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The Long Road to Sufficient Water

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Crumbling irrigation canals from Soviet times have long made life difficult for farmers in Kyrgyzstan. But money for repairs was unavailable because of an outdated law. Together with their communities, the farmers have now managed to change the law.

When farmers hit each other with hoes, spend the nights in their fields for fear of missing out on water, or block highways to draw attention to their plight, something is clearly wrong.

Kyrgyzstan is famous for its snow-capped mountains and glaciers. But not far from these mighty peaks, on the plains, it quickly gets over 40 degrees in the summer. Irrigation canals, fed by rivers coming from the mountains, crisscross cotton and vegetable fields. Nevertheless, plants and pumpkins wither because the canals are broken.

Ten years ago, Helvetas started working with farmers on water-efficient irrigation and cultivation techniques to solve the problem. Later, the water committees responsible for the canals were strengthened in order to distribute the water more equitably. But even this only provided a selective and short-term remedy.

The crux of the problem, according to the unanimous opinion of farmers and communities, is a law from the 1990s that prohibits local authorities from spending money to repair the canals. Farmers and local authorities therefore decided to become politically active – with the support of Helvetas and the financial support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Their advocacy efforts were successful, and a new law was passed that allows communities to invest in irrigation infrastructure.

Helvetas asked local councilor and activist Chinara Jusupova, who supported the cause from the beginning, and farmer Zhoodar Nurmamatov to look back at the unique advocacy process they were both involved in.

A skeptical beginning

Zhoodar Nurmamatov: I joined this initiative in 2018. I was at the seminar conducted by you where the irrigation issues were discussed. Access to irrigation water is very important for farmers like myself. I live in the Aiyl Okmotu municipality, which really suffers from water shortages during irrigation periods. The frequent conflicts between villages due to shortages of water for a day or two are the normal situation during peak irrigation season. Farmers suffer a lot. So I immediately paid attention to the work of your group, because you created a space to speak out about irrigation problems.

Chinara Jusupova: Yes, I remember. We were at your village, Kök-Jar, conducting our first seminars on problem identification and analysis. I recall you as a person who expressed his opinion clearly in that setting. That meeting got imprinted in my memory because of the heated disputes between the Water Users Associations and the local government bodies. I also had a feeling that the District Water Resources Management representatives, there on behalf of the state, did not like our ideas at that meeting.

Zhoodar: To be honest, I didn't believe at first in your promises that something could change. I had experienced too many such meetings without anything happening afterwards. But you convinced me anyway, and that's why I joined this initiative as a concerned farmer.

Gradually, through these meetings we also realized that not only we, but farmers all over the country were facing the same irrigation problem. As the Kyrgyz proverb says, “Five fingers stay apart, although they are on one wrist.” We realized that we had to solve the problem together. But I didn't expect it to take so long. So now I'm all the happier about the success!

Step by step

Chinara: I initially thought that this advocacy project would only do awareness rising to decision-makers about local irrigation problems and that would be it. Changing a law – that seemed too difficult.

Then we held our first meeting with political decision makers at the national level in Bishkek. The state water agency was very defensive about the issues raised by our group. There was a heated discussion, with water users associations and local self-government bodies on one side and the state water agency on the other side.

Zhoodar: Yes, I was there, that was in December 2018. We described our plight and thought we had allies in front of us. But all we heard was that it was not possible to change the system. I had the impression that certain people did not want to take up their responsibility. The state representatives saw us only as troublemakers. We realized then that we had to take matters into our own hands. Then in 2019, the draft law was publicly debated throughout the country. I think it was the first time something like that happened in our country. Those of us who were affected took an active part. It also became emotional because the issue was so urgent. But we felt a lot of support.

Chinara: This was my first time seeing advocacy activities produce results. This gave us motivation and incentive to continue. I felt hopeful about improving conditions for irrigation service provision, even though at this point we had not 100% solved the systemic problems. I am also glad that our experience is proof for civil society that advocacy works!

Zhoodar: Truly, we gained many insights through this process. I’ve learned that to make any work successful it is necessary to always have several scenarios of a plan. If the first option does not work, then try to implement the second plan and not get stuck.

Major challenges

Chinara: At times the empty words of political decision makers made us tired – but we stayed the course. I observed that when it comes to advocacy or lobbying, the support of experts is valuable. Raising an initiative just as the citizenry is insufficient. One of the reasons why some drafted laws do not pass is that activists do not know the procedural and technical issues of lobbying. Without the support, guidance and advice of experts our achievement would not have been possible.

Zhoodar: I agree. We can call the winning formula “the triangle.” The first corner is the organizational issues carried out by the project. The next corner requires expert support in developing all documents and compiling evidence. The final corner is the advocacy group’s efforts to voice the opinion of interested stakeholders. Our success was only possible through the fruitful cooperation of all these stakeholders.

When I compare our first policy dialogue with the recent one we did in June 2021 in Osh, I can appreciate how much we honed our ability to influence decision makers. We learned to be insistent in our demands, leaving no space for any other choices. We learned to properly use the evidence and not just words.

Chinara: Media exposure was also important. It was only when we used the mass media that the whole process took off. For example, when farmers demonstrated in front of the government headquarters for water for their fields. We published an open letter and held a press conference. We described the plight of the people. Those in charge could no longer ignore the voice of those affected. That was a good move and accelerated things!

From passage to implementation

Zhoodar: I was very happy when I heard of the adoption of the new law by parliament. We succeeded in protecting the interests of farmers. But I also feel great responsibility and am uncertain of next steps. If the law does not end up being properly implemented or misinterpreted then I will feel responsible for that as well.

Chinara: Once the law is signed by the President we should put all our efforts into public awareness – disseminating information about the law and the changes it brings to the management system of irrigation water. We should not expect that adoption of this law will solve all irrigation water problems. It is rather a first step towards reforming the system.

Zhoodar: Yes, sharing clear information on the changes to the law is important. We’ve seen in our own experience that an understanding of laws is not so simple, even for the authorities. A “translation” of the law will be needed for the water user associations and local self-governing bodies.

Just the beginning

Chinara: We worked hard – it took three and a half years to experience success. We encountered difficulties and unexpected hurdles. But we made it. I am so happy about this success! Now our work begins to ensure that the law is implemented properly.

Zhoodar: Yes, we won but there is a lot of work ahead of us again. It is as if we have done first aid for irrigation. Now we wish that our land will flourish thanks to good irrigation!

This interview was recorded in October 2021 by Jyldyz Abdyllaeva, the project manager of the above described Irrigation Water Integrity Project and staff at Helvetas Kyrgyzstan. The law was signed by the President in December 2021.