CSIRO researchers have devised the ‘Groundwater Commons Game’ (GCG), an agent-based model of irrigated agriculture rooted in principles of human cooperation and collective action.

The challenge

Achieving better compliance

Little is known about whether and when resource users will comply with groundwater conservation policies. Although enforcement is an essential part of any successful management programme, it is a costly endeavour that can erode trust between water agencies and users. Traditionally human values and social norms have not been largely taken into account when determining government policy and the likelihood of compliance.

Our response

Taking social values and norms into account

CSIRO researchers have devised the 'Groundwater Commons Game' (GCG), an agent-based model of irrigated agriculture rooted in principles of human cooperation and collective action, grounded on the largest dataset of cultural values in existence—The World Values Survey 6 . Researchers simulated three major aquifer systems currently facing unsustainable demands—the Punjab (India/Pakistan), the Central Valley (USA), and the Murray-Darling Basin (Australia)—to reveal 'tipping points' where collective attitudes towards groundwater conservation shift abruptly with  changes in cultural values and enforcement provisions.

The results

Sustaining groundwater systems long-term

The GCG allows us to map aquifer systems on a "compliance landscape" and assess how far or close the system is from achieving long-term sustainability and how we could tip the system towards a better overall state.  At the same time, it could warn us if we are too close to the tipping point in terms of proximity to an unsustainable state.

When we map Australian values using Cultural Theory, Australians fall in an egalitarian society appearing to be more lenient towards non-compliance when compared to other nations and tending to have less trust in institutions. We contend that it is possible to move the system past the tipping points—to the 'compliance' side—by reconfiguring how information flows in the system. Our model suggests that a powerful way to do this is by engaging a minority of rule-followers—dedicated citizens/farmers that are always going to cooperate and report illegal extractions. Our research suggests that the effect that a minority of rule-followers has on compliance far outweighs the benefits of increasing monitoring and enforcement powers.

The California Central Valley (USA) case study is an example where individualistic values will make it more difficult to achieve compliance, requiring greater efforts in ensuring that legislation supports comprehensive monitoring/enforcement activities and strict monetary penalties for non-compliance. Our model reveals unwanted trade-offs in the social, economic and environmental performance indicators analysed, showing the occurrence of detrimental ‘systemic cascades’ for systems below or near the tipping points. This case study presents perhaps one of the most challenging scenarios for introducing groundwater regulation.

Alternatively, India/Pakistan case study offered different results to that of Australia and the USA. Our simulations suggest that culturally the Punjab rivers’ communities are best prepared to sustain long-lasting cooperation with groundwater rules and regulations. If these communities managed to cross the tipping points, the rates of compliance would still be very high (in fact, higher than Australia and the USA).

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