Much of the world's agricultural development investment has been spent on large canal irrigation projects, usually involving massive dams, water storage, and modern distribution systems. The dams and main canals are subsequently operated by a bureaucracy of technical specialists. In some projects, central authorities pay relatively little attention to those areas where farmers' fields are located. Some development programs insist that farmers dig and maintain the distribution canals between the farmers' fields and the canal system. Yet the percieved problem is that farmers are not sufficiently involved. Researchers believe that if farmers would participate, then ditches would be constructed, the water would be allocated, and all the maintenance would be done. Water allocation to the farmers would be optimized, food production would be maximized, and the capital investment would be more effective and efficient. The suggested solution to these problems has been to try to get farmers to participate more in the project. Since few consultants or managers seem to believe that farmers as individuals would participate or make a difference if they did, there has been a great deal of emphasis on participation through organized groups known as Water Users Associations (WUA). The model of Water Users Associations is based on a few isolated properties of the indigenous irrigation systems and the transferability to the very different social environments posed by these large bureaucratic systems has been assumed.
This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities. Agenda 21 recommends providing assistance to communities in managing their own systems on a sustainable basis, and supporting water user groups with a view to improving management performance at the local level. It also recommends encouraging and equipping local water associations and water committees to manage community water-supply systems and communal latrines, with technical back-up available when required.