Why Women are Key for Water Management in Tajikistan

Next week, the United Nations meets to review progress on five of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Access to water, SDG6, is one of the goals in the spotlight. Following a high-level conference in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, Dr. Soumya Balasubramanya of the International Water Management Institute tells Farming First about the water security challenges facing the Central Asian country, and how women can be key to solving them.

Nestled in the heart of Central Asia, the agricultural sector plays a central role in the economic and cultural life of Tajikistan. But after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country’s farming industry has struggled to modernize itself and tackle water stress and irrigation maintenance challenges. Through focusing on the growing role of women, the country can revitalize the sector.

Around 70 percent of Tajik citizens live in rural areas, and agriculture accounts for 60 percent of the country’s GDP. A massive 95 percent of farm production takes place on irrigated land, which means that healthy water irrigation systems are essential for keeping the sector running.

After independence, Tajikistan’s water management system fell into structural disrepair. Large collective farms were carved into to small private farms (dehkans), making irrigation extremely complicated. Irrigation systems deteriorated, water management collapsed, agricultural output began to decline, and poverty worsened. Men began to leave the country in droves, to search for better paid work elsewhere.

An estimated one in eight Tajiks leave to find work and around 90 percent of these economic migrants are male. As the men search for greener pastures, more women are managing dehkan farms, creating a ‘feminization’ of agriculture within the country.

Along with help from USAID in 2012, Tajikistan introduced water user associations (WUAs) to allow thousands of dekhan farm managers to take charge of the way water is managed. When the WUAs were first initiated, 98 percent of dehkans were run by men, but this number now lies at around 75 percent, indicating a sea-change in the gender demographics of this role.

Abdullaeva Uguloi is one of only 13 women in charge of water user associations in Tajikistan.

Investing in women

In order to involve the women now at the head of many dehkan farms, women need access to training on how to participate in WUAs.  Because of established gender roles which do not associate women with technical work, this has not been happening widely enough.

According to new research from the International Water Management Institute, female-run dehkans are 9 percent less likely to pay fees to WUAs, meaning less money is going towards vital repair and maintenance works on the irrigation canals. They are 11 percent less likely to sign water contracts, meaning district offices will budget less water than is needed for their communities.  They are also 3 percent less likely to attend WUA meetings, meaning they have little say over decisions such as the irrigation timetable, for example.

Despite the challenges, women like Abdullaeva Uguloi are fiercely in favour of having more women take up roles at WUAs. She views water scarcity as an issue which greatly affects women, and they are well equipped to resolve it. This means it is essential to make access to training more readily available for them. Abdullaeva is one of just 13 women across the country who manages a WUA.

“Ninety per cent of water-related issues affect women the most,” she said. “If there is no water in the house, the woman will go and look for it. She has to bathe the kids, she has to cook, she has to take care of the family.”

Abdullaeva added that women are less likely to waste money, have a strong work ethic, and are less likely to become involved in tensions related to the running of the WUAs.

“Everyone asks me, what is my secret, how is it working so well. Here’s the secret: if you really want the association to be working well, the head should be a woman.”

The potential of WUAs

The potential of WUAs to strengthen Tajikistan’s economic growth is immense. Strong irrigation management can enable Tajikistan to boost production of major crops (cotton and wheat), increase diversity in production of fruits and vegetables, and improve domestic access to water to improve health, nutrition, and quality of life.

According to our research, the length of training in water management  is important for good water governance. Results from studies conducted by IWMI showed that farms whose managers received a longer period of training  in water management were almost 8 percent more likely to pay their membership fees, 20 percent more likely to sign a contract with a WUA and more willing to contribute additional time for maintenance and repair of the canals, all of which are essential for ensuring the running of the WUA programmes and that water is kept flowing.

As gendered migration trends look set to continue, endowing women with the training they need to successfully participate in water management in Tajikistan will propel all farmers to success. Changing agricultural policy to reflect the growing importance of women will prove vital for raising production rates and streamlining farming systems across the sector.