By Laura Eggens
15-16 March, Cairo - Normally on a Learning Route, the ruteros visit successful cases in the field. This time, the field came to us. Members of the Water Users Union (WUU) in the Tenth of Ramadan village near Port Said joined us in Cairo, accompanied by representatives of the East Delta Agricultural Services Project and the ICARDA research station in the area. Their visit opened our flow of thoughts about what makes collective water management work – or not.
Because of the security situation in Egypt, the Learning Route on water management is a bit unusual. Instead of visiting the Tenth of Ramadan village in the East Delta, we received our third host case in our meeting room in the capital. Luckily, a variety of stakeholders from the region could make it to share their experiences with the ruteros.
On the salt-affected soils of the South El-Husainia plain in the East Delta, it is a challenge to cultivate crops. Like West Nubaria, this region is inhabited by recent settlers who received plots of land from the government. However, the soil structure and lack of fresh irrigation water, in addition to poor social and cultural services, made the region unattractive for many farmers. The East Delta Agricultural Services Project (EDASP) took on the challenge of improving infrastructure, agricultural services and institutions.
Among its activities, the project established WUUs for farmers to collectively implement and control irrigation schedules and mediate in water conflicts. The union of Tenth of Ramadan village is well organised and even won a visit to Spain because of their level of organisation and farmer empowerment. They manage to supply all members with water, even at peak moments.
Despite the success of the WUU in this community, it were its shortcomings that provided the most important learnings of the ruteros. The visitors’ introduction to the WUUs in their region sparked a discussion on farmer ownership. The WUUs and Water User Associations (WUAs) in Egypt were initiated by projects in the region, not by farmers themselves. This top-down approach led ruteros to have serious doubts about the sustainability of the associations after the projects leave the area.
Challenges often give the same – if not more – opportunities for learning. In this heterogeneous group of ruteros, ideas and recommendations came from all corners of the MENA region. Building ownership from the beginning of any WUU or WUA is crucial, the group believed. Letting farmers invest in the associations financially, for example, will secure their participation in it. Additionally, including a marketing aspect in the water associations – or including a water management aspect in marketing associations – will raise benefits from marketing activities for irrigation systems and increase the integration of the associations in farmers’ lives. But what can be done to support this? Extensionists in Egypt are not adapted to current rural contexts anymore. What can the role of universities be to facilitate change?
This case and discussion provided one of the most important learnings of this Learning Route. “I will take these lessons back to Lebanon with me,” says rutero Georges Chemaly. “We have another way of seeing the subject now. We want to build Water Users Associations to manage irrigation systems, but from the experience here we learned that it is better to first assess what farmers want and what their existing system is. We should adapt the plan so it will be adopted by them, to ensure the sustainability of the associations and the ownership felt by its members.”
IFAD is funding Learning Routes across Africa, Asia and Latin America through the international knowledge-broker Procasur. A global catalyst for change and knowledge sharing, Procasur's work positively impacts the lives and livelihoods for rural talents across the globe.
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By Laura Eggens