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Meinzen-Dick, R., R. Chaturvedi, L. Domènech, R. Ghate, M. A. Janssen, N. D. Rollins, and K. Sandeep. 2016. Games for groundwater governance: field experiments in Andhra Pradesh, India. Ecology and Society 21(3):38.

Games for groundwater governance: field experiments in Andhra Pradesh, India

1International Food Policy Research Institute, 2Foundation for Ecological Security, 3International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, 4Arizona State University


Groundwater is a common-pool resource that is subject to depletion in many places around the world as a result of increased use of irrigation and water-demanding cash crops. Where state capacity to control groundwater use is limited, collective action is important to increase recharge and restrict highly water-consumptive crops. We present results of field experiments in hard rock areas of Andhra Pradesh, India, to examine factors affecting groundwater use. Two nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) ran the games in communities where they were working to improve watershed and water management. Results indicate that, when the links between crop choice and groundwater depletion is made explicit, farmers can act cooperatively to address this problem. Longer NGO involvement in the villages was associated with more cooperative outcomes in the games. Individuals with more education and higher perceived community social capital played more cooperatively, but neither gender nor method of payment had a significantly effect on individual behavior. When participants could repeat the game with communication, similar crop choice patterns were observed. The games provided an entry point for discussion on the understanding of communities of the interconnectedness of groundwater use and crop choice.
Key words: Andhra Pradesh; collective action; experimental games; framed field experiments; groundwater; India


Groundwater use is a pressing issue in global water management. The key use of groundwater is irrigation, which uses 70% of global freshwater withdrawals, of which 43% is from groundwater (Siebert et al. 2010). Groundwater use for irrigation is increasing in absolute and relative terms (Siebert et al. 2010).

India is the world’s largest user of groundwater for agriculture (Shah 2009). According to the Fourth Minor Irrigation Census (2006–2007;, the numbers of shallow tube wells increased from 8.35 million to 9.12 million, and deep tube wells increased from 0.53 million to 1.44 million, between 2000–2001 and 2006–2007. Today, > 60% of the irrigation requirements are met by groundwater, clearly indicating the increasing dependence on wells for irrigation. When juxtaposed against the fact that > 85% of the drinking water requirements in India are met from groundwater (World Bank 2010), there is tremendous pressure on groundwater resources in India. This is reflected in the falling water table levels, indicated in premonsoon decadal trends captured by the Central Ground Water Board (2013): Approximately 50% of the wells tested showed a water table decline, with 36.77% of wells showing a decline of 0–2 m below ground level (bgl), and approximately 13% of wells showing a decline of > 2 m bgl, from 2002 to 2012. Declines in water levels in excess of 4 m bgl are prominent in the states of Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, and Andhra Pradesh. In total, 1494 of 4277 blocks (subdistrict administrative units) assessed, or ~26%, fall into the categories of semicritical (using > 70% of net annual groundwater availability), critical (using > 90%), or overexploited (using > 100% of recharge); all of these categories have significant long-term decline in pre- or postmonsoonal water levels.

Groundwater is a common-pool resource: exploitation by one user reduces groundwater availability for the rest of the users, but it is very difficult to exclude users or limit their extraction, provided they have the land and financing necessary for a well and pump (Ostrom et al. 1999). Detection of free-riding behavior is also typically a challenge because the resource is not directly observable, and, unlike surface irrigation, users are not drawing from a visible common channel but individually from a concealed aquifer. Like users of many other common-pool resources, farmers using groundwater in many places around the world face a dilemma: they have to choose between short-term individual gains from resource extraction and long-term sustainability of the resource, especially in hard rock aquifers where recharge is limited and highly water-consumptive crops are more profitable than crops with low water consumption (Garduño et al. 2009).

Many analysts emphasize the role of the state in controlling groundwater exploitation (e.g., Ross and Martinez-Santos 2010 for Australia and Spain). However, state control requires a high degree of state capacity to monitor groundwater levels and use by many dispersed users. Bekkar et al. (2009) argue that state action is necessary but insufficient for effective groundwater management. Even where there is state capacity, additional community efforts are often needed for effective groundwater management (Mitchell et al. 2011).

In India, the government has had limited capacity to regulate groundwater use (Shah et al. 2012). The major state regulatory measure focuses on blocks that have been declared to be using too high a proportion of recharge by restricting the issuance of electricity connections for pumps within a certain distance of existing wells or by regulating the supply of electricity to wells. However, farmers with electricity connections often receive flat rate or highly subsidized rural electricity, which creates little incentive to conserve water. The political economy of agriculture in India has limited the implementation of these or other state measures to control groundwater (Mukerji and Shah 2005, Mukherji 2006, Faysse and Petit 2012), and those who can purchase diesel pumps can often get around the regulations.

Collective institutions for self-regulation of resource use have evolved to address such common-pool resource dilemmas in many contexts, including surface irrigation, forests, and rangelands. However, groundwater presents particular challenges to the evolution of such commons management owing to the lack of clear boundaries or visibility of the resource stocks and flows and the difficulty of regulating the installation and use of wells on individual land holdings. Ostrom’s (1965) dissertation examined such institutions for groundwater governance in California, and work by Blomquist (1992) and others has examined factors that contribute to such arrangements.

