Watershed Wars: Avoiding Water Rights Conflict between Smallholders and Agri-Industries

By Delia C. Catacutan, Senior Social Scientist, World Agroforestry Centre, Hanoi, Vietnam

Dr. Catacutan currently leads research related to governance and natural resources management processes, including policy and institutional analyses in relation to payments for ecosystem services, in the Southeast Asia office of the World Agroforestry Centre. Her insights on avoiding conflict where water resources are scarce bring to a close the Roundtable on the topic of conflict. While she notes how water resource use can be a factor contributing to conflict, it is evident that addressing water rights alone will not necessarily yield the most equitable or long-term sustainable solution.

Global experience has shown that as demand for water outstrips supply, competition and conflict arise between different users over who can use water and how much each one can use. Several examples illustrate this— in Indonesia, the degradation of Sumberjaya watershed triggered conflict when the local forest department blamed upland coffee farmers for the decreased productivity of the hydropower plant located downstream in the watershed. On a larger scale, when Ethiopia was planning to build a dam in the Nile River Watershed to increase food production, Egypt responded with political and military threats. In Manupali watershed, conflict emerged when water availability downstream decreased, and irrigators discovered that the rights previously granted to them by water authorities over the tributaries of Manupali River had been recently ceded to private companies and elite individuals.

Water rights are central to natural resources management. For one, conflict or absence of clearly defined rights has been identified as major factor in the failure of many sustainable watershed management projects. State and customary laws are used to resolve conflict over water rights; however, both are problematic, as even legal means can be protracted by power imbalances between elite and poor actors. A third approach is ‘amicable settlement’ with provisional solutions unilaterally agreed by contesting parties.

In an article published by Collective Action and Property Rights (CAPRi), we argue that while conflict over water as a scarce resource can be mediated by sharing water rights, but a shared understanding of watershed functions and land use patterns and reconciling the diverse interests and expectations of multiple stakeholders at the landscape level, is key to resolving conflict and promoting sustainable watershed management. The article was based on our assessment of the impacts of land use conversion – from smallholder mixed agriculture production to corporate banana farming – on the water balance of the Manupali watershed, in southern Philippines.

In Manupali, water rights holders (e.g., farmers, irrigators and plantation companies) entered into an amicable settlement by conceding their individual rights in exchange of cash and/or in-kind payments. Indeed, such amicable settlement forestalled conflict, but it neither addressed the issues underlying water scarcity nor resolved the issue of overlapping water rights. Our analyses of land use and hydrology in Manupali suggest that rather than overlapping water rights, changing land use patterns characterized by rapid expansion of plantation crops, was key to seasonal water availability, low buffering capacity, and poor water balance of the watershed. The water rights sharing schemes employed by water rights holders also have had the unintended consequence of promoting inequity. Upstream farmers, who incurred private costs to protect water sources by accepting use restrictions of their land, bear most if not all of the burden for protecting water quality and quantity.

This experience clearly points to the need for addressing resource use conflict at the landscape level. It is particularly important where multiple resource users have divergent interests that they use to justify their actions regardless of the impacts they may have on the landscape. A shared understanding of landscape functions and their links to land use decisions may induce social norms of conservation, leading to reduced conflict between smallholder production and large scale agribusiness. However, it should be noted that landscape approaches are knowledge intensive and time-demanding, often lack landscape-level information to assess the connectivity of socio-ecological features in the landscape, and also require significant support to mobilize collective action at the appropriate level. And so ultimately, without significant resources, resolving resource conflict through landscape approaches may be unrewarding.

Based on: Piñon, C., D. Catacutan, B. Leimona, E. Abasolo, M. van-Noordwijk, and L. Tiongco. 2012. Conflict, Cooperation, and Collective Action: Land Use, Water Rights and Water Scarcity in Manupali Watershed, Southern Philippines. CAPRi Working Paper No. 104. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.

Photo credit: IFAD Asia
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2 Responses to Watershed Wars: Avoiding Water Rights Conflict between Smallholders and Agri-Industries

  1. Roddy Hale says:

    An interesting post, thank you. I’m wondering whether you would suggest a landscape approach for managing water at an international level is feasible. I was struck by your early example of Egypt and Ethiopia and would be interested to hear your thoughts of the value of addressing resource use at the landscape level in such a situation. Perhaps this is an example of where such an approach may be unrewarding? If so how do you suggest that fair resolution in such cases can be reached?

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