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Results Briefs October 10, 2019

Azerbaijan: Managing Irrigation Systems through Water User Associations


Jabbar Asadov is a farmer in Bahramtepe, Imishli, who has benefitted from improved on-farm irrigation. Farmers using the services of the World Bank-supported WUAPs have reported a more than 20% increase in their yield as a result of the improvements.

Emil Khalilov/World Bank

The Water Users’ Associations Development Project (WUAP) (2011-2018) has supported 379 of these organizations through training and capacity building, and made substantial investments in the rehabilitation of 39 WUA managed irrigation and drainage canal networks. The primary beneficiaries comprised of about 760,000 WUA members (330,000 female and 430,000 male) holding land within the WUA-managed area of 920,000 hectares of irrigated land.


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.


Improved management skills for the Irrigation and Drainage system and increased water supply benefited 760,000 Water User Association members.


Improved management skills for the Irrigation and Drainage (I&D) system and increased water supply brought about improved effectiveness of on-farm water distribution and management, as well as improved financial viability. By the end of the project in 2018, the following key results had been achieved: 

  • agricultural productivity increased 15% percent or higher on 71,681 ha of irrigated land compared to 2011. 

  • 92% of rehabilitated systems received more than 80% of the irrigation water they had requested -- a major improvement compared to 20% in 2011. 

  • 73% of surveyed farmers expressed satisfaction with WUA managerial and operational performance in 2018, compared to 20% in 2011

  • 27 out of the 32 rehabilitated WUA management expressed their satisfaction with the collection rate in 2018, which reached 80 % of required level for management, operation and maintenance

  • 281 out of all the 379 WUAs in the project area achieved the desired level of collection rate of 65 percent

  • Area with I & D services had increased to 920,274 ha in 2018 from 53,000 ha in 2011

  • Number of female water users provided with improved I&D services increased to 330,873 in 2018 from 20,000 in 2011.

  • Number of male water users provided with improved I&D services was increased to 430,016 from 25,000 in 2011; and 

  • Number of operational WUAs increased to 379 in 2018 from 208 in 2011.

  • Supervision procedures and guidelines developed under WUAP have resulted in some stability in the remuneration anticipated by the contractors.


Bank Group Contribution

The World Bank through the International Development Association (US$76.80 million) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (US$3.2 million) provided total financing of US$80 million. In addition, the Bank provided technical expertise and training to help farmers manage and operate the irrigation systems effectively.


The Government of Azerbaijan coordinated and implemented project activities through a Project Implementation Unit AIOJSC and provided the equivalent of US$34.3 funding to facilitate counterpart activities regional and rayon support groups. 

Moving Forward

Following the closure of the Project, the Bank conducted a high-level water security analysis, which indicates that the availability of water resources has, and continues to decline by quantity and quality. Accordingly, future water supply for irrigation and other water uses will need to be economized, and water demand will require good management if Azerbaijan’s current water security level shall be sustained. 


The project directly benefited around 379 WUAs in 27 rayons, including approximately 330,000 female and 430,000 male water users and farmers who manage and cultivate an area of some 920,000-ha irrigated land. A large part of the benefit of the rehabilitation of I&D works go to elderly people, who are often retired and rely mainly on their land for livelihood. The average monthly pension in Azerbaijan as of January 1, 2018, was AZN 208.36 (US$122 per month). The incremental income generated by the project (US$400) provides three to four times this value for one hectare.