What can be done when such self-governance does not emerge? As noted by the World Bank (2010:xvii), “While the ‘what-to-do’ elements of successful community action on groundwater management are broadly known - actionable resource information, social mobilization, and incentives to facilitate change - there is a notable lack of proven models for community based groundwater management.” One response has been to work through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to raise awareness of the problems of groundwater overextraction and ways of addressing them (Garduño et al. 2009). Methods can include increasing groundwater recharge through management in the upper catchment, but usually also need to include some form of demand management to restrict withdrawals, usually through forms of community groundwater budgeting or limitations on types of crops grown or technologies for water extraction and application (notably drip irrigation). Crop choice is particularly useful because it has an important effect on groundwater use and is relatively easy to understand and monitor, an example of the type of simple rules with low transaction costs that van Steenbergen (2006) identifies as important in providing the basis for community action. Ultimately, however, the success of such measures depends on farmers’ decisions. Bekkar et al. (2009), Kuper et al. (2009), and Faysse et al. (2014) found that interventions to help farmers understand the nature of groundwater resources and how their actions could affect the resource conditions could provide the basis for community responses. These interventions are examples of the kinds of social learning that that bring stakeholders together to develop the capacity and trust needed for collaboration, which Pahl-Wostl et al. (2007, 2008) argue are increasingly important for water management.

Several studies have examined the determinants of collective action and human behavior using different approaches, including qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis, common-pool resource experiments, and action research (Baland and Platteau 1996, Meinzen-Dick et al. 2002, Poteete et al. 2010, Janssen and Anderies 2011). A growing number of researchers use framed field experiments (also referred to as experimental games) with farmers in rural communities to collect information on how people, facing real-life resource challenges such as scarce water supplies, behave and work together to solve collective problems. Such methods are increasingly used to measure collective action and test theories about behavior regarding common-pool resources, including irrigation (Cardenas 2000, Anderies et al. 2011, Janssen and Anderies 2011, Janssen et al. 2012, Cardenas et al. 2013).

Here, we examine the main factors that affect the behavior and attitudes of groundwater users regarding the governance and management of this common-pool resource in Andhra Pradesh, India. We used a framed field experiment to look at how people make decisions related to what crops to plant and how much groundwater to use. Most of the earlier studies on groundwater experiments were performed with student participants (but see Salcedo Du Bois 2014). Our study is performed with farmers who experience groundwater problems in hard rock aquifers in Andhra Pradesh, India. We aim to understand the social and biophysical contextual variables that can explain the decisions of the participants on simulated crop choice, to understand the factors that affect groundwater use in practice. A better understanding of the factors that influence people’s behavior about groundwater use can be very valuable for the design of future programs aiming at improving groundwater governance in India.

We next provide background information on the field study context in Andhra Pradesh. This is followed by a brief review of the literature on framed field experiments on common-pool resource management in irrigation. We then describe the design of the overall study and the experimental game. Finally, we present and analyze the results at the individual and group level, and conclude with implications of these findings for groundwater governance.


The state of Andhra Pradesh in India is highly dependent on groundwater, which is used to irrigate an area of 3.17 million ha, more than half of the total area under irrigation (6.28 million ha), and to meet approximately 80% of the drinking water needs of the growing population (Directorate of Groundwater, Most of this groundwater is from hard rock aquifers, which have patchy areas of groundwater and low storage (World Bank 2010). Since the mid-1980s, groundwater use has increased dramatically, leading to falling groundwater tables. Since the 1980s, the number of wells has increased from 800,000 to 2.5 million, and the land under groundwater irrigation has almost tripled (Directorate of Groundwater, The state is divided into 1227 groundwater blocks, of which 300 were at critical or overexploited levels in 2008, and 208 were at semicritical levels (World Bank 2010). Kumar et al. (2011) depict a more pessimistic situation and argue that groundwater overexploitation has been underestimated because of an underestimation of the outflows of the systems. They argue that groundwater irrigation exceeded sustainable withdrawals in 2000–2001.

Reversing this situation is not an easy task. Even though groundwater is a common-pool resource, in most of Andhra Pradesh, groundwater is not managed under a common property regime, which poses serious risks for the future of the resource. Owing to the invisible character of the resource and the difficulties to monitor private pumping, enforcing specific legislation to regulate groundwater use is difficult and expensive (Kemper 2007). Individuals construct and operate wells, and although there are regulations on the development of wells within a certain distance of an existing well, unless the well owner applies for an electricity connection, there is little that the state does to enforce well development, much less their operation. Lack of information about the underlying resource dynamics, especially in hard rock aquifers, makes it difficult for communities to act. Moreover, groundwater can take a long time to renew, further masking the relationship between use, recharge, and water availability. Private financing for wells means that wealthier farmers have an advantage in obtaining groundwater because they are better able to afford pumps and well deepening.

