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Coping with Asymmetries in the Commons: Self-Governing Irrigation Systems Can Work


  • Elinor Ostrom
  • Roy Gardner


Many analysts presume that the appropriators of a common-pool resource are trapped in a Hobbesian state of nature and cannot themselves create rules to counteract the perverse incentives they face in managing the resource. The logical consequence of this view is to recommend that an external authority—"the" government—take over the commons. But considerable empirical evidence from field and experimental settings holds that appropriators frequently do constitute and enforce their own rules, and that these rules work. Our research agenda is to develop a coherent understanding of the set of conditions that enhance or detract from self-organizing capabilities when individuals differ substantially from one another. For the sake of concreteness, this paper focuses on the asymmetry present in most irrigation systems between those who are physically near the source of water (the head-enders) and those who are physically distant from it (the tail-enders). This paper first explores the interaction between head-end and tail-end farmers, particularly their decisions about whether to devote resources to the upkeep of the irrigation system, and how bargaining between the parties can benefit all sides. Finally, we examine empirical evidence from a study of irrigation institutions in Nepal and discuss the broader practical significance of our findings.

Suggested Citation

  • Elinor Ostrom & Roy Gardner, 1993. "Coping with Asymmetries in the Commons: Self-Governing Irrigation Systems Can Work," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 7(4), pages 93-112, Fall.
  • Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:7:y:1993:i:4:p:93-112
    Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.7.4.93

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Larson, Bruce A. & Bromley, Daniel W., 1990. "Property rights, externalities, and resource degradation : Locating the tragedy," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 33(2), pages 235-262, October.
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    JEL classification:

    • Q15 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Agriculture - - - Land Ownership and Tenure; Land Reform; Land Use; Irrigation; Agriculture and Environment
    • Q21 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Renewable Resources and Conservation - - - Demand and Supply; Prices


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