Water literacy: Communities in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district are playing games to learn about water conservation

Urvashi Dev Rawal
New Update
Water literacy: Communities in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district are playing games to learn about water conservation

Water literacy: Communities in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district are playing games to learn about water conservation 30stades

As temperatures soar and water levels plummet, Rajasthan is running water trains and thousands of tankers to meet the needs of the population. This is not the first time nor will it be the last.

Water has always been a precious commodity in Rajasthan, a desert state. As per the Central Ground Water Report for 2020, of the 295 blocks in the state, 203 are categorized as over-exploited, 23 are critical, 29 are semi-critical and only 37 blocks are safe. (Three blocks are saline).

Could the situation be remedied through water games?

Farmers in about 100 villages in Kotdi, Asind, Mandal and Karera blocks of Bhilwara district in Rajasthan are understanding water management through water games.

Uday Singh is a farmer in Parmeshwarpura village of Kotdi block. He used to grow wheat in his five bighas of land. Wheat requires water five times during the crop cycle. Uday Singh does not have any irrigation facility and he buys water from another person’s borewell, paying Rs3000 per purchase. For the entire crop cycle, he has to pay Rs15,000 for water.

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A few years back, Singh took part in a meeting by the NGO Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) that taught farmers about water management through games and discussions.

Singh says he became aware of saving water after playing the games. “I used to grow wheat on my land but after the FES facilitator told us about the water consumption, I decided to do mixed cropping to save water. Though there was some opposition from my family, I went ahead with my decision,” he says.

FES undertaking a water games session in Bhilwara. Pic: FES 30STADES
FES undertaking a water games session in Bhilwara. Pic: FES

Now Singh grows wheat on 2 bighas of land and chana on 3 bighas of land. “Earlier I spent Rs15,000 for watering the crop. Now I spend Rs9500,” he says.

Chana requires only two waterings. His production was 12 quintals of chana and 14 quintals of wheat, almost equal to the 25 quintal wheat he grew earlier. He used to sell the wheat crop for about Rs40,000. This time he sold the chana crop for Rs50,000 as the rates were between Rs4000-5500 per quintal.

In his 60 years, Singh has seen 7-8 open wells in his village dry up and several borewells come up. He says the water table has gone down by 1-2 metres in his village.

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Shantanu Sinha Roy, regional team leader, FES, Rajasthan says besides money, Singh has saved close to 1 lakh litres of water by shifting to mixed cropping and growing chana along with wheat on his land.

About 20,000 litres of water is required in one watering for the wheat crop. Five waterings amount to 5 lakh litres of water over five bighas of land. But now he is growing chana on 3 bighas of land. Chana requires only two waterings, so he’s using 1.2 lakh litres of water for chana and 3.2 lakh litres for wheat and still saving 1.8 lakh litres of water.

FES members sensitizing villagers through games on water conservation. Pic: FES 30stades
FES members sensitizing villagers through games on water conservation. Pic: FES

Roy has come across cases where families have to sell their jewellery or take loans to buy water to irrigate their crops. But with awareness about the efficient use of water, farmers can avoid the debt trap.

Roy says most governments and organisations work on the supply side, creating more and more structures to store water but there is no talk of water governance and demand management. With the water games and crop water budgeting, the starkest change has been the alteration in behaviour and attitude of the people who are beginning to think of water as a shared resource.

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“This has led to the adoption of improved agricultural practices, resulting in saving of 1.5 TCM water per household, saving of Rs3,000 to Rs4,000 on the cost of cultivation, and higher crop productivity,” says Pratiti Priyadarshini, senior programme manager, FES.

water conservation through water games in Bhilwara. One chapati requires 25 litres water. Save water conservation 30stades

FES is headquartered in the Anand district of Gujarat. It works on strengthening and reviving the process of ecological succession and the conservation of land, forest and water resources in the country. The NGO is working in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Odisha on water security.

Playing games

The water games are usually played before the Rabi season in August-September. The community groups assess the amount of water available and the demand. Based on the assessment, they have to decide what crops will be grown, If the water is not enough for domestic and irrigation use, then what strategy needs to be adopted.

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The game helps in creating a real-life situation of the dilemmas that farmers face in balancing the need to conserve water with that of generating income.

