Bulgaria: institutional constraints for multiple use of water (English)

Bulgaria: institutional constraints for multiple use of water (English)

TitleBulgaria: institutional constraints for multiple use of water (English)
Publication TypeWeb Article
Year of PublicationSubmitted

This case study by Insa Theesfeld provides an institutional analysis of the 'rules-in-use' that govern local irrigation systems in Bulgaria.

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Since 1989, societies in the transition countries of Central and Eastern Europe experienced a simultaneous change from a centralized planned to a market-oriented economy and from a communist-determined to a democratic political system. They suffered numerous economic, political, and institutional constraints (Roland 2000). In addition, the agricultural producer cooperatives lost their economic power and their provision of social cohesion in the rural areas. In contemporary Bulgaria, and other transitional economies, the agricultural sector buffers the national economic decline. The recent development of small-scale subsistence farming has turned out to be a strategy, in particular, for the elderly rural population to cope with severe poverty.

The Bulgarian irrigation systems were built to serve large production units during socialism and do not meet the current diversified needs. At present, the facilities have largely deteriorated. Water losses in the irrigation system are estimated to amount to around 70% (Global Water Partnership 2000: 24; 82). The remaining scarce irrigation water resources have to serve multiple and directly competing water user purposes, i.e., subsistence farming including household plots, watering animals, agricultural production, and fish-farming.

Case Study Methodology

The study is based on six months of empirical fieldwork subdivided into three phases spanning two and a half years from 2000 to 2002. In the frame of this study, four village case studies were carried out in the Haskowo region of South-East Bulgaria. The main water source for irrigation is surface water, stored in microdams. Water is brought to the fields mainly via open canal systems. In most cases, farmers divert water from the canals to their fields by primitive gravity irrigation techniques. Two irrigation command areas were selected. In each area, two villages were chosen with one village located directly behind the water dam (top-ender) and the other further back—at the middle or tail-end of the canal and river system.

With the help of explorative and qualitative methods in the first two research phases, I analyzed, among other aspects, the rules-in-use which govern the daily practices of irrigation. I revealed power resources of local actors in the irrigation sector, which were perceived as decisive by the local actors. In the third empirical phase, interactive interview techniques with cue sorts were applied to rank these power resources in descending order (Theesfeld 2004b).

Multiple Water Use

According to different crop structure, size of the plots, and irrigation technology used, the requirements for irrigation water greatly differ between subsistence farmers and agricultural producers. In the case study region, subsistence farmers operate on less than half a hectare in total. The agricultural producers include a small number of midsized farmers operating between 3 to 40 hectares and on average 1 or 2 large tenants, and 1 or 2 cooperative farms per village operating on average up to 300 hectares each.

The water in the canal is not sufficient to serve all users at the same time. There is no ramified canal network and the practiced retaining technique does not allow for simultaneous irrigation. Thus, subsistence farmers who are usually cropping at the tail-end can extract less water from the system.

An additional infrastructure specificity is that subsistence livestock keeping is often supplied by watering livestock from a river. In most cases, river water supply and canal water supply are interdependent. Usually, the water guard at a barrage decides how much water is released into the canal and how much is retrained in the river. Watering livestock will thus subtract resource units from the same water resource that other actors want to use for irrigation.

A specificity in Bulgaria’a irrigation sector in transition is the fish-farming in the water dams. Fish farmers and crop farmers are often in conflict with each other. During the summer, i.e., the fish-growing season, the water level is either kept high for fish-farming or it is released for irrigation purposes. During autumn, the water level in the dam is either reduced to fish out, or the water is stored until the following spring irrigation season. The fish-farming business is part of the Mafia-like structures in Bulgaria. Thus, the microdams are heavily guarded and neither the water users nor the local authorities are willing to begin negotiations on the release of water for irrigation purposes.

Rules Governing Multiple Water Use

According to Ostrom et al. (1994: 37-50), an institutional analysis relevant to field settings requires the understanding of the effective rules, or rules-in-use. The incongruity of formal and effective rules is typical for transition countries and is striking also for Bulgaria’s irrigation sector. Effective water appropriation rules favor some water users and disadvantage other users and, likewise, favor certain kinds of water use. Limited sanctioning and enforcement mechanisms, as well as practically non-existent monitoring, mechanisms provide favorable conditions for opportunistic behavior and unequal opportunities to withdrawal water for different purposes.

Water Ordering and Appropriation Rules

Water users have to put in an advance order with the water guard if they want to irrigate. The formal rule stipulates that the guard must collect a certain amount of orders before he can open the barrage and fill the canal with water. Nevertheless, compliance with this rule varies. The first formal rule – a farmer who orders water and pays in advance has the right to irrigate – does not work in practice. The informal rule appears to be: when the canal is filled, irrigate to be on the safe side, whether or not you have ordered water. Accordingly, the water guard tries to collect the fees afterwards.

As regards fish-farming, formally the fish should not reach a level that would initiate a competition for water between irrigation and fish-farming. Although farmers in one case study village ordered water, the tenant of the water dam did not divert water into the canal.

In addition, the Irrigation System Company state firm (ISC) regional branch offers verbal advice to the water guards in ranking the crops for irrigation. For instance, only the pickles should be irrigated from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. During the day, priority should be given to eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers. Corn ranks third, as it needs a lot of water. It should mainly be irrigated late at night. Most cases of irrigation practice do not reflect these regulations.

A statement taken from an interview summarizes the second rule-in-use regulating the irrigation sequence: “Whoever is ahead of you at the canal is the first to irrigate. That is the law.” Most of the interviewees described the situation as chaotic. When the canal is filled, a tail-ender faces water shortage as everyone ahead of him irrigates, even though he ordered the water and may have even already paid for it. Subsistence farmers can usually only rent in plots from cooperatives or larger tenants at the tail-end of the irrigation canal, thus being disadvantaged according to the gap between formal and effective rules.

