Updated: Jan 23
Collective action games trigger conversations around the nature of the invisible and
immeasurable common resource - ground water
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 is true for the groundwater games that have seemingly created a ripple of excitement amongst the practitioners and communities. There are no fictitious role plays here, only simulation of real life situations for the farmers who play the game.
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 per cent of the wells and tubewells in India are owned by small and marginal farmers, which show the dependence on groundwater for the survival of these farmers.
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 come under the grip of water scarcity, it has become clear that crisis situation cannot be reversed without mobilizing communities to protect groundwater. In this context, many grass-roots organisations have been using the groundwater game as a participatory tool, showing it potential to trigger discussion within communities to improve the local governance of groundwater.
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/misconceptions to prevail. The most common of which is that the water below my ground is mine, and I have the right to use it in any manner I may deem fit. It is this view which allows groundwater users escape all regulation and accountability and which makes groundwater one of the most exploited common pool resources.
Playing participatory games in the community debunks many such myths and creates spaces to bring forth collective action in governing natural resources in the common pool. The game exists in different variations differing with its design. The games are devised in such a manner as to bring out clearly 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 others' use), simulate crop choices and show their 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 get a change to revive their health if the 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. highlight the collective stewardship of groundwater.
Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), a civil society organisation headquartered in Anand, Gujarat, has taken 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 bore wells. In a few villages, there was a ban on taking up the paddy in rabi season. In a few villages, farmers switched from paddy and tomato to finger millet and groundnut. This saves a lot of groundwater.”
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) remark, “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.”