Groundwater governance toolboxes to encourage sustainable water use

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Always important, effective water governance is now vital as population growth and agricultural intensification increase the burden on our planet’s limited fresh water supplies. However, establishing sustainable, equitable, and effective rules for water use can be challenging even for surface water resources, such as lakes and rivers. When it comes to groundwater – which supplies more than 40 percent of irrigation globally – these challenges are multiplied.

“Groundwater is particularly difficult to manage because it’s invisible and because it’s what we call fugitive – it moves around and can be hard to keep track of,” explains Dr Ruth Meinzen-Dick, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). “As a result, the governance of groundwater lags behind other areas of water management.” The lack of clear rules and effective decision-making means that agricultural communities around the world continue to over-extract this precious resource, putting ecosystems and food security at risk. These effects can already be seen in India, the world’s largest groundwater user, where groundwater depletion has been linked to water contamination, reduced crop production and increased poverty.

Tailored groundwater solutions

To support effective groundwater governance among government agencies and local communities, Dr Meinzen-Dick and a team of groundwater experts are working with the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains to develop sets of groundwater governance tools, known as “toolboxes”. These will contain a range of innovative procedures, policy instruments, and institutional tools to prevent aquifer depletion and promote more productive and sustainable uses of groundwater. Equally importantly, they will include processes to identify, adapt, and combine these tools into bespoke toolboxes to suit local contexts – whether that is the Himalayan foothills of Nepal or the savannah plains of Ethiopia.

“We decided on a toolbox approach because there is no single tool that has been shown to be effective everywhere,” says Dr Meinzen-Dick. “It’s not like you can pick any tool and use it like a cookie cutter in multiple locations. You have to first go through a diagnostic process and ask what tools have been tried in one place that might work elsewhere and how they need to be adapted to fit local conditions.”

Work on the toolboxes began last year, when Dr Meinzen-Dick and her colleagues conducted a thorough literature search of institutional approaches to groundwater governance, noting the successes and limitations of different tools and combinations of tools. This was followed by an online expert workshop that brought together experiences from Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and Australia. The findings from this workshop are now being developed into a special issue of the International Journal of the Commons, due out by mid-2024.

Experiential learning

Groundwater governance toolboxes have been tried before, but they have rarely managed to embed long-lasting behavior change in groundwater users. This is partly because they have relied on an overly mechanistic understanding of behavior change, says Dr Meinzen-Dick. “Incentives for change tended to be limited to financial rewards or regulatory penalties. We now know that people are motivated by more than just cost–benefit evaluations – concern for community wellbeing, for example, can be a major motivator.”

Another major obstacle to previous attempts at changing groundwater governance has been a lack of co-development and customization. This means working with communities and government agencies in a participatory way to ensure that any processes for groundwater use are locally appropriate – reflecting not only the local climate and critical water issues, but the lives and livelihoods of the people who live and work in the region. Evidence shows that communities are more likely to trust and commit to processes that they helped create.

One way the NEXUS Gains groundwater governance toolboxes aim to move past earlier limitations is by placing a strong emphasis on experiential games. These are role-playing scenarios that provide players – in this case, groundwater users – with fresh insights into the problems and opportunities facing other members of the community. They also serve as a valuable opportunity to consider and possibly agree on rules to prevent aquifer depletion. “You bring people together and ask them to choose crops to grow,” explains Dr Meinzen-Dick. “Depending on whether they choose more or less water-consumptive crops, the water table goes up or down. This helps people realize that their choices affect others and encourages them to co-develop rules to limit negative effects.”

“By themselves, the games will not change things,” Dr Meinzen-Dick cautions. “They have to be followed up with technical support, such as help with crop–water budgeting and groundwater monitoring. But without the experiential learning these games provide, people rarely realize why this technical support is useful to them, and groundwater use doesn’t change.”

Expanding the application of toolboxes

The NEXUS Gains toolboxes build on previous work by Dr Meinzen-Dick and colleagues at IFPRI, which introduced experiential groundwater games to more than 1,200 communities in India. This project produced encouraging results, including changing community norms and establishing a greater role for women in decision-making. Similar approaches have been introduced in Ethiopia and Ghana, where they have shown the need to adapt tools to factors such as unreliable rainfall, soil salinity, the intensity of groundwater use, and patterns of community organization.

The hope is to build on these experiences to encourage local communities, national, provincial, and municipal governments, and other groundwater stakeholders to cooperate to establish sustainable groundwater governance. In addition, private-sector organizations such as well drillers and sustainable agricultural companies are being contacted to support these efforts. Although the toolbox has been extensively developed in India, efforts are underway to introduce the approach to Nepal and Pakistan. And this is just the beginning: the emphasis on co-development and tailored solutions means that groundwater governance toolboxes are a highly adaptable solution with  potentially global relevance.

For more information, contact Ruth Meinzen-Dick, Senior Research Fellow, IFPRI:

The development of groundwater governance tools has been supported by funding contributions to the CGIAR Trust Fund. Additional bilateral investment has been provided by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, commissioned by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit through the Fund International Agricultural Research.


Header image: Using games for learning about groundwater – part of the groundwater governance toolbox. Photo by Foundation for Ecological Security.

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