Central Asia has a long history of irrigation agriculture. Over the course of the centuries, complex and sophisticated systems of water management evolved in order to compensate for low rainfall. The prosperity of the Arab period in the 7th century came in part from the construction of extensive irrigation systems in the sedentary areas. There, control over where water went was centralized, while its end use was the responsibility of local officials. The Khan acted as a kind of trustee of water in the name of Allah. Farmers paid taxes for water usage and were obligated to participate in necessary maintenance work. So-called mirabi-water masters-were responsible for secondary canals and aryk aksakaly (literally: canal elders) for small canals. The highest position was the mirab bashi, who was part of the government and responsible for water allocation. The mirab was elected and received a payment in kind from the users depending on how satisfied they were with his work. These were very prestigious positions. Besides the mirab, another informal water governance institution was the hashar or ashar, a system of collective voluntary work by community members. It was part of a broad system of reciprocities at the village and neighbourhood level. Hashar was used for construction, rehabilitation and maintenance of small-scale canals.

In the 1860s, Central Asia-then called Turkestan-fell under the control of Tsarist Russia. Its agricultural policy fostered the expansion of cotton production and of the irrigation systems the water-intensive crop requires. In most cases, the former management system was maintained, but with a key change: instead of being paid by, and accountable to, the water users, the mirab and aryk aksakal became employees of the Russian Empire. This meant that they had less incentive to maximize efficiency. To make things worse, irrigation officials without local knowledge were sent in just as the competition for water intensified with the cotton expansion. As a consequence, traditional institutions of water management were weakened while no effective new control mechanisms were introduced; corruption and unapproved water withdrawal spread.[Bichsel 2009, O'Hara 2000, Thurman 2002.]