Water resources management is a key issue in Central Asia, particularly in view of its dependence on agriculture. Water distribution is often on the table at meetings between national government bodies. There are, however, different views on why there is often not enough of this vital resource. While some blame lack of precipitation on the changing climate, others see different reasons behind water shortages. But many scientists agree that inefficient irrigation practices are a significant factor. Using as little water as possible without a negative impact on agricultural production is now probably more important than ever before. The resolution of these challenges calls for more regional engagement and action as some 30 small transboundary tributaries (STT) flow through the Fergana Valley. The area is shared between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and has a considerable transboundary water management infrastructure. But water use efficiency still leaves much to be desired.
A number of international aid agencies have been working in the region to respond to this problem. The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the Scientific Information Center of Inter-State Commission for Water Coordination (SIC-ICWC) have implemented the Integrated Water Resources Management project in the Fergana Valley (IWRM-Fergana Valley) and the Water Productivity Improvement at Plot Level project (WPI-PL) since 2001. The projects, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), have pioneered a framework for institutionalizing and scaling up bottom-up cooperation mechanisms on small transboundary tributaries shared between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Both projects have successfully been completed recently. To that end, the SDC office organized a final workshop in Tashkent on 18 February 2013. Researchers from IWMI, SIC-ICWC and other partner organizations from the Fergana Valley (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) came together to review the results of the projects and share their thoughts.
One achievement was, the participants agreed, the introduction of an Innovation Cycle. It is a system of making knowledge produced at research centers available to farmers. This will help farmers to increase water productivity and consequently increase their profit margins. Dr Mohan Reddy Junna, head of the IWMI office, pointed out that the Innovation Cycle had actually improved water productivity at field level. Thanks to the system, advanced and up-to-date knowledge can reach farmers faster and they in turn can act on it. He added that to spread knowledge, a set of information and training resources, as well as a repository of research papers and reports had been developed in Russian for wider accessibility. About 1,000 farmers were trained in improved water accounting methods. But he stressed that it was important to maintain the momentum of this process. The WPI-PL project also helped farmers to apply this knowledge. As Dr Reddy Junna said, more than 10 agronomic and water management technologies were set up on demonstration farms. Six Water Users Associations (four WUAs in Uzbekistan, one in Tajikistan, and one in Kyrgyzstan) were fully equipped with new equipment. As a result, transparency in water use increased, while conflicts over water went down significantly. Above all, farmers now pay less for water after flow meters had been built for Water Users Associations. Importantly, this also raised interest among farmers, and they now construct flow measurement structures using personal funds. An increase in water productivity did not come at the expense of production. On the contrary, crop yields at demonstration sites were higher than those in adjacent areas in the Fergana Valley. As studies show, crop yields and profitability on demonstration and adjacent farms went up.
But reforming irrigation practices is one thing. What is also needed are institutional reforms. Discussing the IWRM-Fergana Valley project results, Murat Yakubov, national researcher with IWMI, focused on the impact of such reforms implemented under the project on the communities as a whole. He noted that the results of studies into the reforms reflected mainly farmers' needs but not the needs of small-scale users (kitchen gardens).
Dr Jusipbek Kazbekov, regional researcher with IWMI, highlighted in his presentation on cooperation in small transboundary tributaries that a bilateral platform incorporating agricultural water users and different government organizations has been established. He said that this platform serves as a feedback loop between farmers and policymakers and decision-makers. Farmers' suggestions and needs can now be communicated better to relevant authorities.
The research team also came up with a series of recommendations. They suggested creating an enabling legal, policy, institutional and economic environment. In particular the WPI project suggested looking into how sustainable the Innovation Cycle is, exploring ways of information dissemination and irrigation advisory service for farmers through web-based SMS technology and providing partial subsidies to farmers to maintain the current momentum of water flow management. The IWRM project suggested establishing a user-centered institutional platform at WUA level to further integrate village communities and proposed a nationwide assessment of international aid agencies' approaches within the water sector for streamlining interventions and providing clear policy recommendations. Regarding STTs, the next logical step would be linking the established stakeholder platforms with a higher-level legal framework to formalize small transboundary tributaries cooperation in the region. The good thing is that this system can be replicated in other places.
The positive results of the two projects were widely acknowledged. Building on the projects' success, the Swiss development agency announced at the workshop that there will be the next phase of the projects, which will be put out to tender. However, unlike the previous phases, the primary focus will be on national components rather than regional ones.