Around the world, many farmers are struggling to make ends meet and manage with scarce resources, in order to sustain their livelihoods. Groundwater is a key resource, particularly because more than every second farmer practicing irrigation in the world is dependent on groundwater. Most farmers often choose groundwater over other sources of water due to its year-round availability and accessibility just under their fields.
However, one farmer is seldom working in isolation. So, when many, and an increasing number of, farmers simultaneously extract groundwater from the same source, it can cause serious problems for ensuring the continuous flow of irrigation water for all. It can also negatively impact nearby river flow and ecosystems, such as lakes, as well as jeopardize domestic water supplies to communities, if they rely on traditional shallow wells that easily run dry. This ‘common-pool resource’ challenge is not new, but accelerating due to more intensive agricultural production, required to meet increasing global food demand.
As a fundamental, but growing, dilemma in groundwater development, more attention is now being given to policies and practices in order to come up with workable solutions for farmers and communities at large.
Evidence shows that social mobilization and collaboration around groundwater may work. Such approaches include serious games that involve local stakeholders in collective action, social regulations, and ‘gaming’. Gaming simply implies co-developing and testing scenarios of future potential demand for groundwater in a systematic way – often through some facilitation by developers of the game – and how they will affect the community as a whole through their aggregate impact on groundwater resources. Conversely, the games inform the farmers of the cause-effect relationship between pumping and the lowering of groundwater levels, implications on pumping costs of a falling groundwater table, and importantly reveal information on best practice scenarios, where farmers collaborate to maintain the resource within sustainable limits while reaching general prosperity and well-being. Each player is a farmer who makes a series of decisions around his/her use of groundwater for irrigated agriculture, e.g., as affected by seasonal rainfall, and crop and energy prices. Each decision has impacts on groundwater availability and the surrounding environment. The game presents a potential ‘tragedy of the commons’ and embodies dilemmas around the human use of common-pool resources. Conflicts of interest may arise between the individual users, the community, the resource and the environment. Though the game in itself does not prevent groundwater depletion, it may stimulate individual behavioral change and more collaboration around crop and irrigation management. Therefore, better informed and empowered farmers that collaborate can support the sustainable use of groundwater.
Recently, the International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre (IGRAC), a partner of the Groundwater Solutions Initiative for Policy and Practice (GRIPP), released the Groundwater Game. This serious game was created in 2008 and has been gradually improved since then. Game sessions were held in Kenya, Ethiopia, Niger and Tanzania, the first session as part of the Groundwater Governance project and the latter sessions as part of the GroFutures project. The game was designed to be played with farmers/end water users, students, water authorities, water professionals, nongovernmental organizations, United Nations agencies, or water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) experts to develop a broad understanding of groundwater sustainability, and has been applied by stakeholders in their specific contexts.
The positive feedback received so far has resulted in improvement of the game interface and the new version is freely available now. The latest updates of the game were developed by IGRAC and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS).