All work and some play

Collective action games trigger conversations around the nature of the invisible and immeasurable common pool resource - groundwater.
Villagers in Magradeh, Madhya Pradesh watching neighbouring farmers play a game. Image credit: Water Practitioners Network Villagers in Magradeh, Madhya Pradesh watching neighbouring farmers play a game. Image credit: Water Practitioners Network

India is, by far, the world’s largest groundwater economy. India’s annual withdrawal of fresh groundwater (253 Billion Cubic Metres in 2013) amounts to one fourth of the global total and is more than that of China and the US combined. Over 80% of water extracted is used in agriculture. The share of tubewells in net irrigated area rose from a mere 1% in 1960-61 to over 40% in 2013-14.

Tubewells now are the single largest source of irrigation in India. More significantly, 66 percent of the wells and tubewells in India are owned by small and mar­ginal farmers, indcating just how much farmers in India depend on groundwater for their survival.

Over the years, many regions of India have seen a worsening of the groundwater situation on account of excessive withdrawal of water.

As large swathes of the country face water scarcity, it has become clear that the crisis cannot be resolved without mobilizing communities to protect groundwater.

In this context, many grassroots organisations have started using a game as a participatory tool, that triggers discussion within com­munities to improve the local governance of groundwater. Nobody is too old to learn or play, especially the kind of games that are woven around themes that are central to their being. This groundwater game has seemingly created a ripple of excitement amongst water practitioners and communities that they work with. There are no fictitious role plays here, only simulation of real life situations for the farmers who play the game.

Recent action research indicates that collective ac­tion games can be used to improve understanding of groundwater interconnectedness, and provide a catalyst for collective action in local groundwater management. The invisible nature of this resource adds to its mystique and allows several myths and misconceptions to prevail. Further, the governance of groundwater is very closely tied to land rights in India, where the water below a piece of land can be extracted and used used in any manner the extractor deems fit. Regulatory frameworks around groundwater, as well as accountability is thus still weak, in this scenario where groundwater is tied to land ownership. This is one of the main reasons why groundwater is so vastly exploited, despite it being a common pool resource.

Playing participatory games in the community debunks many such perceptions, and creates spaces to bring forth col­lective action in governing natural resources in the common pool.

The hand holding signifies the interconnectedness of water beneath the land of each farmer. Image credit: Water Practitioners NetworkThe game exists in different variations differing with its design. The games are devised to bring out the characteristics of groundwater as an open access and subtractable resource ("subtractability" refers to the degree to which one person's use of a resource diminishes someone else's use of the same resource). It also allows for simulation of crop choices and shows the implications for the health of the aquifer. For example, the game brings out the acute stress that aquifers in water deficient environments undergo when farmers start growing water-intensive crops like sugarcane, onions or other vegetables. On a positive note, the game also shows how the stressed aquifers in hard rock areas benefit when water users adopt sensible and less water-intensive cropping patterns. The games are devised in a manner that practitioners across different geographies are able to modify them to suit specific contexts. However, the intent underlying them remains the same i.e. to highlight the collective stewardship of groundwater.

Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), a civil society organisation headquartered in Anand, Gujarat, has taken the initiative in developing and using experimental games for sustainable management of natural resources. Ramesh Babu Bethi, FES Program Manager from the Papagni River Basin Regional Office, highlighted the impact of the game across multiple locations: "We were using both of the tools to get information to farmers in 21 villages. In a few villages, there was a ban on digging more borewells. In a few villages, there was a ban on cultivating paddy in the rabi season. In a few villages, farmers switched from paddy and tomato to finger millet and groundnut. This saves a lot of groundwater."

FES team members playing groundwater games with the community. Image credit: Water Practitioners Network

Groundwater levels and usage behaviour are influenced by bio-physical conditions, state policies and market incentives. The game helps local communities analyse endogenous sources of factors impacting groundwater behaviour and explore methods to regulate or better use groundwater.

As Ruth Meinzen-Dick and colleagues at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) remarked, "Games alone will not end groundwater depletion. However, games can contribute to social learning about the role of crop choice and collective action, to motivate behavior change toward more sustainable groundwater extraction."

This article has been republished with permission from the Water Practitioners Network. View the original post hereThe views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.

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