Water is essential for life and livelihoods. As demands for water increase - for drinking, domestic use, irrigation, industry, and environmental conservation - areas that were once water-abundant are increasingly challenged by conflicting claims and the need to better allocate water resources Worldwide, water use more than quadrupled during the 20th century.

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As resources become scarcer, contesting claims usually drive attempts to determine more clearly who has the rights to use the resource. In contrast to conventional approaches focusing on water rights as defined only by government laws, Negotiating Water Rights highlights the importance of understanding "legal pluralism," the diversity and dynamism of local customs, institutions, and practices that actually regulate access to water in fields, villages, and cities.

If government laws and agencies can create suitable conditions by respecting local institutions, providing technical advice, and helping enforce agreements, then users can draw on their local knowledge to cooperatively forge better ways to allocate scarce water, whether within a single irrigation system or within a larger river basin. Irrigation has been a major contributor to the increase in food production that changed countries like Bangladesh and India from famine-prone regions to food-surplus regions.

Beyond just producing crops, irrigation systems in developing countries are vital to rural livelihoods, providing water for livestock and fish production, domestic use, and many small enterprises. Although irrigation now has the lion's share of freshwater use, demand for urban and industrial water supplies is growing rapidly around the world. Simply taking water away from agriculture expropriation without compensation is inequitable and likely to face increasing resistance.

The much higher economic value of water for urban and industrial use creates the possibility of win-win agreements with farmers willing to transfer their water to other uses, but only if forums are available for negotiating mutually beneficial agreements. Water is a great force for bringing people together. It is a classic common pool resource, where one person's use affects another person, but when people work together they can accomplish a great deal.

This work, which received funding from the Ford Foundation, shows how users can participate in creating better ways to allocate access to this vital resource. Perhaps the best way to gauge how future water shortages produce the legal battles necessary to resolve such sensitive issues is to examine where such shortages and water rights negotiating have occurred. Case studies from around the world (Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Burkina Faso, Spain and New Mexico, USA) show the range of ways in which people can come together to defend their water rights and how negotiation processes can help adapt to changing situations:

Nepal hill irrigation systems have rich traditions of water rights. A case study there shows that when disputes arise, farmers use varied strategies, including court cases, international aid projects, political patronage, and even sabotage and violence, to establish or defend their claims, but the most favorable outcomes arise when community leaders establish good relationships with each other. As the future produces water shortages, the negotiation of water rights will continue to be a dramatic and unavoidable event all over the world. How this crisis is managed will determine the health and success of large regions.

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