Romania: Strengthening of water users associations (#154)

After the USSR was dissolved, Romania has experienced water scarcity for agriculture. The World Bank and USAID are providing loans/funds for irrigation projects and to strengthen water users associations. This case thus illustrates that irrigation subsidies may be needed to support agriculture until farming efficiency improves and returns from the sale of agricultural products can cover costs.


Agriculture is an important sector in Romania’s economy, providing about 14% of GDP and 37% of employment. Prior to the 1989 revolution, agriculture was a strong export sector but today food imports are necessary. The shift from a centralized economy in 1990 to a market-oriented system and the redistribution of land (from state farms to the former owners) disrupted agriculture and the organization and maintenance of irrigation systems. 

Although the majority of cropped area is rain-fed, droughts are common in the semi-arid climate especially during the summer growing season and yields are uncertain without irrigation.

The World Bank has scheduled a loan to Romania for irrigation rehabilitation and reform in the Danube River valley. Complementing this effort, USAID is funding a project to develop and strengthen water users associations (WUAs) to own and operate the equipment for on-farm water distribution.

Effective WUAs are a critical component of restructuring Romania’s irrigation systems and increasing the efficiency of irrigation through farmer participation and delivery of irrigation water on demand. A Water User Associations Law was adopted providing that voluntary, non-profit WUAs should be formed to own and operate the equipment for on-farm water distribution.

Typically, WUAs should consist of members owning or leasing adjacent plots of land within the hydraulic area covered by an irrigation pumping station. Government policy is to gradually reduce irrigation subsidies and eventually WUAs should be sustained on water charges and membership fees collected from their members. This requires WUAs capable of providing cost-effective irrigation services and an agricultural system capable of commercial production.

Ongoing training and technical assistance is supporting WUAs and relevant government agencies with the tasks and duties regarding WUA organization, management, financial administration, and operation and maintenance of the irrigation system. WUAs need new approaches to O&M and financial administration to achieve more cost-effective irrigation. Farmers must be organized to formulate cropping and irrigation plans and monitor implementation.

The ability of WUAs to implement a cropping pattern that yields market returns, covers the cost of irrigation, and increases farmer incomes will be key to their long-term success. Access to credit to obtain capital for repair and replacement of irrigation equipment is also important for sustainable agriculture.

Lessons learned

  • Appropriate legislation and regulations are necessary to allow all stakeholders (farmers, WUAs, government agencies) to carry out their respective roles and facilitate farmer participation for demand-driven irrigation water management.
  • Irrigation subsidies may be needed to support agriculture until farming efficiency improves and returns from the sale of agricultural products can cover costs. The irrigation subsidies should be targeted directly to water users with transparent linkages between the government agencies and the water users.
  • Irrigation equipment transferred to WUAs must be in good condition to translate potential into effective demand for irrigation water and support sustainable agriculture.
  • WUAs and their members need knowledge and experience to make management decisions associated with irrigated farming, such as assessment of crop water requirements and irrigation scheduling.

Importance of the case for IWRM

Developing a framework to replace a central approach with a participatory, demand-driven approach for more sustainable water resources management is a long and complex process.

Local farmers, through participation in water users associations, were identified as the appropriate level to implement cost-effective decisions for on-farm irrigation and to better coordinate regional management of water and the rich agricultural soils of the Danube River valley.