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The history and politics of communal irrigation: A review

Olivia Aubriot
CNRS-CEH (Centre for Himalayan Studies), Paris, France; olivia.aubriot@cnrs.fr


Communal irrigation or user-managed irrigation – also long referred to as indigenous or traditional irrigation – has been the focus of interest for two main complementary reasons: 1) from a perspective of development practice (to learn lessons from customary management of these irrigation systems); and 2) from a theoretical perspective (to explore the relationship between irrigation and society). This paper reviews the main discourses through which the category of 'communal irrigation' is politically constructed. This is done through an historical reconstruction of the three main phases during which communal irrigation was the subject of discussion – namely, in the 19th century, the 1950s to 1980s, and from 1990 onwards. The review shows that while the definition of this category has evolved over these three periods it has always served the way the state positions itself in relation to the policies to be implemented. It underlines the adaptation, resistance or decline of the systems in the present context of growing competition over water, increasingly restrictive legislative frameworks, and more wide-ranging societal change. Finally, the review argues that the normative perspective and the universalistic principles that undergird most water policies conceal the diversity of knowledge and potentially weaken customary rules and historical communal systems.

KEYWORDS: Communal irrigation, indigenous irrigation, traditional irrigation, farmer-managed irrigation systems, common-pool resource, collective action, development paradigm, institution, water user association