The aim of this paper is to argue that the articulation of two different perspectives on irrigation systems, the Hydrosocial Cycle and the Irrigation Studies, is a compelling way to shed some light on the production of the social reality and power relations in the Sunsari Morang Irrigation System, one of the biggest irrigation system in Nepal, situated in the Far Eastern Tarai.

There has been a long tradition of institutionalist irrigation studies in Nepal, well studied by the Nobel Price Elinor Ostrom and her team of researchers. However, many social scientists have since then criticized Ostrom’s views on irrigation, as well as the irrigation policies that have been drawn from her institutionalist approach, namely Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM). The main critic addressed to this theory is its lack of socio-historic depth, neglecting in its conclusions the importance of power relations and social inequalities in the access to irrigation water (Klooster, 2000; Mosse, 2003). Indeed, PIM has been known to not address inequalities in access to water, and sometimes increase them. Such a situation has been observed on some irrigation systems in Nepal and around the world (Manor, 2004; Pradhan, 2011).

In this paper, we look at irrigation management through the lenses of a historical constructivist approach. Constructivism sees social reality as the production of social interactions between actors taking into account the constraints of their social environment: actors are constrained by the social structures they interact in, but keep a reflexive capacity to act strategically to change or reproduce these social structures through time (Archer, 1995). More precisely, we will here use the constructivist theoretical framework of the Hydrosocial Cycle (Linton, 2010; 2014), showing that water issues are not made only of water, but also of interactions between different levels of actors (Candau et al., 2015). Thus, we wish to study first the intertwining between irrigation policies and social structures, and how this equation produces an irrigation management reality on the SMIS, often different from the theory, by replacing it in the historical dimension of the evolution of local political and social relations. Then, we focus on understanding how water policies are interpreted, integrated and transformed by local actors, for individual or group benefits. We will in the end try to show how the deconstruction and co-construction of the participatory discourse has allowed the reconstruction of the local political arena through the control of the irrigation water.

To balance this ontological approach of water management, often disconnected from the realities of the field, we follow in our work the attempt made by Mollinga (2013) to use Irrigation Studies as a socio-technical approach in order to balance the hydrosocial analysis. By focusing on the irrigation systems “from within”, this approach is able to feed field data to the mostly theoretical approach of Hydrosocial Cycle, and therefore helps us to conceptualize with more accuracy how “hydrosocial relations” are produced, reproduced and contested over a territory. By doing this, we hope to both further the theoretical research around water and society and contribute to improve the knowledge of water management in Nepal’s Taraï.


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