Between 1993-2003, Azerbaijan implemented a land reform, which resulted in the breakdown of vast areas of agricultural land into smaller individual farm holdings on smaller land strips. The most suitable land plots were given to some 3.5 million people, who became landowners. Suddenly, uniform and planned cropping disappeared and were gradually replaced by a more diversified system of individual farms and cropping. While traditional crops such as wheat, cotton, barley and alfalfa remained part of the cropping mix, many farmers shifted to higher value crops including vegetables and horticultural plants. To be successful in these agricultural pursuits, Azerbaijan is entirely reliant on irrigation. Previously constructed irrigation and drainage networks cover an area of 1.4 million hectares, which used to be operated and maintained by brigades of the sovkhoz and kolkhoz which fell gradually into disrepair following land reform.
The preferred solution, supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Bank and others, was to put the management of the distribution canals into the hands of water user associations while main canal infrastructure remained under the management of the Amelioration Irrigation Open Joint Stock Company (AIOJSC). This new management concept required comprehensive training and substantial investment in upgrading of irrigation infrastructure. The latter posed a formidable challenge, as systems design were to be changed and operational rules adapted to the needs and capabilities of water user organizations which were used to cope with deficiencies, but had little experience in upgrading and managing the new irrigation systems.
WUAP has been the latest in a series of four consecutive Bank projects that supported the development of irrigation and drainage in Azerbaijan over a period of nearly 25 years. With these, the World Bank supported a fundamental change in the way Azerbaijan manages its irrigation systems. What used to be entirely run by state-owned entities is now in part the responsibility of water user associations (WUAs). These member-based organizations receive water in bulk from the Amelioration Irrigation Open Joint Stock Company (AIOJSC) and distribute irrigation water to their members.
The WUAP development approach has been based on the following principles, which were adopted by the government:
First, strong stakeholder-inclusive consultation before and during the implementation of Bank projects. This was to ensure that the proposed project interventions responded to identified priority needs of stakeholders, while recognizing their local knowledge, assessments and recommendations.
Second, an infrastructure development focus, which targeted primarily irrigation schemes where the likelihood of success was highest. The WUAP developed a set of well-defined selection criteria, against which the needs for system rehabilitation and modernization were assessed and the performance of water user associations was evaluated. With that, well-performing WUAs were awarded, while not-yet-selected WUAs were given an incentive for doing better.
Third, a well-designed and structured capacity building program in all aspects of irrigation management covering a range of technical and managerial topics and targeting specific stakeholders including water user association, farmers, extension staff as well as staff in charge of construction management and supervision of works. The program helped build management capacities in both water user associations, government agencies and among providers of support services.