Several programs and initiatives have been developed in India and Andhra Pradesh to address the problem of groundwater overexploitation. In 2002, the government of India developed the National Groundwater Recharge Master Plan to encourage the recuperation of groundwater levels through artificial groundwater recharge. The plan estimates that a total of 36 billion m³ can be recharged by using specific recharge structures and rooftop rainwater harvesting in urban areas (World Bank 2010). However, the World Bank (2010) argues that the Master Plan may fail to reach the areas where groundwater overexploitation is more severe because of the criteria used to identify the most suitable recharge areas, which include availability of surplus water and availability of storage space in aquifers. Two major strategies for addressing groundwater depletion are: (1) increasing recharge through watershed management, and (2) reducing extractions through community-based groundwater management, which may include restrictions on new wells, sharing water from existing wells, groundwater budgeting, and limitations on water-intensive crops (for a review of three major approaches used in Andhra Pradesh, see Reddy et al. 2014; see also Garduño et al. 2009). Crop choice, in particular, is a visible indicator of groundwater use, but the links between crops and groundwater use is not always understood in communities.

The Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) and Jana Jagriti (JJ; meaning “awakening people”) are two NGOs that have been working with communities in Andhra Pradesh to strengthen governance of common-pool resources, including water management. JJ has been working in 26 habitations, across three mandals (administrative divisions) of Chittoor and Anantapur, for over two decades, on issues related to rural livelihoods and natural resource governance. Its work includes activities such as promoting sustainable agriculture, developing watersheds, crafting institutional arrangements to strengthen land and water governance, and generating public awareness. The organization has a team of dedicated field-level functionaries who are constantly interacting with the communities in villages where they work to identify and address the issues that people are facing with respect to their livelihoods. Most of the funding for this work comes from various government sources such as the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD; the apex rural refinance institution in India), watershed development programs, and other government watershed development initiatives. FES works in > 8000 villages in eight states in India to promote the conservation and sustainable management of natural resources, forests, and water in particular, through local self-governance institutions. FES has diversified funding from Indian and international funding sources; funding for the work in Ananthapur has come from NABARD, Hindustan Unilever Foundation, and Tata Trusts. Both NGOs have provided the tools and expertise for villagers to measure their groundwater levels and worked with the villagers to see the relations between water budgets, crop choice, and groundwater levels.

FES and JJ work on watershed management in Ananthapur and Chittoor districts, which are classified as arid to semiarid, with an average of 500 to 700 mm/yr of rainfall. Ananthapur is one of the most water-hungry districts in the country, with > 100,000 minor irrigation units (Fourth Minor Irrigation Census; In Ananthapur, the proportion of area irrigated by tube wells rose from 44% in 1998–2001 to 76% in 2010–2012; during the same period, the proportion of area irrigated by dug and open wells declined from 27% to just 4%, and that by tanks declined from 22% to approximately 15% (based on three-year averages derived from figures from the Department of Irrigation and Canal Area Development of the Government of Andhra Pradesh for 1998–1999 to 2011–2012).

Given the absence of perennial rivers, Ananthapur has always relied on the indigenous rainwater harvesting and management systems such as feeder channels, cascading chains of tanks, and networking water bodies (Rukmini and Manjula 2009). These water bodies were an integral part of the economic and cultural fabric of the rural communities of Ananthapur. A survey conducted in 2004 by the District Collector of Ananthapur identified > 5800 water bodies, of which 1373 were large tanks with a command area of > 0.4 km², and 2094 were small tanks. The survey found that one-quarter of the identified water bodies were dysfunctional; the meteoric rise in the number of tube wells eroded incentives to manage community-based irrigation systems that had been the bulwark of agriculture and, indeed, much of rural economy in Ananthapur. Given that many households in the district cannot afford tube wells, along with the simultaneous enfeebling of traditional irrigation sources such as tanks, a large number of farmers cannot practice agriculture with reasonable assurance. These farmers are finding themselves in a position where they are forced to cut down on cultivation or find themselves in unmanageable debt traps.

Ananthapur predominantly has crystalline rock formations, which means that there are large fluctuations in groundwater levels. Although water levels are healthy during the rainy season and after a good monsoon, they rapidly drop with the advance of the dry season. In years when rainfall is subpar, which is often, considering that Ananthapur is one of the most drought-prone districts in India, the decline in groundwater levels is precarious. This situation needs to be examined in light of the changing agricultural patterns in the district. Today, water-intensive crops such as tomatoes, sunflower, mulberry, and paddy dominate the agricultural landscape of the district, gradually elbowing out crops such as millets and pulses. This trend, together with that of oft-recurring droughts, has led to depletion of the aquifers. Analysis of time-series data indicates that 55% of wells in Ananthapur show falling water levels, ranging between 0.15 and 0.65 m/yr. Premonsoon trends indicate that 87% of wells in Ananthapur witnessed a fall in water levels over the 2000–2012 period (Central Ground Water Board 2012). Of the 65 mandals in the district, > 40 are in the critical, semicritical, and overexploited categories (Central Ground Water Board 2012).

Our study was conducted in the NP Kunta and Tanakal mandals of Ananthapur. Although both of these mandals fall in the safe category, groundwater depletion is a clear and present danger. Many of the gram panchayats (lowest level government units, containing several habitations) in these mandals experience acute water shortage during summers, which becomes exacerbated during droughts. This brings significant losses to farmers, but even nonfarmers are affected by falling water tables depleting domestic water supplies. Women are particularly affected because they are generally responsible for household domestic water supplies, which also depend on groundwater. In many villages where the experimental games were organized, the groundwater has high fluoride content, posing significant health hazards. The paucity of potable water is forcing many people to buy water cans on a regular basis, which adds to the financial burden of rural households. Finally, in some cases, the shortage of water for drinking and irrigation is forcing households to migrate. These facts point to the urgency of effecting sound groundwater governance mechanisms to strengthen the backbone of the rural economy of Ananthapur.


