Analyzing Water Rights,
Multiple Uses, and Intersectoral
Demand for water continues to grow worldwide. At the same time, developed water resources are almost fully utilized in many places, and the financial, environmental, and political costs of developing new water control systems are rising. The combination of rising demand and limited supplies is creating scarcity and competition between water uses, as well as users. In this resulting competition, irrigation, the largest sector of water use in most countries, is often at a disadvantage because the other sectors have more economic or political power. There is increasing pressure to transfer existing water supplies from agriculture to other water uses, especially urban and industrial uses. However, transferring water from agricultural use to municipal and industrial uses affects not only agricultural but also other rural uses, including rural domestic use, homestead gardens, livestock, and fishing.
Most discussions and evaluations of such transfers have focused on technical or economic efficiency. Much less attention has been given to equity implications, and the consequences for farmers and other groups in the rural areas. Yet, because water is a vital resource for rural livelihoods and identities, the consequences for rural areas are likely to be profound. What consequences such water transfers will have is likely to depend on the overall economic context, the process by which transfers take place, the nature and extent of recognition of water rights, and the relative power of the different parties. The economic context shapes the extent to which rural populations are dependent on irrigation or other water-related enterprises for their livelihoods, or are able to find other sources of income. The transfer process—whether transfers happen by administrative fiat, market purchases, other types of collective negotiation, or by illegal means—affects who is involved in decision making and who is likely to receive any compensation. The question of what rights are recognized—by