Communal Approaches to Water Management

This is Part 4 of a four-part series on water policy. Click here to see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.*

In previous posts, I’ve discussed several different kinds of water governance systems in which water management is the responsibility of governments or private corporations. However, an alternative form of water governance places responsibility for water management in the hands of the users. This strategy, sometimes called Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) or Water User Associations (WUAs), has existed in various forms for centuries.

Phad water management system

Phad water management system

In the Maharashtra state of India, farmers maintained participatory water management systems for over 300 years. Under this system, agricultural land was divided into blocks (or phads) of 5-20 hectares for irrigation purposes. Water from the river would be diverted into each phad, and the excess water would be diverted through a weir back to the river. The number of farms on each phad varied, but the crops were usually similar. Each village would hold regular meetings, where the landlords of the phads collectively determined cropping patterns for each season and fair water distribution. If any farmers had disagreements over water use, a committee of local landowners would hear their cases and arbitrate at the meetings. In order to ensure stable operation of the irrigation systems, each landowner was responsible for donating farm animals and labor for regular maintenance.

Although the phads are no longer operational, a more recent water management strategy drew inspiration from this traditional management system. Beginning in the 1980s, the World Bank began recommending Participatory Irrigation Management systems for developing countries as a way to incentivize efficient water use and empower farmers. Maharashtra was one of the first areas to establish a Water Users’ Association. The WUA retained many features of their older management system, with added government involvement. The farmers collectively determine cropping patterns and water use rotations. They negotiate a contract with the federal Society and Irrigation Department to determine the volume of water to be delivered to the WUA each season. Each WUA member pays annual fees, some of which pay the Irrigation Department for water delivery and some of which are used for internal projects. Some WUAs in Maharashtra have been very successful in reducing corruption, improving irrigation efficiency, and ensuring equitable distribution of water.

Water Users' Association in Maharashtra

Water Users' Association in Maharashtra

Both the traditional phad water management system and the more recent Water User Associations are examples of Communal Systems of Exchange. These systems rely on the social bonds of people who know each other to ensure responsible water use. Farmers understand that their future water rights and reputation in the community are jeopardized if they violate the rules for water use, so they largely adhere to them. This governance strategy echoes the principles that political economist Elinor Ostrom recommended for managing communal resources. In an earlier post, I discussed how Ostrom’s fieldwork identified several factors that prevent a “tragedy of the commons” and promote stable resource management. These communal strategies for water management might be more difficult in urban or mixed-use areas, but they seem well-suited for rural areas where residents’ water needs are similar and they can easily monitor their neighbors’ usage.


Photos from India Water Portal and University of South Australia


  1. Biggart, Nicole Woolsey and Rick Delbridge. (2004). “Systems of Exchange.” Academy of Management Review 29(1): pp. 28-49.

*Special thanks to Ned Spang from the UC Davis Center for Water-Energy Efficiency for assistance on this series.