Institutional strategies for adaptation to water stress in farmer-managed irrigation systems of Nepal

Bhuwan Thapa, Christopher A. Scott

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Institutions governing common-pool resources have survived decades of global change with mixed performance. However, we have limited knowledge on how local institutions cope with and adapt to combined environmental and socio-economic changes. Using the case of 12 farmer-managed irrigation systems (FMIS) in Central and Western Nepal, this paper explores the institutional coping and adaptation mechanisms to water stress. We find that local irrigation institutions manage water stress using diverse and integrated approaches broadly categorized as structural and operational measures. Structural measures include water-source expansion and infrastructure rehabilitation works whereas water re-allocation and drought continency rules are examples of operational measures. We find that integration of structural and operational measures is more prevalent in highly water-stressed irrigation systems than in less stressed ones. The choice of adaptation strategies has direct implications for agricultural productivity. FMIS that implemented structural measures harvested more crops per year than those systems that adopted only operational strategies or no adaptation strategies. However, the marginal benefit of adopting adaptation measures is particularly pronounced in water-stressed systems. Climate variability and change act as a threat multiplier because they compound the existing threats the FMIS face from social and economic changes. The key to effective integration of structural and operational measures that help FMIS to maintain their productivity during water stress are collective action and governance to overcome biophysical limitations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)892-908
Number of pages17
JournalInternational Journal of the Commons
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


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