Groups of five players are made and they are given a particular amount of water. They have to choose between two types of crops – one that is water-intensive but fetches them a higher price in the market, and the second crop which demands less water but earns a lower price.

There are 20 rounds. In the first 10 rounds, there is no communication between the players. The participants take individual decisions and cannot reveal their crop choice to others. The last 10 rounds are then played with communication.

Water games help people take collective decisions on water use and conservation. Pic: FES 30STADES
Water games help people take collective decisions on water use and conservation. Pic: FES

In this round, the participants reveal their crop choice. They can also discuss and takedecisions collectively after evaluating the water situation, discussing their problems and advocating solutions.

The game is followed by a debriefing session where the players and other community members hold discussions. The facilitator urges the players to reflect on the lessons from the game. The community deliberates upon the local water-related issues, irrigation strategies, and crop considerations.

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The game is supported by Crop Water Budgeting which is a community-centric tool to discuss balancing available water resources with the levels of consumption. It helps in creating a shared knowledge of the availability of water vis-à-vis the demand for water for various uses. It helps the farmers in developing strategies for more efficient and equitable water use.

Kailash Balai, a trainer in Kotdi block says as individuals, the focus of the farmers is on earning maximum income from their crop. But as a group, they tend to have in-depth discussions on the water situation, the monsoon, mixed cropping, income generation and choose the agricultural activity based on the water availability.

Balai admits that changing the mindset of people is a challenge but the outcome of the interventions is visible.

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Some are replacing water-intensive crops with those that require less water and, in some villages, communities agree to take a ‘crop holiday’ when there is insufficient rainfall.

In some villages, the community members have prescribed rules and regulations to manage water resources, some are advocating water-sharing while others have banned borewells.

History of water games

The water games were developed jointly by the FES, International Food Policy Research Institute and Arizona State University. The water games draw from Game Theory which was developed by mathematician John von Neumann and economist Oskar Morgenstern in the 1940s.

Assessing water level in an open well in village in Bhilwara. Pic: FES 30STADES
Assessing water level in an open well in village in Bhilwara. Pic: FES

Game Theory is a theoretical framework to conceive social situations among competing players. Game theory is the science of strategy, or at least the optimal decision-making of independent and competing actors in a strategic setting.

The key to game theory is that one player's payoff is contingent on the strategy implemented by the other player. 

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Researchers in the 1990s who were engaged with making different communities play games found that people talked about the games even after the interaction. The lasting impact of the games led to the development of experimental games in the developmental sector.

Why Games?

A pilot of the water games was carried out in Andhra Pradesh in to see to what extent games influenced behaviour. Its success led to the games being introduced to communities in other states. 

Pratiti says the purpose of the games was two-fold - to sensitise the community that groundwater is not a private but a shared resource so that they use it judiciously. Secondly, it was a method to help practitioners, governments and activists to talk about water demand management.

“Most watershed development projects focus is on building water harvesting structures. But just building structures and not engaging with the community to use the water efficiently and equitably will not have the desired impact of addressing the issue of the water crisis,” says Pratiti.

However, the games are not a stand-alone activity but a part of a larger set of interventions to improve water governance.

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Involving people in decision-making through games leaves a lasting impact. Pic: FES 30STADES
Involving people in decision-making through games leaves a lasting impact. Pic: FES

“It is a continuous engagement and follow-up discussions are essential,” says Pratiti.

She says the games involve the people in decision-making and so they leave an impact. “Usually, the development practitioners or government officials lecture the community about water conservation or other practices. There is a need to innovate new methods to engage with the community. When they play games, they are given a situation, they have to think and do what’s best. The next day, there is a debriefing session and facilitators put questions to the community and there is a discussion on the agriculture practices, water management, and related issues. They are motivated to think and take decisions,”

FES is trying to propagate game-playing among the policymakers and state governments as the modus operandi for water governance and demand management among communities.

They are set to roll out jointly with their partners the water games among 2500 communities in the six states they work in.

Roy says even the educated are not water literate. “We don’t attach value to water. We keep lecturing farmers on water conservation but why not the common people? I feel each product should mention the water used in producing it like we mention the ingredients or calories.”

(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)

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