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Institutional Change in Central-Eastern European Irrigation Systems: The Bulgarian Case

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Theesfeld, Insa
Conference: Building the European Commons: From Open Fields to Open Source, European Regional Meeting of the International Association for the Study of Common Property (IASCP)
Location: Brescia, Italy
Conf. Date: March 23-25
Date: 2006
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/1169
Sector: Water Resource & Irrigation
Region: Europe
Subject(s): IASC
institutional change
transitional economics
Abstract: "The Central and Eastern European transition countries have experienced a simultaneous change from a centralized planned to a market- oriented economy and from a communist-determined to a democratic political system. In contemporary Bulgaria and other transitional economies, this had severe impacts on the agricultural sector. Irrigation, until recently a major water user in Bulgaria, has been drastically affected. Uneven distribution of Bulgarians natural water resources over time and space makes irrigation necessary to reduce production risk and insures the common-pool resource a continuous high economic importance. Yet, the irrigation systems were built to serve large production units during socialism and do not meet the needs of the huge number of small-scale landowners that emerged following the land restitution process. Moreover, the facilities have largely deteriorated, the property rights on the infrastructure are ambiguous and the water loss in the system amount to 70 percent due to un- maintained facilities and water stealing. "In Bulgaria, we can observe formal attempts to reform the sector and to implement common-property resource management. Collective action solutions have been propagated by the Bulgarian Government and the World Bank in recent years. However, enforcement of the Bulgarian Water Law in 2000 and the Water User Association Act in 2001 do find no common ground where collective action can grow. Given that villagers often hardly know anything about water user associations that had been established on paper, the local situation is closer to one of open access, with efforts by some powerful individuals to exert some authority. "Institutional analysis show that features specific for the transformation process, namely the incongruity of formal and informal rules, opportunistic behaviour and deteriorating social capital, hinder the emergence of collective action in the irrigation sector. Empirical results from four case study villages indicate that local actors use power asymmetries to maintain their opportunistic strategies. This, in turn, intensifies the already low level of social capital and contributes to its further deterioration, otherwise a prerequisite for collective action. There is empirical evidence for a high level of distrust between community members. The paper concludes that the transplantation of organizational blueprints, such as that of water user associations from other parts of the world, will not be effective in Bulgaria, unless it is adapted to the distinct mental models and action patterns of Bulgaria's rural society. With every new rule, the distribution of benefits and duties among various actors change. Distributional aspects and power relations have to be taken into account as actors in the fear of loosing their powerful favourable positions will oppose the new rule. The paper points to the risk that new formal rules might be implemented that allow selfish individuals to maintain and strengthen power abuse strategies. This is due to the high level of information asymmetry and contradicts the envisaged policy aim."

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