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Managing rivers through role play

Diverting water from the Great Ruaha river for irrigation has reduced the flow of water reaching downstream communities (Dr. Bruce Lankford)
Diverting water from the Great Ruaha river for irrigation has reduced the flow of water reaching downstream communities
Dr. Bruce Lankford

Flowing through the Usangu wetland and the Ruaha National Park, the Great Ruaha is one of Tanzania's major rivers. Many communities and livestock depend on the water provided by the river, but in recent decades it has been diverted to irrigate large areas of rice in upstream areas. As a result, during the dry season water ceases to flow downstream of the Usangu wetland and this has caused conflict between upstream and downstream communities. In the search for solutions, an innovative table-top game has been developed to help communities discuss their use of water, and how it impacts on others in the river basin.

Under the DfID-funded RIPWARIN project (Raising Irrigation Productivity and Releasing Water for Intersectoral Needs), local communities, river basin managers and non-governmental organisations were brought together to investigate ways of improving water management. A series of two-day workshops run by the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) with assistance from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the International Water Management Institute used the River Basin Game (RBG), a wooden table-top board game, as a role-playing tool.

Using marbles to illustrate 'water flow' and small sticks to represent weirs to capture and divert water, the game allowed players to think about water distribution and the advantages or disadvantages of abstracting water up or downstream. In the course of the game, players first competed over the marbles and then learnt to co-operate and share the marbles. This simple layering of stages helped to reveal assumptions and ideas about current and future water practices.

Learning to collaborate

The River Basin Game helps communities discuss their use of water (Dr. Bruce Lankford)
The River Basin Game helps communities discuss their use of water
Dr. Bruce Lankford

According to the research team, the game worked well at various levels. For local resource users, such as farmers, livestock keepers and domestic water users, it aided their decision-making over water allocation. For river basin managers, the game demonstrated the issues facing local users and the beneficial or negative impact that their actions might have. For both groups however, the game highlighted two key aspects of effective water management within the river basin; first that mutual collaboration is required and second that communities should look to themselves to find ways of reducing water usage and wastage.

Together these lessons suggested that expert-driven strategies to increase productivity should be approached carefully and where possible be designed to fit with local ideas. This combination of careful thinking and action by local communities and support scientists is in contrast to donor programmes that too readily depend on established ideas for raising water productivity. Instead the RIPARWIN project attempted to promote wider uptake of strategies already adopted by farmers in water scarce areas. These included increasing the density of tertiary canals, greater frequency of canal cleaning, agreements not to water plots far from the headworks, and restrictions on plot sizes for transplanted rice.

Bringing water users to the table

The impact of the project at community level was assessed in 2007 and 2008 in studies by researchers at SUA and UEA consecutively. With evidence hard to find in an area where flow monitoring and records are limited, the studies were unable to find conclusive evidence that the game resulted in differences in irrigation use or water availability. Even with a more comprehensive monitoring network, it would be unlikely that the pilot RIPARWIN workshops would result in widespread behavioural change, given that workshop participants came from only a limited number of villages.

Finding evidence that the game resulted in differences in irrigation use has been challenging (Dr. Bruce Lankford)
Finding evidence that the game resulted in differences in irrigation use has been challenging
Dr. Bruce Lankford

However, both studies found local people clearly recollected the workshops where the game was played while the 2007 study found that where the RBG was played, Water User Associations (WUA) were more likely to comprise downstream livestock keepers. And, in one subcatchment, Mlowo, the RBG was instrumental in guiding the constitution of the WUA via a set of agreements (see Box 1).

Other complementary tools developed by the RIPWARIN project included a computer-based decision aid (Ruaha Basin Decision Aid) to help water managers and planners in taking decisions about water rights and to evaluate the impact of water management schemes, environmentally as well as economically. Although the project finished in 2005, lasting impacts have included inputs into continuing work by WWF Tanzania, who via their 'Ruaha Project' aim to improve river flows, train farmers and continue to empower communities through establishment of water associations.

Box 1: Trace Study Outcomes of the RBG (Rajabu 2007:70)

RBG Agreement

Respondents who perceived that RBG agreements were implemented (%)

Formation of apex body

61.7

Institution of rotational irrigation schedules

70.4

Establishment of bylaws

85.2

Reduction of the number of irrigation canals

44.5

Enhancing productivity of water

15.1

Rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructure

71.6

Involvement in decision-making

55.6

Source: R. Forecast 2008.

Date published: November 2009

 

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