Framed field experiments are frequently used to obtain a better understanding about how decisions on the use of natural resources are being made and which factors affect cooperation decisions (Cardenas and Carpenter 2008, Vollan 2008, Anderies et al. 2011, Prediger et al. 2011). Such experimental games allow researchers to isolate particular aspects of the institutional arrangements (such as the ability to communicate), as well as study the effect of user characteristics on decision-making. They are designed to test hypotheses of specific research questions, such as the effect of cheap talk or costly sanctioning (Ostrom et al. 1994, Fehr and Gächter 2000), or the sensitivity of findings for different cultures (Cardenas 2000, Cardenas et al. 2000, Herrmann et al. 2008, Henrich et al. 2010). Basic insights on factors affecting cooperation are robust for different types of cultures, although contextual factors affect the level of cooperation in the various social dilemma experiments.

Framed field experiments on common-pool resources typically assume the same decision problem in each round, where changes in the outcomes over the rounds is caused by changes in the decisions of the participants (Ostrom et al. 1994). In a typical experiment, the payoff structure is explained in detail, and participants are tested on their understanding of the instructions before the actual game is started. All decisions are made in private, and the participants receive individual monetary payments based on the decisions they made; the payments are provided in private after the experiment.

Such games only allow us to observe decisions made during the experiments, and therefore, one may question the external validity of the findings of the experiments. However, framed field experiments with actual resource users indicate that decisions made in the experiments explain independent observations of actual resource use (Rustagi et al. 2010, Anderies et al. 2011).

One of the recent developments in framed field experimental studies for common-pool resources is the more explicit inclusion of ecological dynamics (Janssen et al. 2010, 2012, Cardenas et al. 2013). By including dynamics such as the depletion of the resource, experiments show that participants are more sensitive to myopic behavior of overharvesting, prioritizing short-run over long-run gains (Herr et al. 1997, Moxnes 1998a,b). In the experiment we performed, participants could deplete the groundwater resource over time, where time was represented as the rounds of the experiment.

There is a modest literature of experimental studies on common-pool resources that explicitly focus on groundwater. Gardner et al. (1997) show that a quota system leads to the best outcomes for groups sharing groundwater compared to restricting entry to a smaller number of participants. Suter et al. (2012) show that a spatial representation of a groundwater game leads to less myopic behavior compared to a nonspatial representation. Salcedo Du Bois (2014) compared groundwater experiments with student participants and Mexican farmers and found less myopic behavior with the student participants. The experimental design we used is within the tradition of Cardenas et al. (2013), in which a resource is replenished a small amount each round independently of how heavily the resource is used, and participants can overharvest the resource if they extract more resource units than are replenished.

Groundwater resources show some particular challenges that hinder the development of collaborative outcomes. Individual farmers can easily gain access to groundwater resources if they own or lease land and can invest in a well. However, developing self-governance norms for groundwater systems is usually more challenging because irrigators may have limited information about the boundaries, structure, and capacity of the common-pool resource (Schlager 2007). Because the participants are farmers with small land holdings and few alternatives for income generation, choosing whether or not to use irrigation can mean the difference between subsistence-level living and slightly better living standards. Owing to the invisible character of groundwater resources, appropriation and provision problems are initially less obvious to groundwater users. The game we designed makes explicit the effect of individuals’ crop choice on overall groundwater levels and then examines the factors that affect farmers’ choice of water-consumptive (but profitable) or less water-consumptive (but less profitable) crops. The subsequent debriefing sessions within the community link the game to actual experiences of groundwater use and depletion and provide an entry for NGOs to discuss what the community might do to manage their groundwater more sustainably. However, our focus here is on the factors affecting crop choice.


Game structure

We used a field experiment framed as a groundwater governance exercise to simulate the effects of crop choice on groundwater levels (see Appendix 1 for the detailed experiment protocol). In each habitation (a named, distinct cluster of houses that constitutes the local community), two groups of participants were recruited: five men and five women. During the session, other community members were excluded from the room where the experiment was conducted to minimize distractions or outsiders’ influence on the participants. Each group played two sequential games of 10 rounds each (although the players were not told how many rounds there would be). In the first game, no communication between the participants was allowed. After the first game was completed, the group was instructed to discuss the game with each other for 3 min. A field team member acted as secretary, recording the topics discussed during the communication periods. Following the discussion, a second game was played, this time with short communication periods of up to 1 min following each round.

At the beginning of each experiment, the group shared a single shared groundwater resource of 50 units. During each round, the participants were asked to choose one of two crops for planting: Crop A, which used one unit of groundwater and provided two units of income; or Crop B, which used three units of groundwater and provided five units of income. Players were instructed that each round simulated the rabi, or dry season, which depends primarily on groundwater. The participants recorded their crop choice in private on a handheld paper form. Their decisions were recorded by a field team member, and the resulting payoff for each participant was written onto their decision form. The total number of water units consumed by the group was recorded publicly on the presentation board to show how many units of groundwater remained (Fig. 1). Designed to be used for the instruction process at the beginning of the experiment session and for conducting the game itself, the presentation board was printed with an illustration of different types of crops, a bore well, a column to show the water table, an illustration of the water consumption and payoffs for each crop, and a demonstration chart of the water table at the end of each round if all players were to choose Crop A or Crop B. At the beginning of each round following round 1, aquifer recharge was simulated by adding 5 units of water to the total groundwater resource. The group played the game for 10 rounds or until, at the end of a round, the groundwater resource had < 10 units of water remaining. This condition ensured that at least 15 units of water would be available after replenishment and all participants could choose Crop B without reaching negative amounts of groundwater.

