For millions of smallholder farmers, water is one of the most important production assets. But in many countries, they are not formally a part of the water management decision-making processes that can affect their access to water.
One way in which policymakers can address this chronic state of exclusion is by establishing water resources management practices that are sufficiently participatory and inclusive. Water management is participatory when it enables water users to participate equally and freely in the decision-making process, ensuring that a plurality of perspectives are incorporated. Decisions made through a transparent and democratic process are often viewed as more legitimate and, thus, may be easier to implement.
Newly-published data for 101 countries from the World Bank’s Enabling the Business of Agriculture study shows how various countries are pushing the frontier with innovative regulations to support the participation of farmers in water resources management. However, a lot of work remains to be done in many countries – especially to improve the inclusion of women farmers.
The Power of Information
Publicly available information about water resources and existing local water uses helps farmers to better manage risk and plan investments. It can also help to promote transparency and trust in water management decisions that affect their livelihoods. Without this information, farmers cannot meaningfully participate in water management decisions or advocate for their interests.
However, less than half of countries covered in the Enabling the Business of Agriculture study require that this information be made publicly available. Among those that do, some require that access should be free of charge, as does Slovakia under its 2006 Water Law. Others, such as Kenya under its new 2016 Water Act, require payment of a small fee.
Collecting and managing water resources, as well as making the results publicly available, can either be an expensive endeavor or a lean operation. Therefore, when designing access to water information requirements, governments—particularly those of resource-strained countries—must aim to strike a balance between promoting public access to water information and ensuring that information collection and management activities are locally feasible and adequately funded.
A Seat at the Table
Access to water information enables farmers and other water users to meaningfully participate in decision making that could affect their long-term access to water. One way that they can do so is through representation in water institutions.
Over the past few decades, there has been a clear trend towards participation and decentralization in water laws and regulations. Nearly 70 percent of countries studied require the inclusion of water users – such as farmers – in public water management institutions, whether at the local, basin or national level. Such requirements are now widespread across regions – with the exception of some parts of Asia and the Middle East.
Water management institutions across countries differ widely with regards to their structure and the roles of water users. Some countries mandate a certain number of representatives while others allow each decentralized institution to determine their structure based on the specific needs of that river basin or area. Some grant water users clear decision-making power, while others allow them only an advisory role.
Brazil and Kenya provide two contrasting examples of possible participation mechanisms for including farmers and other water users. Under Brazil’s 1997 Water Law, water users are represented at the national level and in river basin councils, which are granted a broad swath of advisory and decision-making powers, including the responsibility to arbitrate water conflicts, to approve, monitor, and execute the river basin plan, and establish criteria for and promote the apportionment of the cost of multiple-use projects of common or collective interest. The number of representatives, and other specifics, are determined by each basin council’s internal regulations. Notably, all basin councils in Brazil covering areas which include indigenous lands must include representatives from those indigenous communities.
In contrast, per Kenya’s 2016 Water Act, basin committees consist of 4 to 7 members and must include at least one representative of farmers and pastoralists within the basin area. Basin committees may advise on a broad range of water-related matters including, conservation, use and apportionment of water resources, review of the basin area water resources management strategy, data collection, annual reporting, information sharing, and equitable water sharing. They, however, do not have any decision-making authority.
Including Women Farmers
While studies suggest that women account for nearly half of the world’s smallholder farmers, most countries fail to adequately provide for representation of women in water management institutions. As a result, water allocation decisions may fail to incorporate the specific needs and requirements of women farmers. Even countries like Australia and the Netherlands – well known for their overall water management experience – tend to have relatively low representation of women in water management institutions.
However, a few countries are now using their laws and regulations as tools to address this, from soft, aspirational language to strict legal quotas. For example, on the aspirational end of the spectrum, Burundi’s Water Code provides that women must, in principle, “participate in decision-making at all levels and must be involved in the activities of protection and development of water resources and in the management of water and sanitation infrastructure.” More concretely, Sierra Leone provides in its 2017 Water Resources Management Agency Act that water catchment area management committees must include “2 members of a civil society organization, one of whom shall be a woman.”
And finally, some countries have chosen a middle ground by granting discretion to water managers to improve gender balance. South Africa’s 1998 Water Act, for example, provides that the Minister of Water and Sanitation may appoint additional members of the governing board of a catchment management agency in order to achieve “sufficient gender representation.” However, these countries are in the minority, as fewer than 20 percent of countries studied are using their laws and regulations to promote the participation of women in water management.