In irrigation systems over-abstraction of water and/or neglected maintenance are common problems faced by their users. For a generalized system with head- and tail-users, which interact through water abstraction and maintenance, a feedback structure is presented. It builds on causal relationships derived from theoretical work on collective action and irrigation. The concept of the model can be looked upon as a general formulation of two mutually but asymmetrically dependent groups of users with regard to a common resource. Main objective of the study is to provide a systems framework allowing for a deeper understanding of the social and institutional nature of irrigation problems. It is embedded in transdisciplinary research in Kyrgyzstan and Kenya aimed at developing strategies for a sustainable future in semi-arid rural areas.