The water demand-payoff structure of the game was set up so that if all participants chose to plant Crop A every round, the game could continue indefinitely. If all chose Crop B, the groundwater resource would be depleted and the game ended after four rounds, which is the Nash equilibrium in which each actor is assumed to be rational, to act in their own self-interest, and to assume the others do likewise. The group earnings under the Nash equilibrium would be 100 units of income. There are many game variations consisting of choice combinations of Crop B (22 times) and Crop A (28 times) that lead to the social optimum, where the group earns 166 units of income. If properly coordinated, the groundwater resource can last for the full 10 rounds, only becoming exhausted at the end of the 10th round. The participants were not told that there would be 10 rounds in the game, although after playing the first game, it would have been generally clear for the second game.

Following the sessions with both men’s and women’s groups, the field team conducted a community-wide debriefing meeting to discuss the groundwater exercise and aggregate the results from the games. The debriefing was a form of participatory exercise to encourage discussion of the issues around groundwater depletion and what farmers could do about it. In this, the debriefing was similar to the participatory workshops to discuss groundwater issues in France, Portugal, and Morocco, as described by Faysse et al. (2014), but without including government agencies, and using the games as a starting point for discussion. Our community debriefing was usually held in the afternoon or evening after the games, but in some cases, it had to be held on a following day. The debriefing was a guided conversation for game participants to relate their experiences from the game to the groundwater situation in their area and to discuss with other community members possible courses of action. As in the experiment sessions, a field team member acted as secretary, writing notes on the discussion and comments raised during the meeting. We also collected a brief survey from each participant after they had participated in the game. The survey covered background information about the individual, their household, as well as their attitudes toward environmental issues, to be used to assess factors that might explain their choices in the game.

Payment method

Most field experiments pay individuals based on their “earnings” during the game. In line with the principles of experimental economics, a real, substantial incentive is provided for the decisions to be made. The earnings vary depending on how participants play the game, recreating the kind of commons dilemma faced in practice: individuals will get more monetary earnings if they choose the more water-intensive crop, but if the whole group does that, the water is depleted faster and they will earn less than if they chose the more sustainable crop. So some individuals will be paid more than others, and this is expected to affect how they play (Smith and Walker 1993).

In this project, the participating NGOs are interested in using the groundwater games in their community organizing activities after the project is completed. Preliminary outcomes have been positive. However, individual payments are less feasible in their project management approach. It is becoming standard practice for NGOs to make a contribution to a community fund when the community members participate in studies, and it is important to determine what effect, if any, using a different payment scheme would have on the games and their utility for the NGOs. We therefore organized the experiments with two treatments controlling for payment method to test whether, in this field environment, the payment scheme affected behavior in the games.

Participants in the individual-payments treatment received Rs 5 for each unit of income earned in both games. Their earnings varied depending on how they played the game, and total earnings could range between Rs 200 and 500 per participant in the individual-payments treatment. For comparative purposes, the daily wage for National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) projects is Rs 115. All households are entitled to up to 100 days of employment at NREGA sites, but this is often hard physical labor. In the flat-fee treatment, individual participants were not paid, but the local watershed committee was given a donation of Rs 2000. Only one approach, either individual or flat-fee payments, was used in each community to prevent cross-contamination. People who participated but did not receive individual payments did not see the others being paid individual earnings. We also included control communities, i.e., habitations that were covered by the same watershed management programs from the government and the NGOs but did not participate in the games. This was to allow us to subsequently test whether the games had an effect on collective action. Because the control communities did not play the games, they are not included here.


To allocate habitations to the treatment and control groups, we drew a stratified systematic sample with a random start. The process involved listing all the habitations according to watershed (four where FES is working, and three where JJ operates), and then within each watershed, by the number of houses. We verified that each habitation uses groundwater for irrigation from bore wells or open wells. We then randomly drew a number between one and three for the start. That habitation on the list received treatment A (individual payments), then we proceeded down the list with treatment B (flat fee to watershed committee), C (control), and cycling back to A to continue the assignments.

This sampling method was used because with relatively small sample sizes, it is an efficient way to ensure that the sample is distributed across key variables that are likely to affect outcomes. In this case, we stratified on watershed and size of community. Watersheds might affect behavior because of different rainfall patterns or other factors such as different effectiveness of the watershed development programs, NGOs, or field staff assigned to the watershed. Number of houses is a good proxy for number of households or decision makers; the size of the community is often hypothesized to affect collective action (Olson 1965, Ostrom 1990, Agrawal 2001).

