Local community-level water management is crucial for rural development in the poorest parts of the world, in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Local cooperative institutions have been successful in water management in some cases, but there are numerous cases of failure. The paper draws upon the relevant lessons from the theoretical literature on cooperation in game theory, both in economics and evolutionary biology. Then it goes into the evidence from field studies by anthropologists and others on the conditions for success or failure of local cooperation. This points to some additional insights which the theoretical models are yet too constricted to incorporate.