The concept of participatory approach in irrigation management was adopted in Malawi in the mid 1990s, but fully implemented in early 2000. This research was designed to analyze the challenges and benefits which Water User Associations (WUAs) encountered during implementation of irrigation projects using Wovwe Water User Association (WWUA) as a case study. The study thus examined the legal framework of WUAs in Malawi, their performance in water distribution, operation and maintenance, farmers’ participation in WUA activities and how gender is addressed. Data was collected through questionnaires, which were administered to 290 farmers distributed in 15 blocks each comprising of about 20 to 25 ha of irrigated land. Qualitative information was also obtained through focus group discussions with farmers, and by interviewing officials of Water User Associations and those of the Irrigation Department in the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Development. Information sought included a wide range of issues including management of WUAs, participation of the farmers in WUA activities and women participation in decision making processes. The results indicated that 86.6% of the farmers are aware of the important by-laws of the Association, out of which 77% were satisfied. In spite of farmers` satisfaction, the constitution of the association is not effectively reinforced and followed. Water distribution is rotational and on supply-driven criteria. However, inefficiency of water use both on farm and in conveyance system was observed. Gender composition in key decision making positions is appalling with no women representation in the current WUA executive committee. The farmers have developed sense of ownership of the Association, but it was observed that limited financial resources, lack of technical and managerial skills and financial imprudence by the Association`s executive were the major challenges that derail WUA`s operations.
Key words: Community participation, irrigation management transfer, participatory approach, Water User Associations (WUAs), water resource management.
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