Irrigation innovation: Navigating challenges in Uzbekistan’s water–energy–food–environment nexus

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By Anton Liutin and Paul Castañeda Dower

In the recent campaign leading up to the presidential election of July 9, 2023 in Uzbekistan, the incumbent president pledged to ensure the implementation of water-saving technologies across all irrigated lands by 2030. This ambitious initiative aims to revolutionize the country’s agricultural sector by replacing old water-intensive irrigation practices with a mix of modern innovative technologies, such as drip irrigation or laser land leveling. However, based on extensive interviews with farmers and local officials across Uzbekistan during the summer and fall of 2023, we learned that scaling up water-saving technologies is encountering significant challenges across different regions. This is due to the regions heterogeneity regarding water management, cropping patterns, and farm size, as well as vested interests in the retention of existing irrigation practices and subsidy systems.

To be successful, increasing water productivity in Uzbekistan requires a concerted effort from all actor groups engaged in and affected by the irrigation–water–energy–agricultural production systems nexus in the country, and particularly stronger collaboration between farmers and government actors at different levels.

Water scarcity in Central Asia, and particularly in Uzbekistan, is reaching a critical point

Once the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world, the Aral Sea, now drastically reduced in size and largely desiccated, stands as a stark reminder of the unintended consequences of siloed thinking. Located between Kazakhstan in the north and Uzbekistan in the south, this lake was once a thriving ecosystem and a vital source of livelihoods, including a thriving fishing industry. However, over-extraction of water, primarily for cotton irrigation, led to its catastrophic shrinkage. The resulting destruction of the lake’s ecosystem, coupled with severe pollution and salinization, has devastated rural livelihoods and adversely affected human health in the region. The continued large-scale extraction of irrigation water raises serious concerns about the future of the entire region, which is home to a population of 60 million.

Investment in advanced irrigation technology to the rescue?

With water shortages expected to worsen due to rapid population growth and climate change, the importance of adopting water-saving technologies is more evident than ever. To facilitate a transition towards improved water productivity, the government issued a program on water-saving technologies that was approved and came into effect on December 11, 2020 through Presidential Resolution PP-4919. The program creates incentives for water and energy savings and covers up to 40 percent of drip irrigation costs and exempts farmers from land tax for five years.

However, the implementation of the subsidy for the adoption of water-saving technologies is facing numerous challenges. The rate of adoption varies significantly across different regions and has generally been low. Several barriers are hindering the widespread adoption of these technologies, indicating a complex interplay of economic, informational, and political challenges. We argue that these challenges cannot be overcome by isolated efforts from either farmers or through top-down directives alone. Instead, a cooperative approach, integrating both ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ strategies, is essential for water conservation.

High technology costs and minimum land size are a challenge

Firstly, advanced irrigation technologies come at a high cost to farmers without clearly defined benefits. As of 2023, outfitting one hectare with drip irrigation costs farmers around UZS 25 million (approximately US$ 2,200), but government subsidies typically only cover about a third of this expense. This financial burden, coupled with uncertain profits, makes it challenging for often already indebted farmers to invest in such technologies, thereby slowing their adoption.

Moreover, while some form of drip irrigation in Africa and Asia can be found on areas of as little as 20 m2, in Uzbekistan, the proposed subsidy and technologies are not suitable for smaller fields of 1–2 hectares. Although there are no governmental restrictions on the size of drip irrigation systems, the technology currently available in Uzbekistan is prohibitively expensive for smaller landholdings, effectively limiting their accessibility and implementation to larger farms. The drip irrigation systems currently used in Uzbekistan seem more feasible for larger agricultural areas, starting at around 15 hectares. This requirement increases the total cost to at least UZS 375 million (approximately US$ 30,000).

Unclear benefits and mismatched incentives

Farmers currently pay an irrigation service fee per hectare along with electricity costs for groundwater extraction and pumping water from remote canals. The introduction of water-saving technologies thus offers the potential for increased income and lower water-related costs for farmers. Irrigation service fee and electricity costs, however, are relatively minor compared to other farming expenses and are only partially based on actual water usage. A large share of the costs associated with water and electricity, particularly for pumping to higher elevations, needed in the south of Uzbekistan, is absorbed by the government. This situation means that the main financial burden of water delivery falls on the government rather than the farmers, resulting in farmers lacking cost-saving incentives to adopt these technologies.

