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For the Common Good: Water Users' Associations, Collective Action and the Problem of 'Success' for Non-State Water Provisions

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Pia, Andrea Enrico
Conference: Commons Amidst Complexity and Change, the Fifteenth Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons
Location: Edmonton, Alberta
Conf. Date: May 25-29
Date: 2015
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/9855
Sector: Water Resource & Irrigation
Region: East Asia
Subject(s): collective action
common pool resources
resource management
water management
water users' associations
Abstract: "The Chinese water commons are currently under pressure. Along with many other water-stressed countries, China is facing a diminishing availability of irrigation and drinking water. As a way to tackle the problem, China introduced in 2002 a new framework for water management. This shift in governance produced the adoption of a set of principles – largely inspired by Elinor Ostrom's work on common pool resource management – emphasizing the need for increased participation of users in water management. One consequence of this is the introduction in the countryside of the so called Water Users' Associations (WUA), farmers-run associations supervising water management at the village level. This with the belief that devolving rights locally would avert the overconsumption of water and produce fair and sustainable practices of water management in the rural countryside. Based on 16 months of anthropological fieldwork among members of different WUAs operating in Yancong Township – a drought-prone area located in Yunnan Province – this ethnographic study suggests that the way in which collective action is imagined in rural China affects the extent to which 'WUAs in the book' could be replicated in 'action'. In particular this paper discusses how alternative and culturally specific benchmarks for evaluating organizational success as well as a local culture informing style and content of farmers participation conspire to reshape these organizations from within. Surprisingly however, the adaptation of WUA to local notions of power and efficacy does not end up undermining the fair and endurable management of water in Yancong. Rather, its is thanks to local practices of water sharing and stewardship that pre-dates the implementation of WUAs, if water is managed fairly and endurably. This paper concludes by suggesting that the operationalization of 'Ostrom-inspired' organizational solutions to the Chinese water problem might end up overlooking, when not undercutting, the important contribution that ordinary Chinese villagers have long been giving to sustainability in their country."

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