAs is supported by national policy (such as a Water Act or Irrigation Act) there may be a mechanism in place for provision of this funding support. Furthermore, this funding support may be on-going, especially in countries where WUAs are considered part of a government-led decentralisation programme.  

International development donors, such as USAID, the EU and the Asian Development Bank, have also provided funding to WUAs. Independently, WUAs can generate income by charging for water supply and distribution services and provision of agricultural outreach services, such as technical assistance for improved crop management or marketing advice. WUAs may also initiate their own commercial activities, such as fish or bee-keeping.

Institutional and organisational requirements top

WUAs are generally run out of institutions that have previous experience with collective water management, such as irrigation boards.  Where an appropriate national framework is in place (usually a Water Act or Irrigation Act), a WUA can become an independent legal entity upon approval of an application to a higher authority such as the Ministry of Water Resources.  The WUA is then able to establish a governing document or constitution, a membership and a bank account.  A WUA can be established by taking the following main steps:

1)    Select host institution and register the WUA with the relevant national authority

2)    Identify stakeholders within the common water resource catchment, raise awareness of the roles and responsibilities of the WUA amongst possible members and recruit

3)    Identify water management problems via a participatory diagnostic analysis

4)    Establishment of a business plan and constitution

5)    Elect en Executive Committee and recruit management staff

6)    Provide training to members, for example, in planning, budgeting, and civil works construction 

In terms of organisational structure, a WUA tends to comprise:

  • ·A General Assembly, comprised of all WUA members with the main function being to vote on issues of key importance and to elect the Executive Board
  • ·An Executive Board or Council to supervise and provide strategic direction, prepare plans, budgets, submit reports to donors and establish policies.
  • ·A manager responsible for day-to-day activities and for making recommendations to the Executive Board
  • ·Operation, maintenance, administrative and financial staff (IWMI and SIC ICWC, 2003; UNESCO, no date).

The WUA will interact with other actors involved in water management such as water catchment authorities, national ministries and the private sector. 

It is likely that the activities of a WUA will be relevant to more than one government department, such as the Ministries for Water Resources, Agriculture and Land.  The success of the WUA will therefore depend on support from a range of different government actors and will include financial, technical and operational assistance and collaboration.

Legislation ultimately underpins all aspects of WUA formation and activity. It follows that the absence of appropriate legislation will negatively impact WUA sustainability, even if it permits WUAs to be formally established (Hodgson, 2007).

Knowledge and monitoring requirements include:

  • General business and legal skills required to set-up and maintain the functioning of the WUA as an institution. This will include general awareness-raising amongst members about their roles and rights as well as more targeted training for individual members assigned to carry out specific roles such as bookkeeping, financial reporting, report writing, conflict management and leadership.
  • Training in water management systems. This can include infrastructure construction and maintenance, such as canal maintenance, pump operation and the monitoring and collection of water use charges.
  • Training in agricultural production (crop, soil, water and livestock management) depending on the characteristics of local livelihood activities. Training in the provision of outreach services to community members could also be required.
Barriers to implementation top

Experience suggests that if the WUAs are established using a top-down approach, they are weak and have a high risk of failure. WUAs should rather be established through a bottom-up consultative approach working with grassroots level farmers/ water users (IWMI and SIC ICWC, 2003). Other barriers include legal constraints (such as appropriate regulatory frameworks, land and water rights), funding constraints if mobilising funding from year to year becomes a problem, and lack of effective coordination between the WUA and other relevant authorities and actors. Likewise a lack of capacity in the design and implementation of projects can limit the ability of a WUA to secure funding. In a survey of WUAs in India (UNESCO, no date), members cited funding constraints water availability and government support as the main obstacles to effective WUA implementation.  

Opportunities for implementation top

WUAs can offer an opportunity to contribute to the reconstruction of communities through conflict resolution and to involve women in decision-making processes. WUAs also provide a suitable organisational structure through which to support a range of participatory initiatives (such as water resource monitoring) that can help strengthen local capacity to make decisions about natural resource management and agricultural production options in the face of possible climate change scenarios. 

References top

Chambouleyron, J. (1989) The reorganisation of Water Users Associations in Mendoza, Argentina, Irrigation and Drainage Systems 3: 81-94.

INPIM (2010) Demonstrating Enhanced Productivity of Irrigated Agriculture System through Multifunctional Water Users Associations, Mid-Term Report, INPIM Nepal.

IWMI (International Water Management Institute) and SIC ICWC (the Scientific Information Centre Interstate Commission for Water Coordination) (2003) How to Establish a Water Users Association, IWMI and SIC ICWC.

UNESCO, Water Users Association for Sustainable Water Management: Experiences from the irrigation sector in Tamil Nadu, India, UNESCO, no date.