The resulting sample had nine habitations in treatment A and eight habitations in treatment B (see Table 2.1 in Appendix 1). To select the participants within each site, the study team contacted the watershed community to ask them to identify five men and five women from households that use groundwater for irrigation to participate in an activity that looks at how people make decisions on what crops to plant. Although men are reported (by men and women) to be the primary decision makers on what crops to grow and how to irrigate, we wanted to see if women would have different preferences or ways of dealing with trade-offs between short-term income and long-term water tables. Participants were told that the activity would take approximately 2.5 h, they would need to come together in a group for that whole time, and they would have to answer a short survey on a later day. All participants did not need to own wells; if they used water from a neighbor, that was also acceptable. The men and women could not be from the same household, and the committee was asked to select participants that came from different farm-holding sizes. The committee was also told whether individuals would be paid based on the outcome of the activity or there would be a joint payment to the watershed committee (but was not told that other payment options were being used in other habitations), and that a debriefing would be held for the whole community after the activity.


The data used in the analysis of water use in the groundwater game are derived from 34 experiment sessions performed in Andhra Pradesh, India between February and May 2013. The data set consists of 170 people in 34 groups from 17 villages. Each group played two games, once without and once with communication. Two groups were recruited in each village: a men’s group and a women’s group. Each group consisted of five participants, and each participant recorded their crop choice for 10 rounds or until the water table dropped below 10 units, whichever came first, resulting in a total of 3400 observations.

In both Models 1 and 2, the dependent variable is crop choice (and consequently water use). We analyzed both individual- and group-aggregate decisions to verify the robustness of our results. The individual-level analysis used logistic regression (logit) to estimate the probability of choosing the more water-consumptive crop (B). The group-level analysis used ordinary least squares regression (OLS) of total water use, with robust standard errors.

The first set of independent variables in both models relates to the game structure: the groundwater level at the start of each round, the payment type (individual or flat fee), and whether communication was allowed. The groundwater level was included because when water is more abundant, we would expect less effort to save water (see Bardhan 1993). Payment type was included to test whether individual payment based on winnings in the game (the standard in experimental games) actually affects behavior (Gneezy et al. 2011). Communication was included because it is hypothesized to increase cooperation (Cardenas and Carpenter 2008). The next variable is the number of years that the NGO has been working in the habitation, to test whether exposure to an NGO promoting groundwater management increases cooperative outcomes, consistent with Baland and Platteau’s (1996) observation that a history of successful cooperation increases future cooperation. We also included basic demographic variables, including gender, age, education, caste, household size, and an interaction effect for gender and education (because women have lower education, overall, than do men). We hypothesized that women would be more water-saving because they are more severely affected by groundwater depletion, and that education would make people more aware of the interactions between irrigation and water levels and, hence, more water-conserving. Including caste tests whether higher-status people are more or less cooperative (Lecoutere et al. 2015).

Because social capital is hypothesized to increase collective action (Agrawal 2001), we developed a social capital indicator from the following series of questions on the individual survey:

  1. If a neighbor in this village lends some money to another neighbor, it is very likely that the lender gets the money back (values 1 to 5).
  2. Suppose that 10 of your neighbors are invited to help in community activities. How many would show up? (values 0 to 10).
  3. If a mother in this village has an emergency and needs to leave her baby for the day, she will easily find someone in this village she can trust with her baby (values 1 to 5).
  4. Most of the people in my habitation are trustworthy and are honest (values 1 to 5).

The social capital metric is calculated by adding the scores of the four questions and dividing by the maximum score (25) to normalize it to a value between 0 and 1. We made a selection of the questions from the survey and chose the questions above since they represent concrete questions related to trust and social capital. We expect that those with higher social capital (trust in others) would be less likely to overexploit groundwater.

In Model 2, we added total land owned and irrigated by tanks and wells to account for dependence on agriculture and irrigation, as well as knowledge of the resource (in the case of the area of groundwater irrigated).


The independent variables chosen to describe the characteristics theorized to affect cooperation in the games were summarized (Table 1). The average age of participants was 38.5 yr, with the men significantly older than the women: 42.9 yr vs. 34.0 yr, respectively (Appendix 1). Education level varied among participants: 30% had not received any formal education, 26% had completed primary education, 34% had completed secondary school, and the remaining 10% had completed higher levels of education such as intermediate school or university. Significant differences were also observed if we disaggregated the education data by gender. Only 15% of the men had not received any formal education in comparison with 45% of the women, and 35% of the men had completed primary school in comparison with 17% of the women. In higher levels of education, the differences between men and women were smaller, although the proportion of men that had received higher levels of education was higher: 38% of the men had completed secondary school vs. 31% of the women. This is consistent with the literacy rates of 74% for men and 54% for women in Ananthapur District (

On average, each game was played for 9.12 rounds, with the shortest game lasting 4 rounds and the longest lasting 10 rounds (Appendix 1). Approximately 65% of the games were played for the maximum number of rounds (i.e., 10 rounds). On average, the games with communication were played for more rounds (9.44) than the games without communication (8.79; P < 0.001, Wilcoxon Matched-Pairs Signed Ranks test). The level of water remaining at the end of the 10 rounds was not different before or after communication was allowed (P = 0.12, Wilcoxon Matched-Pairs Signed Ranks test), whereas the group income at the end of the game was higher in the game with communication (P = 0.045, Wilcoxon Matched-Pairs Signed Ranks test). A closer look at the behavior of the players over the 10 rounds of the game shows that communication was particularly effective at the beginning and at the end of the game when, on average, players maximized their earnings (Fig. 2). Surprisingly, communication did not favor water conservation, although group earnings were higher when communication was allowed. Water use was greater in the rounds with communication (Fig. 3), although the differences were not significant.