While experimental research suggests potential profit increases and water savings, the information available to farmers remains generic and skepticism among farmers persists. Many prefer to wait for more successful implementation stories from fellow farmers before committing. This hesitation is compounded by a perception of climate change as a distant, rather than immediate, concern. Traditional irrigation remains profitable for many farmers, particularly for upstream farmers with relatively abundant water resources.

Unsuccessful initial attempts, which can occur for various reasons, such as limited access to water or electricity – which need to be provided in an uninterrupted form for drip irrigation to function – further deter adoption.

Farmers who face severe water shortages have the greatest incentive to adopt these technologies. However, they tend to be located downstream and are often already heavily indebted. In contrast, upstream farmers with relatively abundant water resources are most likely to over-use water resources and while their adoption would support downstream farmers, they have little incentive to adopt drip irrigation.

The current “one-size-fits-all” approach of subsidies across all farming systems misses important opportunities to better support the adoption of drip irrigation systems.

Unintended consequences

Even if farmers adopt water-saving technologies at a high rate, it is not certain that this will lead to more sustainable water use. The ‘rebound effect’ suggests the possibility of higher water consumption levels when farmers switch to more advanced irrigation systems that lower water losses through further intensification of production or expansion of land. This could potentially negate any positive impact on water conservation, which is worrisome given the Aral Sea crisis.

With water management being limited to supply shortages without active demand management, a crucial question arises: if more water becomes available through these technologies, could it lead to increased water consumption among farmers? Additionally, the allocation of this saved water remains an unresolved issue, raising concerns about its equitable and effective usage.

Additionally, drip irrigation has complex effects on soil salinity. It can increase soil salinity by concentrating water delivery, unlike traditional flood irrigation which flushes out salts. However, its water use efficiency might reduce waterlogging and improve water quality, potentially mitigating salinity risks. The impact of drip irrigation on soil salinity varies greatly, depending on local factors like groundwater levels and agricultural practices. Thus, while offering benefits, the effects of drip irrigation on soil health and crop productivity are complex and context dependent. Soil health assessments, in particular risk of salinization of soils, needs to be considered as part of improved targeting of the drip subsidy.

A broader set of measures to improve water productivity

In the Soviet Union era, farmers were often subjected to forced adoption of agricultural technologies, such as fertilizers. Although this era has ended, remnants of this top-down approach still exist in some aspects of Uzbekistan’s agricultural practices. We contend that forced adoption is not an effective strategy and unlikely to result in real uptake. Instead, a focus is needed on what motivates farmers to reduce water consumption sustainably, without them experiencing increased debt and lower profits.

One way to grow adoption is to enhance the subsidy levels. The current subsidy provision, while significant, still leaves room for adjustment to improve adoption rates. This is particularly relevant considering that financial constraints are the primary challenge faced by farmers.

Enhancing local adoption by reducing information uncertainty might well be another effective approach. Tailoring information to the local level is crucial. Implementing demonstration plots in each district could effectively show that adoption is practical even under local conditions. In regions where adoption is already occurring, this approach could further encourage those who have hesitated or not yet attempted to adopt.

Many other interventions have been suggested over the years to improve agricultural water management in the Aral Sea Basin and Uzbekistan. These include paying farmers for using less water through the introduction of water rights trading, changing cropping patterns, and optimizing irrigation efficiency taking regional heterogeneities into account.

However, change in agricultural and irrigation systems takes time, particularly if the change is toward a more complex, expensive, precision-type technology. A more realistic approach would be to align government expectations with current adoption trends and successful examples in Uzbekistan, focusing on sustainable adoption rather than merely achieving bureaucratic targets.

In conclusion, while the path to widespread adoption of water-saving technologies in Uzbekistan is fraught with challenges, it is a journey worth undertaking. The urgency imposed by water scarcity and the lessons from past agricultural practices call for immediate and innovative action. It’s imperative that stakeholders work together, adopting a multifaceted approach that addresses environmental, financial, informational, and infrastructural barriers. With realistic expectations, tailored strategies, and a commitment to sustainable practices, Uzbekistan can turn the tide on its water crisis, ensuring not only agricultural success but also the prosperity of future generations.

Anton Liutin is a PhD Student at the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Wisconsin–Madison. Paul Castañeda Dower is Associate Professor of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Wisconsin–Madison. They are supporting the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains through the CGIAR SPIA program.


Header image: Pumped irrigation, Uzbekistan. Photo by Anton Liutin.

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