The third rule of irrigation from one canal is specified by physical power. Physical violence among the users of an irrigation system is symptomatic of inadequate assignment of spatial or temporal irrigation slots to appropriators (Ostrom 1992).

Monitoring Rules

There is almost no monitoring system for water appropriation. This situation leads to farmers guarding their fields around the clock. First, farmers wait for the water in the canal to reach their plot so that they can immediately start irrigating before another farmer begins. Second, they must supervise while irrigating, otherwise another farmer diverting water from a top-end position can begin irrigating, leaving them insufficient water to complete their irrigation turn.

Excludability and Sanctioning Rules

Water users who have not paid the water fee cannot technically be excluded from water diversion from a canal. There is no graduated and credible sanctioning mechanism, as described by Ostrom (1992) in the design principles for enduring, self-governing, common-pool resource institutions. The water guard that worked in one of the case study villages carried no authority. Formal sanctioning power is generally lacking. Violators caught when committing a crime, such as destroying the barrage that distributes water among different canals, are not sanctioned.

Power Abuse in the Irrigation Sector

The aforementioned examples of actual water appropriation practice indicate that incongruity of formal and effective rules facilitates the exercise of power by actors and, in turn, is a result of that process. Asymmetric provision with power resources among the actors affects various decisions and actions in the irrigation sector (Theesfeld 2004a). Table 1 summarizes examples of transactions in the irrigation sector that are affected by power abuse. Knight’s Distributional Theory of Institutional Change (1992: 126) focuses on power asymmetries of actors as the main determinant of institutional change. This theory helps to explain how power asymmetries influence the capacity of strategic actors to determine the content of rules.

Table 1 : Transactions in the Irrigation Sector Affected by Power Abuse

Transactions in the irrigation sector

Actors involved

Specific decisions affected by power abuse

Renting in plots from the cooperative

Water users ↔ cooperative

Who gets plots at top-end position along the canal?

Starting an irrigation turn

Water users ↔ neighboring water users at the canal

Who irrigates first, and who violates the water appropriation rules?

Paying for irrigation water

Water users ↔ water guard

Who refrains from paying, or who pays less?

Releasing water into the canal

Water users ↔ water guard

When, i.e., favoring whom, the water is released?

Closing the barrage of a microdam

Fish farmers ↔ water users

For how long is water not released into the irrigation canal?

The empirical approach to derive at power resources combines several stages: (1)filtering and exploring relevant power resources, (2) revealing and validating these power resources, and (3) having them valued and ranked recurrently by the respective actors. Using statistical procedures, it is tested if there are differences in the assessment of the power resources between different subgroups. The empirical results show with statistical significance that the power resources and their ranking are robust against the impact of belonging to different territorial, social, and agricultural producer groups. The power resources hold the following mean ranks: (1) unrestricted access to information is assessed as most important followed by (2) personal relationship, (3) trustworthiness, (4) cash resources for bribing, (5) menace, and (6) physical power and violence (Theesfeld 2004b).

Policy Recommendation

It became evident that while ignoring local power structures on the ground, the pure implementation of new formal rules, such as the Water User Association Act enforced in March 2001, may again lead to an abuse of power by individuals seeking for personal benefits. Power asymmetries among the newly evolving diversified actors constellation at the canal have to be reduced in order to allow for equal access to water for different kinds of purposes. Effective rules are needed that allow a provision of water for a range of different, even competing, purposes.

The perception of power resources by local actors can serve as a starting point and hint to specific policy measures required to ensure equal resource access. An empowered advisory service could provide information to farmers and simultaneously enhance communication. A farmers’ newspaper could be an easily accessible medium for spreading information. The Ministry of Agriculture’s current website is a good starting point for publishing general statistical data and providing a discussion forum on law-making processes.

Outlook for Further Research

Further research based on this case study should address the following questions: Which information-spreading measures for the rural and agricultural sector are elaborated and supported by the new Bulgarian government elected in autumn 2005, and how do these measures actually trigger down to the local level? Do pre-accession programs of the European Union facilitate access to information of small-scale farmers? Do we find empirical evidence that such measures reduce the predominant power asymmetries among the actors at the local level? Does this induce an institutional change towards effective local rules that allow for equal and multipurpose water use of the disadvantaged groups?


Global Water Partnership (ed.) (2000). Final report on Water Pricing in Selected Accession Countries to the European Union: Current Policies and Trends. A report produced for the European Commission – DG Environment. (EU contract number B4-3040/99/130877/MAR/B2) Sofia: Water Clubs in Bulgaria.

Knight, Jack (1992). Institutions and Social Conflict. WashingtonUniversity: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Ostrom, Elinor (1992). Crafting Institutions for Self-Governance Irrigation Systems. San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies Press.

Ostrom, Elinor; Gardner, Roy and Walker, James (1994). Rules, Games and Common-Pool Resources.Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Roland, Gérard (2000). Transition and Economic: Politics, Markets, and Firms. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Theesfeld, Insa (2004a). Constraints on Collective Action in a Transitional Economy: The Case of Bulgaria’s Irrigation Sector. World Development 32 (2), 251-271.

Theesfeld, Insa (2004b). Institutional Change in Bulgaria’s Irrigation Sector in Transition – Power Resources of Local Actors. Schriften der Gesellschaft für Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaften des Landbaus e.V. “Perspektiven in der Landnutzung – Regionen, Landwirtschaften, Betriebe – Entscheidungsträger und Instrumente”. Band 39, Münster-Hiltrup: Landwirtschaftsverlag, 261-270.