The groups earned between 97 and 160 units of income per game. Recall that the Nash equilibrium was 100 units and the social optimum was 166 units. The median group earnings were 136.5 units in treatment A (individual payments) and 140.5 units in treatment B (flat fee). This shows that, overall, the decisions were closer to the social optimum than the Nash equilibrium. The implication is that the groups were able to cooperate, even without communication.

In the communities where FES ran the experiments, participants earned an average of 136.4 units of income per game compared to 136.5 units in the communities where JJ ran the experiments. This is not significantly different (P > 0.1, Mann-Whitney test). In both cases, communication led to a significant improvement in community earnings (P < 0.01, Wilcoxon Matched-Pairs Signed Ranks test), with 140.4 units with communication and 137.4 units without it. This suggests that communication had a bigger influence in communities where FES was participating (P = 0.095, Mann-Whitney test). Contrary to expectations, we did not find any significant effects for gender or payment scheme.

Water use was highest when groundwater levels were near the maximum (Fig. 4). As groundwater levels were depleted, participants switched to the less water-intensive Crop A. This slowed the decline of the group groundwater levels but did not stabilize them.

In the individual-payments treatment, the average payment per participant was Rs 273 (range: Rs 175–395). There were no significant differences between the behaviors of the participants in both treatments. The earnings of the flat-fee treatment (Rs 280; range: Rs 190–395) were essentially the same as those of the individual-payments treatment, suggesting that the game had equal salience to decision-making, whether or not players were paid cash based on the outcomes of their decisions.

In the individual- and group-level models, the individual and group-average water use were considered as the dependent variable (Table 2). Participants who reported stronger agreement with trust and social capital indicators in their communities used less water. This is consistent with theory because if a farmer refrains from using a water-consumptive but profitable crop to make the water table last longer, but his or her neighbors use the more water-consumptive crop, that farmer pays the price but does not get the benefit of stable water tables. However, those farmers who trust that their neighbors will help each other are more likely to believe that others will also cut back on water consumption and that a mutually beneficial situation can be achieved.

A notably strong effect on water usage was the length of time the villages were involved with NGOs. Both NGOs are working in adjoining watersheds with similar agroecological conditions and have similar practices in working with the communities in groundwater management, but JJ has been working with these communities on watershed management for 19 to 20 yr, whereas FES has been working with their communities for only 6 yr. JJ’s relationships with their communities may be more deeply established, thus leading the members of these communities to a stronger understanding of groundwater problems and water governance. It is also possible that this result indicates an experimenter effect. The field teams received separate training, and because of the need for additional test sites in our project, the JJ team was recruited and trained at a later date, potentially receiving less background on field experiment principles and protocols compared to the FES field team. However, the long history of JJ work in the communities seems to be a stronger explanation for these results.

The water-use control variable, i.e., water availability at the beginning of each round, was highly significant, as expected: the higher the water table at the beginning of the round, the more water was used in that round (Fig. 4). This is a rational response because as long as water is abundant, participants might as well profit from it, but when participants see water tables start to fall, they consider reducing water use to ensure that the resource lasts.

Contrary to expectations, gender did not have a significant effect on crop choice. However, higher education led to lower water use in the game, and women have a significantly lower education level than men (P < 0.001, t-test; Appendix 1). An interaction effect between education and gender was only marginally significant in Model 1. Although gender is not significant after controlling for education, the fact that women, on average, chose more water-consumptive crops is somewhat surprising. Women are primarily responsible for domestic water use and are therefore most affected when the water table falls and domestic water wells in the villages go dry. Follow-up qualitative research indicated that women associate the failure of domestic water wells with low rainfall and not with groundwater use for irrigation. A second factor may also be at work: women’s time constraints. Although the teams tried to schedule the women’s games at a convenient time, it was difficult for women to set aside the time for the full game session. Thus, some of the women’s groups were willing to deplete the groundwater more rapidly to end the game and return to family responsibilities. This indicates the need to be aware of other factors that may affect the way people make choices in experimental games.

Farmers with larger land holdings were significantly less likely to choose water-consumptive crops. This may mean that those with large total land holdings can cultivate larger areas under water-saving crops rather than depending on more profitable but more water-intensive crops. Landowners with more lands might be more familiar with the connection of groundwater levels and crop choice. However, those who have more land under tank or groundwater irrigation are more likely to choose the water-consumptive crops in the game, which may reflect their own farming practices and familiarity with higher value crops.

With all other variables held constant, communication did not have a significant effect on water use, compared to the first 10 rounds without communication. A possible reason for the lack of effect on collective crop choice is the familiarity of the participants with each other and the context of the game. Chat between the participants may not affect expectations of the actions of others nor contribute to a better understanding of the experiment.

Other measured demographic features had very little effect on crop choice. Age was only significant at the group level, and neither caste nor household size had a significant effect at the individual level.

