There is growing awareness that water management rules must be adapted to the specific social-ecological-technical context 1, 2. This makes it, however, very difficult for policy makers and other actors to intervene across larger scales as generic solutions are not feasible. Successful interventions are often implemented with restricted reach. If the approach is facilitation-intensive, the potential to scale up is limited 3. Thus, tailoring institutional innovations to unique contexts is a major global challenge. New approaches are needed to communicate, build trust, connect and jointly make sense of water management 4.
This article summarizes lessons learnt in three studies where collaborating partners the Foundation for Ecological Security/India, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the Arizona State University (ASU)/USA, and the University of Marburg/Germany developed structured, standardized approaches which allow implementing agents to facilitate social learning and institutional capacity development to support adapted water management. The article briefly describes the approaches, presents evidence on their impact and shows the way forward.
A game session in rural Rajasthan
The aforementioned approaches were developed based on standard economic experiment designs such as public good or common pool resource games. In its core they are learning games featuring specific management challenges of ground and surface water in India 5, 6, 7, 8. The first tool is based on a public good game 9 and was piloted in rural Andhra Pradesh. The tool simulates the impact of crop choice and associated crop irrigation on groundwater levels. The simulated management decision is of very high relevance as crop choices are a key factor determining agricultural water use which constitutes by far the largest share of India’s water consumption.
The second tool replicates the village dam management of Rajasthan farmers based on a public good game 9. The tool focusses on the individual contributions to the collective maintenance of small dams. In many parts of India, water is traditionally stored in village dams which also recharge shallow groundwater aquifers. Such dams enhance societal goals, such as the provision of ecosystem services, groundwater replenishment and creating access to irrigation water 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. The tool was tested in south-eastern Rajasthan.
The third tool combines the first two by asking players to, firstly, jointly maintain a virtual village dam and to then decide on the allocation of the available water. This tool was tested in Madhya Pradesh.
A poster illustrating the Madhya Pradesh game structure
An important element of all the three tools is the combination of a game environment and facilitated intensive discussions amongst the playing community members. This combination is critical as the discussions provoke deliberation and negotiation processes. They help the players to connect the game to their real life experiences.
More details on the tools including the tool manuals can be found under http://gamesforsustainability.org.
It is important to highlight that our games were not used to understand behavioral patterns but were an intervention to change behavior. Real world behavioral change can be triggered followed the impact pathway logic of Figure 3. According to this logic, playing the games shall firstly improve system understanding as embedded in mental models. In addition, it shall activate pro-social norms. Both are expected to change water management behavior. In addition, mental model and norm adjustments are intended to trigger the formulation of new water management rules. These rules are expected to motivate improved water management. Eventually, the changed behavior leads to immediate outcomes such as improved infrastructure conditions and water smarter crop choices. To assess the impact of the games we recorded indicators along the impact pathway before and after the game intervention comparing changes with a control group.
Key elements of the impact pathway [figure developed & supplied by author]
Records from the players’ discussion during game sessions indicate that all three tools raised awareness on the importance of coordination, rules and cooperation and triggered a rethinking of water management. In all sessions, players formulated normative statements about what needs to change in their community. This can be interpreted as influences on internal norms. For instance in the Madhya Pradesh study, in two third of the sessions players highlighted the value of collective action and the need to establish better water management rules.
In addition, we observed more tangible institutional changes. After playing the groundwater games in Andhra Pradesh, two thirds of the communities who played the game adopted water registries as a management planning tool. Only one third of the control group communities reported the same.7 In Madhya Pradesh, we assessed action related impacts. We find a statistically significant increase in community leaders’ reports of dam maintenance activities by community members in communities where the game was played compared to a control group.8 Looking only at the subsamples of communities where the collaborating non-government organization implements other interventions, statistically significantly more communities formulated water management rules if they played the game compared to those who did not play the game but who also participated in other NGO interventions.
Our results encourage us to use game-based facilitation tools as key element in participatory water management development processes. Games are a unique instrument to support communities’ identification of required governance interventions fitting to their context. Our next step is to demonstrate that the games can be used by government and civil society actors at scale. The water management of 3500 communities shall be improved by training diverse extension agents in the application of the games in their mandate communities. This will be done with support from a recently approved grant of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development.
A village dam in Madhya Pradesh.
World Water Week: Experimental games spark community cooperation on groundwater in India
This post fist appeared on Global Water Forum and is based on original research articles published in Ecology and Society (2016), World Development (2018), the Journal of Agricultural Water Management (2019) as well as unpublished work. The research has been carried out with support from the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) as part of Flagship 5: Governance of Natural Resources.
Dr. Thomas Falk is a senior researcher on natural resource and agri-food system governance at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT); Innovation Systems for the Drylands Program. Institutional Economist by specialization, Thomas Falk has done extensive research on multilayer governance on land, water, forest and biodiversity resources in Africa and Asia. He facilitated stakeholder engagement for instance in the trans-disciplinary research project “The Future Okavango”. In recent years, one of his main areas of interest is the design of learning tools to support participatory institutional change processes in the context of smallholder agriculture.
The views expressed in this article belong to the individual authors and do not represent the views of the Global Water Forum, the UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance, UNESCO, the Australian National University, or any of the institutions to which the authors are associated. Please see the Global Water Forum terms and conditions here.