Water rights may be composed of various bundles of rightsto access, consume, exclude, manage, and transfer.
Waterrights are usually structured differently and are morelimited than rights to land and movable property, which isone reason why some prefer the term water "use" rights.However, whatever the term, water rights are still a form of property rights. Secure property rights can play a vital rolein expanding opportunities for poor people to escape frompoverty.
Conversely, lack of secure rights perpetuatespoverty. The arguments for the role that secure rights toland can play in reducing poverty are compelling, andsimilar logic applies to water rights.In many situations, establishing or improving water rights isnot easy, and may face even more obstacles than efforts tostrengthen rights to land. The specific pathways to changein water allocation institutions may be highly dependent onparticular circumstances. Nevertheless, Asian experiencereveals a range of opportunities for pro-poor interventionsto strengthen water rights.
Share systems that divide water inagreed proportions among usersare a traditional solution todefining water rights amonggroups of farmers to whocooperate to build and manageirrigation systems.
Shareholdersdecide how to allocate water toavailable land. A well-designedshare system creates incentives toincrease efficiency and expand thearea served. Rights to watershares are typically linked toobligations to invest in constructionand repair, and to respect the water rights of others.By contrast, governments typically design irrigation systemsto distribute water in proportion to land area. In manycases, government interventions ignore and disrupt existinglocal water rights, such as share systems, while failing toestablish an effective alternative. An unfortunate and toocommon result is that head-enders take a disproportionateamount of water, and tail-enders suffer. Design principles of allocation, for example according to area, are thus notconverted into enforceable rights.One option for government intervention in irrigation,particularly aid that provides new or greatly enhanced watersupplies, is to provide water according to a share system,for example to all households, all community members, orall those who invest in new construction, including "sweatequity" in labor. This may formalize shares that are part of existing water allocation arrangements or may establishnew shares. The conventional choice of implicitly allocatingmore water rights to those who already have more landtends to reinforce existing inequities, and neglects anopportunity to reduce poverty. Development of sharesystems may provide a way to assist and empower poorerhouseholds in controlling and using shared water resources.Allocating irrigation water according to existing landholdingis often very acceptable to local power holders, since theyusually are the larger landowners. If rights are not clearlydefined, then this gives them even more scope to use theirpower to capture more of the benefits of irrigation.Government's concern for the general good, and morespecifically for reducing poverty, justifies looking for ways tospread benefits as broadly and productively as possible. Government intervention provides the opportunity torenegotiate water allocation, (as well as other essentialmatters such as how maintenance will be funded andimplemented). Philosophically, negotiation requires anapproach of working with communities as partners, with aright to say no, to speak up for their own interests andnegotiate until mutual agreement is reached, while pursuingsolutions that spread benefits as equitably as possible. Suchnegotiation needs to occur during the planning process,during identification, feasibility study, and design phaseswhen all parties have choices about whether or not toproceed. Water rights should be an essential part of suchnegotiations.Negotiations about water rights may be implicit, indiscussions of designed command area, plans for waterdelivery and cropping patterns, control structures, andinstitutional arrangements for monitoring and enforcing rulesabout water distribution. Another option is to make this anopen and explicit negotiation about water rights, whetherthose are rights formalized in water licenses, as watershares, or as contractual commitments in serviceagreements for water distribution. In practice, differentinstruments may be used depending on local experience andat different levels of irrigation systems, but the general aimshould be to have mechanisms that allow transparency,accountability, and enforceability in sharing water.
STRENGTHENING WATER RIGHTS
Many Asian irrigation systems serve hundred or thousandsof irrigators. A common argument has been that in suchcases it is impossible and inappropriate to recognizeindividual water rights, and that instead water rights shouldbe only held by collective organizations, such as water userassociations, or state agencies operating irrigation systems.However, contemporary information technologies, such asglobal positioning satellites and geographic informationsystems have drastically reduced the cost of identifyinglocations, such as abstraction points; and of storinginformation, such as about rights holders. Defining individualrights involves technical complexities such as consumptiveuse and conveyance losses, but many of these must be dealtwith in any water rights system. They can be handled inpractical ways by employing standard rates, with provisionsfor exceptions in special cases. Therefore, the feasibility of recognizing individual water rights deserves to be assessedmore carefully.Concern for equity and understanding of local powerstructures lead to the conclusion that it is not appropriate tosimply delegate control over water rights to localorganizations with no further accountability or appeal. Thereis also a risk that arguments for collective rights simplybecome another excuse for avoiding accountability inirrigation management. For many aspects of management,users may be happy to have an organization manage rightson their behalf. However, for irrigation water rights to bemeaningful, especially for the poor, rights need to berecognized and enforceable for individual irrigators.Individual water rights can and should constitute thefoundation for a system of water management. Water rightsalso need to be recognized at higher, aggregate levels of managing bulk flows. However, unless individual rights canbe clarified and enforced, those rights, particularly of poorer,smaller-scale farmers, are at risk of being neglected.