Originally published in South Asia Monitor.
Water isn't just a natural resource; it is also a peoples' resource, shared between communities, sectors and even countries, making coordination and cooperation essential to prevent scarcity. In India, water as a "common" resource is not only threatened by the growing impact of climate change but also by the rising demands placed on the country's agricultural system, which must feed a population projected to become the world's largest in 2026.
This has, in part, contributed to more than 97 million hectares of Indian land now facing degradation, and some 600 million Indians now also facing high to extreme water stress.
But what if there was a way to manage water use based on the needs of all of its users, from the bottom up?
Our research in Andhra Pradesh suggests that games simulating crop choices and their impact on water levels can help farmers develop rules to manage groundwater more sustainably.
Water management is far from child's play. But the use of games offers some vital insights for expanding self-governance that could help more people manage water more sustainably.
Firstly, properly managing all water needs and uses without depleting resources requires coordination among all water users, particularly in the most vulnerable and climate-stressed areas of the world where water resources are under increased pressure. The sustainable use of groundwater is complicated by the challenge of quantifying reserves underground, which is why simulations and games can help communities learn from previous experiences.
In playing water games, farmers selected crops with different levels of water use, allowing communities to see how their individual decisions impacted shared resources.
If too much water was being used, players quickly adopted better rules and monitoring to prevent overuse, without intervention from researchers.
The longer-term result of such games is the emergence of water rules for governing the use of groundwater, or a water register, which records the area, storage capacity and purpose of each public and private water resource in participating villages.
Secondly, the use of games at the community level can help ensure that water is managed while considering trade-offs, for example, between agriculture and household use.
Such water games have shown promise for helping low-income or disadvantaged communities to organically adopt new rules that better suit their specific local context for managing water, rather than having misguided rules imposed that did not directly involve the community in their creation.
Debating alternative water uses and quantities is important. Villagers where participants communicated among themselves about water choices were more likely to reach sustainable levels of groundwater use.
Such creative and grassroots ways to foster collaboration can help influence entire communities to develop and adopt best practices, and the success of these games means they have now been expanded to 2,500 communities in India as well as to Ethiopia and other African countries.
Finally, to fully unlock the benefits of these behavioural approaches, we must provide vulnerable communities with the tools to address the trade-offs between preserving the environment, growing food, and generating higher income.
Risks and technologies
Although these behavioural approaches proved successful in adopting more sustainable management of shared water resources, these must be backed by tangible investments into the tools and technologies needed to ensure their benefits are realized and maintained.
Without the tools to help identify which crops are the most water-efficient or structures to help retain and re-use water, for instance, behavioural approaches will fall short in ensuring more sustainable management of collective water resources.
With the intensifying impact of climate change, water resources around the world are becoming more variable and challenging to manage. Success closely depends upon how we help communities adopt the sustainable methods needed to navigate these challenging periods.
Playing games that empower communities to sustainably and responsibly manage their water resources provides one promising approach to ensuring that the critical resources needed for all, are managed and maintained for all.