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Institutions for Resilient Groundwater Dependent Rural Economies

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - RURECO (Institutions for Resilient Groundwater Dependent Rural Economies)

Reporting period: 2018-02-01 to 2020-01-31

Groundwater plays a crucial for water and food security and the economic development of rural areas. It accounts for 33% of total water abstraction worldwide and half of the irrigation water used to grow the world’s food. Groundwater resources are being over-exploited, threatening the sustainability of rural economies – a situation that is expected to worsen under climate change. One of the main challenge is to integrate agricultural development with groundwater management in order to better align agricultural water demand with available water resources. The objective of the RURECO project was to advance current understanding of institutional arrangements aiming to tackle groundwater overexploitation by agriculture. Specific attention was given on how stakeholders craft collective allocation rules that resolve competing societal objectives while harnessing the spatial and temporal variability of groundwater resources. The RURECO project also examined how to initiate collective action amongst groundwater users, using participatory foresight methodologies.
Research in the RURECO project was organised along two pillars. The first pillar examined how agricultural actors design water allocation policies to share water in the context of growing scarcity (i.e. when groundwater and the associated surface water “close”). The project made a detailed inventory of allocation rules used by French farmers in water user associations, and examined their social, environmental and economic performance. Similar examination was carried out during research visits carried out in countries that have agricultural water user associations designing water allocation rules, i.e. California, New Zealand, Spain and Australia. The second pillar examined how collective action around groundwater depletion can be encouraged. The research took an action-research approach, designing methodologies, based on participatory foresight, to develop a common understanding amongst participants of their groundwater resources, create a debate on the long term consequences of current extractions, and help actors in imagining alternative futures to reach sustainability. The research carried out this work in two contrasting cases of groundwater overexploitation. The main scientific and technological contribution was to test a methodology to foster collective action for sustainable groundwater management.
The research proposed to build on the literature on the management of common-pool resources, which, in water policy, has focused mostly on surface water irrigation systems. It also proposed to go beyond identifying conducive institutional features for collective action, and move to support implementation in operational terms. The first pillar of the research focused on evaluating the application, by agricultural user associations, of water allocation quotas in agriculture. The outcome of the research advances our understanding of institutions for the management of groundwater common pool resources, especially when the management objective is not solely to prevent resource exhaustion but environmental protection. The second pillar of the research has focused to develop a methodology to initiate collective action and thereby support the design and implementation of common pool resource institutions at local level. It has shown that participatory foresight methodologies can be valuable approaches to help local actors develop a more common representation of groundwater resources and understand the benefits of collective action – two essential elements for initiating common-pool resources action.

The project contributed to the innovation targets of the European Union in two ways. First, it contributed to technological innovation by developing a participation methodology that contributes to initiate collective action to tackle overexploitation of groundwater resources. Its novelty is to use foresight method to envision alternative futures and identify most shared, desirable elements. The method was designed to be “light-weight” and user-focused, unlike most other foresight methodologies developed by the scientific community. Hence, it can be easily replicated in other contexts, including in non-research environments. Second, the project contributed to social innovation by implementing action-research with local actors around groundwater sustainability. The two case studies engaged a total of 72 actors in the participatory foresight workshops, including farmers, local authorities, regulators, industry and NGOs. The workshops contributed to build a common representation of the groundwater dependent social-ecological system amongst participants.