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Water Champion

Water Champions initiate or implement water reforms in their chosen field, and are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries.

Michitaro Nakai: Reconciling Customary Water Uses and New Demands for Water
July 2007

By Cezar Tigno Web Writer


Mr. Michitaro Nakai works with the Japan Water Agency (JWA), a river basin organization that ensures a stable supply of domestic, industrial, and irrigation water to the people as well as alleviate flood damage. In 2004, JWA partnered with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and ADB Institute (ADBI) to establish the Network of Asian River Basin Organizations (NARBO), which is designed to promote and build the capacity of river basin organizations for integrated water resources management (IWRM). Mr. Nakai was seconded to NARBO and ADBI to help pursue the objectives of the network. Prior to his work with JWA, Mr. Nakai has worked in the fields of river administration, water facility management, and water facility construction. He has also conducted extensive research on Japan's water rights and allocation system.

How does Japan's long established system of water rights and allocation cope with modern demands for water? Our first River Law in 1896 established the first formal allocation system for river water and institutionalized a water permitting scheme. But long before that, weve already adopted an informal water rights system for irrigation, mainly because rice cultivation was then the center of Japanese daily life. By the mid-19 th century, the natural flow of most rivers has been appropriated by agricultural water users vested with customary water rights. We practiced the first in time, first in right principle. After the 2 nd World War, however, modernization picked up its pace and a new breed of water users emerged. Since old irrigation users were regarded as "superior water rights holders," the new users often found that there was little room to allocate water for them. To accommodate the new water demands, we amended the law in 1964 and adopted the "one river system, one administrator" principle. All rivers in the country were classified and assigned a river administrator whose tasks include developing the water resources to allocate water. The new principle allowed new municipal users to participate in river administrators' multiple-purpose reservoir construction projects by sharing construction

costs. In turn, the administrator allocates water for them. This is how new municipal water users secure their water rights. In 1997, we further amended the River Law to respond to increasing concerns about conservation of river environment. Is the "first in time, first in rights" system still in place given the changes in the River Law? Yes, this system still works in Japan but is modified or waived in times of severe drought. The River Law stipulates a drought conciliation scheme based on water users voluntary negotiation and concession. Drought Conciliation Councils, composed of the river administrator, water users, local government, and concerned administrative agencies, serve as participatory consultation forums at the river basin level. While the Councils differ in their conciliation processes depending on the local conditions, they generally respect historically established traditions. How does the "one river system, one administrator" approach work? Before the River Law was amended in 1964, every governor had the mandate to manage rivers within their jurisdictions, including the issuance of permits for river water use. But because river systems run through several local governments, disagreements over water uses often occurred. We abandoned this scheme in 1964 and introduced a more integrated approach premised on the one river system, one administrator principle. We had 2 major reasons for introducing this approach:

First, we wanted to return the responsibility and authority of river administration to the national government. The decentralization of Japan's political system after the 2 nd World War had its merits but not in terms of institutionalizing an integrated approach to river administration. More often than not, governors acted independently, and even against the national government. Second is the significant increase in water demands due to industrialization, urbanization, and population growth. We felt that a broadbased administration approach that facilitates coordination among water users is needed at that point. How do you operationalize the concept of one administrator? A river administrator is the legal person who manages a river or river system in accordance with the River Law. We have 3 kinds of river systems in JapanClass A and Class B river systems, and locally designated rivers. They determine which river administrator is accountable for which river. Class A river systems, all 109 of them, have vital roles in land conservation and the national economy. In principle, the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport is designated as their river administrator. In practice, though, prefectural governors are entrusted with managing particular portions of the river systems. The river administrator for Class B rivers systems is the governor of the prefecture where the river is located. Japans over 2,600 Class B river systems have important relations to public interests other than Class A river systems. The rest are considered locally designated rivers. Numbering almost 14,000, these rivers have heads of cities, towns, or villages where the river is located as their river administrators. How replicable is Japan's system elsewhere in Asia? I dont think Japans water rights and water allocation systems are directly replicable in other Asian countries. I believe each country has its own history, practices, and customs regarding water use. Any scheme not tailored to the countrys specific local conditions and traditions wont work well.

Nevertheless, I strongly believe that Japans system and experiences are informative for Asian countries because Japan and many Asian countries share common features in meteorology, hydrology and other social backgrounds. Too, many Asian countries are now facing water scarcity caused by the economic growth Japan experienced decades ago. How would you respond to the fundamental question asked by many Asian countries, "Why do we need water rights?"? Its true that introducing a water rights system remains a touchy subject for many water users in Asia. But they should look at water user rights within 2 contexts. First, water scarcity is now a reality for many countries, and a system to ensure fair allocation of scarce water resources is imperative. Secondly, water user rights are about security, especially for the economically marginalized and those holding customary water rights. It is important that the government educates the people on these two contexts with hard, sound data. Equally important is the adoption of policies and schemes that would protect customary water uses, particularly irrigation water rights. Finally, there is a need to escalate efforts to collect effective water resources data and information because they are vital in making any water rights system operational. Related Links: Country Water Action: Japan's Water Rights System: Central yet Integrative, Traditional yet Modern

_______________________________ *This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in July 2007: The Water Champions series was developed to showcase individual leadership and initiative in implementing water sector reforms and good practices in Asia and the Pacific. The champions, representing ADBs developing member countries, are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries or communities. The series is regularly featured in ADBs Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.