Abdullaeva Uguloi. Photo: IWMI/ Madeline Dahm

When her boss quit under the pressure of running an association for rural water users, grandmother-of-nine Abdullaeva Uguloi could think of no one better to take on his job than herself.

She joined the millions of women in Tajikistan who have stepped into male-dominated jobs as men migrate in search of work. The difference is, she is one of only 13 women in the country who have taken on this role.

Access to water is a problem in this small Central Asian nation. The collapse of Soviet rule saw Tajikistan’s vast collective farms of wheat and cotton carved up into thousands of small, privately owned farms. But delivering water to all these new farms through the existing network of canals proved difficult. Irrigation infrastructure fell into serious disrepair and remains inadequate. Currently, 60% of the population is employed in agriculture, 95% of which is done on irrigated land, making this a serious issue.

Recognizing the need to improve water access, in 2012 the Tajik government established water user associations (WUAs), the members of which are private farms. WUAs took on responsibility for overseeing the delivery of water to the farms, for a fee. At the time, 98% of private farms were run by men.

Abdullaeva Uguloi. Photo: IWMI/ Madeline Dahm

Fast-forward six years and the proportion of male-run farms has fallen to 75% in Tajikistan. This pattern can be noted elsewhere. According to the most recent statistics from the Asian Development Bank, women’s employment in agriculture in Kazakhstan doubled between 1998 and 2003. In Uzbekistan, women outnumbered men  in agricultural employment by 2008, with one-third of all working women employed in the sector.

Women have now taken on farming responsibilities, but have not received the training they need to take part in the WUAs that manage irrigation issues for private farms. According to Abdullaeva Uguloi, this is a mistake.

“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.

“If you really want the [water] association to work well,” she added, “the head should be a woman.”

Uguloi is leading by example. In the beginning, farmers were reluctant to pay fees for water management, and WUAs received little support. Through sheer grit, Uguloi educated her community and collected a large amount of fees. Now, she is well respected and her WUA is providing a secure supply of water to farmers.

But she is in the minority. As men migrated to find work in Russia, studies have shown that they passed their responsibilities to other farm shareholders. Research carried out by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) found that female-managed farms were 9% less likely to pay WUA membership fees than farms operated by males, 11% less likely to sign a water contract to request sufficient water for their farm, and 3% less likely to attend the WUA meetings.

All three factors threaten the future functionality of WUAs. Non-payment of membership fees puts WUA operations such as repair work at risk. Unsigned water contracts mean that the district water offices will budget less water than is needed. Finally, lack of attendance at meetings means that women have no input in the planning of the irrigation schedule. Typically, irrigation for farms is scheduled for midnight – an inconvenient time for most women to leave the house. But if they do not attend the meetings, this cannot be communicated.

Women who manage kitchen gardens are also struggling to get a seat at the irrigation table. Their water access is managed by village committees, and conflicts often arise when water is scarce and must be shared

Women who manage kitchen gardens are also struggling to get a seat at the irrigation table. Their water access is managed not by WUAs, but village committees. Conflicts often arise when water is scarce and must be shared.

Uguloi, however, is happy to collaborate with kitchen garden users. “If there was ever a shortage and I had to choose between the kitchen gardens and the [private] farms, I would make sure the water gets to the kitchen gardens first,” she said.

“Compared with cotton, compared with all the other crops, the most important users are the households, because people are living there and depend on their kitchen gardens to eat.”

As those responsible for household nutrition, women may make smarter decisions for water management. All the more reason, then, to increase their participation in this area.

How can this be done? With the right kind of training. Uguloi has benefited from two years of training in water management with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). This is a great deal longer than the six months of training offered by the Tajik government in 2012.

IWMI also studied the impact a longer training period would have on the participation of member-farms. Results showed that farms whose managers received longer training were almost 8% more likely to pay their membership fees, 20% more likely to sign a contract with a WUA and more willing to contribute additional time for maintenance and repair of the canals.

Abdullaeva Uguloi’s experience shows that water-management training that is long-term and inclusive of women will be critical for water security in Central Asia.

“Women do not want to fail. They do not waste money. And even when they are tired, they can’t stop,” she said. “That is why all WUAs should be headed by women.”

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Soumya Balasubramanya

Dr Soumya Balasubramanya is senior researcher in environment and development economics at the International Water Management Institute, CGIAR. She uses economic methods to address environmental and development challenges in Asia and Africa. Her expertise in program evaluation and non-market valuation is based on years of field research in developing countries. Her work has been used by international aid agencies and financial organizations to inform investments and programs, and by governments in...