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Revitalizing community-managed irrigation systems in contexts of out-migration in Nepal

This project seeks to identify the pathways through which a greater engagement of marginal groups can help to revitalize collective natural resource management. Such bottom-up processes of change could be a vital part of a long-term transition towards more equal access to resources and improved food security in rural households of the Global South.

Irrigation systems, crucial for the food security of many populations in rural areas of the world’s semi-arid and arid regions, require sustained collective action. Widespread male out-migration presents major challenges for maintaining irrigation systems. However, existing scholarship suggests that changes in household structure and labor relations may provide new opportunities for increased involvement of women in the local governance of important resources, but the conditions under which this could occur remain unknown.

Through a study of farmer-managed irrigation systems in Nepal, I ask:

- How are community-managed irrigation systems changing as a result of male out-migration?

- How do changing household structure and labor relations open up possibilities for marginalised groups to engage with collective irrigation management?

By developing a synthesis of theory on translocality and feminist political ecology, I employ
a mixed methods approach to study how rapid agrarian and social transformations are altering
existing forms of collective action.

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Research Objective

The aim of this project is to understand how changing household dynamics present major challenges for sustaining irrigation systems, but also open up opportunities for historically marginalised groups in water governance.

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Case Study in Nepal

Nepal serves as excellent case study for understanding relationships among collective action in irrigation systems, the globalization of labor, and agrarian change for three reasons.

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Key Findings

Our study shows that gender and social relations maintain and sustain collective irrigation systems in contexts of rural out-migration.


Map of Field Sites
Research Objective

Research Objective

The aim of this project is to understand how changing household dynamics present major challenges for sustaining irrigation systems, but also open up opportunities for historically marginalised groups in water governance.

 

My previous research demonstrated how the absence of men affects intra-household relationships. I showed that the extent to which women engage in water user groups depends on whether there are other women in the household, as well as their age, class, ethnicity and caste [Leder et al. 2017]. These differences suggest that the often-cited term feminisation of agriculture [Leder 2022] tends to simplify complex social relationships. This underscores the need for a gender and intersectional approach that moves beyond gender roles. A better understanding of these social dynamics, and the ways that they influence engagement in collective action is key to identifying pathways for local irrigation systems to ensure food and livelihood security of those left behind – particularly the poor and marginal.

Anchor Case Study in Nepal

Nepal serves as excellent case study for understanding relationships among collective action in irrigation systems, the globalization of labor, and agrarian change for three reasons.

 

First, 30% of Nepal’s total agricultural land is irrigated, and 70% of the irrigated areas fall under community-managed irrigation systems, accounting for 40% of Nepal’s food production [Pradhan 2000]. A wide range of studies on community-managed irrigation systems have focused on Nepal since Elinor Ostrom’s ground-breaking work on the Governance of the Commons [1990]. Mechanisms for water allocation, irrigation system maintenance, resource mobilisation and conflict resolution have been documented over the past three decades, however, less so recently. Importantly, gender studies in Nepal have already shown the importance of greater involvement of women, since this strengthens the effectiveness of local governance [Zwarteveen & Meinzen-Dick 2000].

 

Second, Nepal’s rural areas are highly affected by the one-third of Nepal’s male working population which has out-migrated, with remittances accounting for 33% of the GDP, the second highest proportion globally [World Bank 2016].

 

Third, Nepal is an excellent case for studying collective action within decentralization of government arrangements: a new government structure was introduced in 2017 and local representatives in 752 municipalities were elected, bringing hope for better accountability at the local level. The planned availability of irrigation funds at the municipality level is a reason why this study will receive particular interest among policy makers and practitioners in the country.

Case Study in Nepal

Key
Findings

Our study shows that gender and social relations maintain and sustain collective irrigation systems in contexts of rural out-migration.

  • 60% of all households in the study sites have at least one migrant in the past five years, of which 83% were male.

  • Collective labor in irrigation systems is not affected by migration as absent men’s labor contributions are mediated at the household unit, involving increasingly women who sustain irrigation systems.

  • Participation in a water user group or irrigation committee is significantly higher when there has been a migrant in the household in the past five years.

  • While most households stated to have decreased their crop production, migrant households did not report more often a decrease in crop production than non-migrant households.

  • The concept of translocal water governance challenges widespread assumptions of degenerating irrigation systems, the loss of labor and narratives on “deagrarianisation” and the “feminization of agriculture”.

  • Agriculture and irrigation policies and programs should address women as key actors in the agriculture and irrigation sector.

Read here a book chapter, blog posts and a newspaper article on the project:

 

Book Chapter:

COVID-19, gender and small-scale farming in Nepal. In: Castellanos, P., Sachs, C., Tickamyer, A.: Gender, Food, and COVID-19. Global Stories of Harm and Hope. New York: Routledge. 3-12.

by Leder, S., Shrestha, G., Upadhyaya, R., Adhikari, Y. (2021):

 

 

Blog Posts:

Covid-19, gender and small-scale farming in Nepal.

Penn State Blog – Gender, Food, Agriculture and the Coronovirus

by Leder, S. & Shrestha, G. (2020)

 

What does male out-migration mean for women in rural South Asia?

SIANI - Swedish International Agriculture Network Initiative

by Kadfak, A. & Leder, S. (2019)

 

Newspaper Article:

Agriculture Or Migration: A National Priority Conundrum.

Spotlight News Magazine, Vol. 15, No.11, Jan. 7th, 2022

by Upadhyaya, R., Leder, S., Adhikari, Y.

Funding

Funded by FORMAS, the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning, grant number 2018-00574

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