A few weeks ago, I went to New York to see Tajik NGO Ob Umed (“Water is Hope”) awarded the United Nations Development Program’s 2014 Equator Prize for community-based sustainable development solutions. This organization is bringing traditional methods of water management back to the Pamir Mountains, one of the highest, driest, and longest-inhabited mountain ranges in the world. In this region only the sparsest grass and sage will grow without snow and glacial melt water. When there is water, it must be channeled downhill through canals that stretch for miles to any spot where there is suitable soil and relatively gentle slopes.
More recently, I visited the Porshinev villages, where Ob Umed’s offices share a building with other associations next to an early childhood development center. Chairman Bakhtul Mamadgoziev and other organizational leaders laid out their history, challenges, and achievements.
Ob Umed was launched in 2009 with the help of Mountain Societies Development Support Programme (MSDSP), a project of the Aga Khan Foundation. MSDSP had held an series of extensive ‘resilience assessment workshops’ with communities, identifying water scarcity as the most pressing natural resource management issue in these desert mountains, which face drying and warming trends like many places on earth. The organization now has over 5,000 active members from nine villages, who work together to figure out how to share four unequal sources of mountain water.
Ob Umed’s aim is to provide water to every member household. Along with organizing the management of irrigation water to all residents in the nine villages, it has been able to bring piped potable water to 46 households in villages where it was lacking. It is also able to monitor the quality of all water from the various springs and other sources.
Ob Umed is one of probably thousands of initiatives across ex-Soviet Central Asia seeking to re-establish locally responsive institutions to tackle challenges of resource management (water, forests, grazing lands, etc.). The organization draws on traditional structures and values in a contemporary organizational context. This means re-establishing the roles of mirob (general manager), mirjuy (distributor of water), and obshor (irrigator or consumer) within each village, an organizational method that was lost during collectivized Soviet times.
This structure allows residents to self govern for the fair and transparent sharing of limited water. Water schedules are displayed on a post in the center of the village so that people can hold each other to account. School children, who are involved in many of the association’s activities, are enthusiastic monitors of the public water schedules.
A basic meter controls each house’s supply to ensure efficiency, regulate volume, and calculate fees to maintain the system. The association has an independent audit committee and conflict resolution group to address inevitable disputes.
Ob Umed exemplifies the characteristics of successful common-pool resource management, as illuminated by such scholars as Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom. These include the commitment to adaptive learning, transparency, and to sanction by members of the collective. This means that across the nine villages, the Ob Umed structure engages comfortably with diversity in decision-making and management systems, and always encourages people to hold themselves to account for the outcomes.
Another dimension of this local ownership model is the revitalization of the tradition of hashar, volunteer communal labor to build and repair canals and other structures. Also crucial is the institution of membership fees to keep the organization from needing external funds for its core operations. Financial independence is essential to both the association’s resilience and its sustainability.
Ob Umed’s leadership acknowledged the difficulty of allocating a limited, dwindling, and essential resource throughout a complex landscape. People’s lives depend on water, which makes conflict over this precious resource all but inevitable.
Resolving conflict over water is painstaking work, as is maintaining the miles of canals to make sure water is not being lost. Leaders must organize communal labor to identify any leaks and then seal them with cement, plastic sheeting, or traditional methods.
Some of the villages are too far from adequate gravity-fed water supplies, so to address their needs Ob Umed has organized a pump-and-pipe system to bring water 150 meters from the Panj River that runs below their lands. For these water conservation efforts Ob Umed has distributed 30,000 somoni (US$6,000) worth of building materials across numerous canal sections in the nine villages, enabling the villagers to develop an institution that can build their natural capital.
Ob Umed is also one of several local organizations working to re-connect Pamiri communities who’ve been separated by the Panj River, which marks the border between Tajikistan and in Afghanistan. The Jirug and Tishor villages (which lie on opposite banks) are both home to Shugnani peoples and are so close that they can look into each others’ villages. But the roar of Panj is too loud to permit conversation, and there has been almost no communication between them since the incorporation of Tajikistan into the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. Over the last few years, however, the Aga Khan (the imam for these Ismaili peoples) worked with the two governments to establish bridges and cross-border markets to re-connect them.
Over the last century the Afghanistan side of the river has been more intensively farmed and managed more sustainably; with homes and other infrastructure kept out of the prime flat farming land, and community canal management practices remaining vibrant. Unlike in Soviet Central Asia, the Afghans could not rely on food and energy provisions and subsidies from outside their village. Furthermore, the Afghan villages generally found relying on traditional farming knowledge and their own creativity more effective than following agricultural methods billed as modern and productive. (Indeed, asked once why the Afghan side was more self-sufficient, the director of one of the leading agriculture development organizations in the region quipped that Tajikistan had suffered from “a hundred years of agronomists.”)
Ob Umed is working to use water management as another kind of bridge between the Pamiri communities who’ve been separated by political boundaries. The association’s leaders remarked that they were deeply impressed by the cultural and spiritual attitudes towards water and the dynamism of traditional irrigation-management institutions in Afghanistan. For their part, the people on the Afghan side of the border are very interested in exploring the piped domestic water systems that Ob Umed has helped villages establish on the Tajik side.
It was fascinating to tour the canals, irrigated orchards, and homes of Jirug and Tishor, where we were offered pears, dried mulberries and walnuts. Afterwards, we settled down to an extraordinary feast at the home of Bakhtul’s uncle. Over our meal we shared stories of the critical role farmers’ knowledge plays in natural resource management and insights about the cultural basis of irrigation from around the world.
Bakhtul and his colleagues see winning the Equator Prize as an opportunity to further improve villagers’ lives in targeted ways. The first priority is to relieve the women in a particularly troubled village by delivering piped into their homes. This, they said, would allow them to stop hauling water as much as half a mile from a public tap.
As we closed our visit, our hosts reminded us that as climate change increasingly affects the region, there might indeed be less water (ob) but organizations such as theirs will ensure there will not be less hope (umed).
Hats off to the creative humility of this association. The UN award is well deserved, but it is only a footnote in the history and future of the magnificent efforts across the Pamirs and other mountains of Central Asia to build local resiliency and adaptability in the face of climate change.