Water abstractor groups across the world often have their origins in response to conflict over water resources. They defend self-interest, but over time some evolve into institutions that have a central role in water management by developing their own allocation and monitoring rules. UK abstractor groups are still primarily concerned with retaining existing licenced volumes. But will they too evolve into effective water management institutions? And if so what will be their key principles or features?

A state of flux

Water licensing in England and Wales is still in a state of flux. This has led many farmers and growers to re-evaluate the security of their water rights and requirements for irrigation water. In some cases they have taken collective action and formed water abstractor groups – a trend that has been strongest in East Anglia where irrigation is most widespread. Most of these groups have emerged reactively in response to threats to revoke licences and reduce water abstractions and a feeling that farmers were losing influence in the water allocation debate. Environmental groups and water companies are well organised and funded and so better able to influence decision-making processes. The nature of the abstractor groups varies. Some actively represent, inform and support their membership and work with regulatory bodies while others are less formal and meet and act on an ‘as needed’ basis. However, they do not have any legal or statutory water management functions. Much less common are examples of abstractor groups forming proactively, holding licences in common for members and having a role in allocation.

Challenges ahead

In their present form, abstractor groups offer many advantages to farmers, regulators and policy-makers. Farmers can increase credibility and influence, improve internal and external relationships, improve awareness of water issues, reduce costs and increase flexibility. Regulators and policy-makers can reduce administration by dealing with one group rather than many individuals, and encourage cooperation and information sharing which can influence the policy-making process.

But can they play a greater role in addressing the emerging challenges in water management? In future there will certainly need to be more emphasis on managing change and uncertainty due to climate change, increasing demand, competition for water and reallocation between uses. Recent policy changes such as the introduction of time-limited licences and water trading and the implementation of the Water Framework Directive will increasingly rely on collaboration for success. Abstractors and regulators will need to modify their existing practices and adapt to new, more flexible ways of working with a greater knowledge of local conditions.

Abstractor groups are well placed to play an influential role in this emerging agenda as they provide an opportunity for improving information sharing, cooperation and collaboration, delegating responsibility to the lowest level and encouraging self-monitoring and restraint. However, to be effective, they will need to become more proactive and take on greater responsibilities for water management.

Abstractor group ‘design principles’

  • Clearly defined boundaries – individuals with rights to use the resource, and the boundaries of the resource are clearly defined.
  • Fairness, costs and benefits – benefits received by individuals are proportional to the costs imposed on them and rules are perceived as fair.
  • Autonomy, local rules and conditions – users have enough autonomy to devise their own institutions and rules.
  • Local conditions – rules restricting use of the resource are related to local conditions.
  • Rule modification – most individuals affected by operational rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  • Monitoring – monitors who actively audit the resource and user behaviour are accountable to the users or are the users.
  • Graduated sanctions – users who violate rules receive graduated sanctions (or punishments) dependant on the seriousness of the offence.
  • Conflict resolution mechanisms – users have access to low cost local solutions to resolve conflicts.

Defining the principles

Throughout the world there are many examples of farmer abstractor groups which have considerable legal and statutory responsibilities for water management. In the Valencia region of Spain and among the Andean communities of Peru, there are long-standing and successful water management institutions. Similar legally-based institutions have developed more recently in the USA and Australia. Will water abstractor groups in the UK evolve to take on a more central role in water management and water policy formulation? Only time will tell. However, experience suggests that this is possible, as many institutions that now manage natural resources have their origins in response to conflict or to reasserting their influence. If they do, there is now a growing body of knowledge from around the world about the ‘design principles’ that are essential requirements for institutions to successfully endure over the long term (see box).

Testing the principles

A recent study evaluated Lincoln Water Transfer Ltd (LWT) – a recently formed abstractor group – against these design principles. LWT holds a single abstraction licence in common for its 19 members. It engages in water management by allocating water according to a members’ protocol (internal rules) and managing its own arrangements for data collection and monitoring. As a successful abstractor group it exhibits all the expected ‘design principles’. Boundaries are well defined in the licence and members’ agreement. The system is fair in that costs are proportional to each member’s annual quota and therefore the benefits they derive from it. Institutional rules and conditions were developed by the members based on their needs and understanding of the local conditions, but importantly they were formalised with adequate professional input and within existing legal and regulatory frameworks. Monitoring and regulatory reporting is contracted out to the local Internal Drainage Board, but is based on information supplied by the farmers. The members’ agreement allows for graduated sanctions and low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms. Although to date the protocol has not been tested in a situation of water shortage, all the elements are in place to predict with some confidence that such an institution could sustain itself in the long term.

A greater role in water management?

In policy terms, abstractor groups could be encouraged to take on a greater role by delegating water management responsibilities downwards and by supporting them (through funding, information sharing or training for example) while recognising that autonomy and the internal development of institutional rules is one of the keys to success.

For abstractor groups looking to take on a more central role in water management these ‘design principles’ could be used as a framework for development and assessing the likelihood of success. Abstractor groups may not be applicable in all situations but experiences from elsewhere combined with an understanding of these ‘design principles’ could allow us to imagine a future where a single licence is issued for all irrigation abstractors in a catchment (or subcatchment) that would be managed by farmers and growers based on their local needs and conditions. Two decades ago this would have been unthinkable but in the near future this approach may be a key element to achieving sustainable water management for irrigators in many parts of the country.