We observed no effect of payment method used in each community. This is a surprising result from the perspective of experimental economics theory, which predicts the payment and its salience to the subjects is a significant factor in motivating realistic behavior (Hoffman et al. 1996). Respondents did not play the game differently if they were playing for real money or simply for imaginary payments. This calls into question the premise of many field experiments that payments based on outcomes of the game are necessary to simulate commons dilemmas (Smith and Walker 1993). It is possible that the participants might not have perceived the payments as significant or have been affected by them as strongly as other motivations or priorities during the game session. More research is needed to understand better how participants perceive the game experience and how they prioritize individual monetary incentives vs. other goals they may hold.


We performed experimental games on crop choice and groundwater use in 17 habitations of Andhra Pradesh, India. The groundwater situation in Andhra Pradesh is delicate because groundwater is the main source of water for many households, and many aquifers in the state are overexploited and wells are running dry. A common-pool resource game was used to observe how people make decisions about groundwater use and to understand which factors influence people’s decisions related to groundwater management.

The first important finding is that participants do consider group interests, not only their individual interests, in the game. Almost 65% of the games were played for the maximum number of rounds, which suggests that group gains and groundwater conservation were pursued by most participants when the links were explained to them in the game. This is consistent with what is found in other field experiments regarding the use of common-pool resources (e.g., Cardenas and Carpenter 2008, Janssen et al. 2012, Cardenas et al. 2013).

If such levels of cooperation are found in the game, why is it that groundwater levels are being depleted in practice? One factor may be that the game makes explicit the links between crop choice, collective action, and groundwater levels. Many farmers reported in the debriefing sessions that they had thought that groundwater levels were mostly affected by rainfall, and they had not understood the effect of their crop choice on water table levels. In this sense, the experimental games provided the basis for social leaning about groundwater and the scope for collective responses to arrest falling water tables. This is not to say that the games themselves, or the debriefing sessions, are sufficient to change the trajectory of groundwater levels. However, they can provide an important complement to other interventions for community-based groundwater management.

The individual water-use level is partly explained by social capital: consistent with theory (e.g., Agrawal 2001), those participants reporting the highest social capital in their community used less water. Those who trust their neighbors are more likely to make cooperative choices, which can improve the sustainability of the resource. This finding can have important policy implications, indicating the value of programs that promote collective action and community cooperation for the governance of groundwater resources. There was a considerable difference in crop choices between the communities facilitated by the two NGOs, with participants choosing less water consumption where the NGO had been working for a longer time. This increases our confidence that choices in the game reflect, in some way, choices in practice because the communities where the NGO has worked longest would be more likely to understand the importance of crop choice and overcome groundwater dilemmas.

Two variables that did not have a significant effect are particularly important: gender and payment scheme. The fact that women were not more likely to limit water-consumptive crops to maintain the groundwater levels was surprising, given that women are most responsible for domestic water, which becomes scarcer when water tables fall. The structure of the game did not include explicit linkages between irrigation and domestic water availability. It is possible that if this had been included, women would have shown more concern about falling water tables. Further exploration of gender differences in understanding of the game, perceptions of groundwater dynamics, and roles in crop choice would be needed to explain these patterns.

The lack of significant difference between individual payments and flat-fee compensation to the watershed committee has methodological relevance for future experimental games design. Our games appear to be equally salient to the intrinsically motivated farmers, whether or not they are paid cash based on the simulated earnings in the game (Gneezy et al. 2011). However, we find that the decisions are in line with actual behavior of individuals, such as higher water use by those who have more groundwater irrigation and higher water use when groundwater levels are higher. If payment does not affect how people respond in such games, it could expand the possibilities of using framed field experiments in situations where it is inappropriate to pay participants. However, serious consideration should be given to what effect these games have on participants. In the case of these groundwater activities, the games can actually have beneficial effects in making farmers aware of how their crop choices affect water tables and in stimulating discussions on what farmers can do to regulate groundwater use. The games can therefore be a valuable complement to government or NGO activities.

Experimental games do not always reflect how people behave in practice, but they do provide insights on factors that affect their choices. More research is needed to understand some of the surprising findings such as the lack of effect of individual monetary incentives and the lack of a gender effect. However, we found a remarkable effect associated with how long the communities had been involved with NGO participatory management projects. Future research will focus on solicitation of mental models to derive a better understanding of how participants see the relationship between crop choice, groundwater use, and the performance of the community to help assist government and NGO programs identify the factors that contribute to community management of groundwater resources.


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This work was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), Colombo, Sri Lanka. We thank all donors who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund. Jagdeesh Puppala Rao, Juan Camilo Cardenas, Claudia Ringler, Bryan Bruns, and Andrew Bell provided valuable advice and comments. We thank the field staff of the Foundation for Ecological Security, in particular field associates K. P. Sriramulu and Ms. S. K. Arhiya. We also mention a special word of gratitude to the management and staff of Jana Jagriti, Tanakallu Office; in particular, Mr. D. P. Balaram, CEO; Mr. S. Srinivas Reddy, Project Coordinator; and Mr. Lakshmana Murthy, Social Mobilizer. Finally, we thank the men and women from the participating communities in the villages of NP Kunta and Tanakallu Mandals.


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Address of Correspondent:
Ruth Meinzen-Dick
International Food Policy Research Institute
2033 K St NW
Washington, D.C. USA 20006
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