Demystifying groundwater for collective action
Experiences from participatory groundwater management efforts in Maharashtra
29 Jul 2021
Unless work on managing the demand is undertaken, the notion of ‘infinite’ groundwater will be hard to address. (Image: Rucha Deshmukh, ACWADAM)

India is the largest user of groundwater in the world. Agriculture, rural and urban domestic water supply and increasingly industries are shaping the dependency on groundwater. More importantly, in the case of India as in most of South Asia, groundwater is critical to ensure drinking water security besides being the lifeline for the livelihoods of millions of small and marginal farmers.

This dependency over the past few decades has translated into a crisis situation for groundwater resources, with nearly 36 per cent of the districts in India (representing approximately 440 million people) directly threatened by the exploitation and contamination of groundwater according to the latest assessment by the Central Ground Water Board.

With increasing evidence of climate change and recurrent extreme weather events (like droughts and floods), the threat becomes more imminent than earlier. Hence, we need to move towards improving the management and governance of groundwater, more so today, than ever before.

What can be done?

Various government, non-government as well as international agencies have identified approaches to tackle this challenge through programmes and policies aimed at improving groundwater recharge, addressing quality concerns and controlling the abstraction of groundwater. The biggest challenge that still remains is to be able to collectively ‘visualise the invisible’, such that these strategies are translated into long term management options.

Evidence from various parts of the country (APFAMGS, PGWM, MARVI etc.) has suggested that improved understanding of groundwater often leads to better decisions for managing this crucial resource. How does one collectively ‘visualise’ the invisible?

This article draws from the author’s experience of applying tools and methods such as experiential games, scenario building exercises and information, education and communication (IEC) material related to participatory groundwater management (PGWM) in Maharashtra.  

As India takes on the humungous challenge of addressing groundwater depletion in about 8500 overexploited villages across 7 states through the Atal Bhujal Yojana (Atal Jal), such an exercise aimed at improving collective understanding of groundwater resources and the need for their management may prove beneficial for this.

Recognising the common pool nature of aquifers

Aquifers are underground geological formations that are capable of storing and transmitting groundwater. Based on the type and characteristics of the rocks or rock material that constitute them, they differ in two important properties viz. storativity and transmissivity. Different aquifer properties mean different groundwater conditions across regions.

While land parcels are distributed amongst people on the surface and so are the sources of groundwater, which are often private property (like a dug-well or a bore-well), aquifers remain the common denominator across seemingly different sources and farmlands. Hence, recognising that aquifers are common-pool resources, in that they are shared amongst different users (small, marginal and large farm-holders) and uses (agriculture, drinking and others) is an important part of any governance and management strategy. But how will diverse stakeholders recognise this important aspect of aquifers? We relied on innovative approaches to address this challenge.

A fun and lively activity, the Common Pool Resource game being played at a Women Water Meet (Image: Kaustubh Mahamuni)

We adopted the classical Common Pool Resource game and improvised it to shift the attention of our training participants and community members towards how common pool resources like aquifers are shared by all and often result in inequitable distribution.

The game is simple. We keep a bowl of chocolates (or peanuts or something that is ‘precious’) and ask the participants to stand in a circle. Participants are told to take the chocolates once the whistle blows. In all cases, we saw that all the participants pounce on that bowl and grab their share (whatever comes in their hand). It also results in many participants not getting even a bar of single chocolate.

Debriefing and discussion on what happened during this lively and charged event suggests that participants who were swift and strong got most of the share while many others were devoid of it. This is often the case in common-pool resources like groundwater. Although it is shared by all, it does not necessarily end up being shared equitably due to different capacities, endowments (strength and swiftness in this case) and thus we end up exploiting and depleting the resource while increasing inequities in the society. Recognising this common pool nature of aquifers is the first step towards demystifying groundwater management.

People queuing at an ATM centre for withdrawing money (Image: Guiliano Rangel Alves, Pixabay)

During the trainings, we also used the example of an ATM machine, as most participants use it quite often. The ATM machine symbolises an aquifer with limited storage (cash) and transmission (dispensing cash) and the game is indicative of how it is shared by all the people who have an account in the bank.

This too triggers interesting discussion and often highlights the role of the ATM security person in managing the queue, number of withdrawals one can make, need for cooperation amongst the users (local regulation) rather than distant bank head-offices and servers (national or state laws, policies) trying to control, what happens at these ATM centres.

Identifying supply and demand as two sides of the same coin

While many programmes rely on improving groundwater recharge that leads to the augmentation of water resources in any village, watershed or region, understanding that there are limits to recharge is important. Aquifers have specific storage capacities, meaning that beyond a certain amount of water, these will be unable to hold any water and will discharge as baseflow, stream discharge etc., and it is important to understand that any area will have certain groundwater availability for a given hydrological year.

This means that unless work on managing the demand is undertaken, the notion of ‘infinite’ groundwater will be hard to address. Farmers often rely on incessant drilling of new sources for searching ‘more’ groundwater and what we see today is that thousands of such sources fail to yield any water.

Secondly, unless demand is managed, any improvement in groundwater availability through watershed interventions and other programmes will fail in the long run as local cropping patterns change and communities adopt new forms of agricultural practices. We devised a supply and demand game as well as adopted an experiential game developed by organisations working in this sector, to disseminate the importance of supply-demand balance.

The supply and demand game resembles the tug of war game that we played in school. We have two teams - A and B. Team A is supply and Team B is demand. The game is played in 3 scenarios:



In scenario 1, Team A (supply) is smaller than Team B (demand), with Team B winning in most cases. Thus, the village often experiences water scarcity and failing crops. In order to address this situation, watershed interventions aimed at improving groundwater recharge and augmenting water resources is undertaken and thus Team A has equal players now.

This scenario often leads to a draw with none of the sides winning, thus being able to establish a balance between demand and supply in the village. However, with a lack of local regulation or any other institutional decision for sharing and using groundwater, some of the members adopt a change in cropping pattern, while others increase the area under irrigation.

This pulls the game towards demand (with more members in Team B again now) and thus the balance is stretched again. This does not usually happen within a year or two, but over years of transformation in practices of access and use of groundwater. This long process can be grasped through a game within a training session which enables an interesting discussion towards looking at programmes, practices and management of groundwater in villages.

Another experiential game that we often rely upon in training and community dialogue involves engaging with a set of participants as actors (basically farmers) who make certain crop choices every year and are endowed with groundwater sources. This has been developed by FES in collaboration with other partners.

Basically, two crop choices (less water, less value crops and water-intensive, high-value crops) are suggested and participants are free to choose either option. At the end of each year, a cumulative assessment of total crops and their water requirement is done. This is usually continued for 8 to 10 years.

This is coupled with an understanding of aquifer (and groundwater availability) and then impact on groundwater resources is realised over the 10-year period. Groundwater resources are not vulnerable to rapid depletion but often take many years to reach a stage of overexploitation. This slow change in groundwater conditions is quite vividly grasped through the experiential game. It has been detailed in a manual here.

Disseminating groundwater management through IEC material

Thirdly, the process of participatory groundwater management is demystified through the development and use of IEC materials that enable a collective understanding of groundwater and groundwater management.