Transformations to Groundwater Sustainability: joint learnings from human-groundwater interactions

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Geography


Billions of people around the world rely for their everyday existence on groundwater. Its invisibility, however, makes groundwater notoriously difficult
to govern, also complicating efforts to avoid depletion or pollution. This project sets out to comparatively study promising grass-roots initiatives of
people organizing around groundwater in places where pressures on the resource are particularly acute (India, Algeria, Morocco, USA, Chile, Peru,
Tanzania). As these often defy or challenge conventional wisdom, the project's hypothesis is that these initiatives contain creative insights about ways
of dealing with the intrinsic tensions that characterize groundwater governance: between individual and collective interests and between short-term
gains and longer-term sustainability. Focusing on groundwater practices - of knowing, accessing and sharing - we combine qualitative ethnographic
methods with hydrogeological and engineering insights to explore the knowledges, technologies and institutions that characterize these initiatives. Our
aim is to enunciate and normatively assess their logic and functioning in view of tracing overlaps or patterns that allow them to serve as more generic
models for transformations to groundwater sustainability. This effort is inspired by theorizations of water as simultaneously social and natural, builds
on recent critical scholarship on institutions, and has a particular sensitivity to how the distribution and use of groundwater is mediated by
technologies. Our overall aim is to create global action-research collaborations to generate new inspirations for thinking about and dealing with
interconnections and interdependencies between humans and groundwater

Planned Impact

In most regions of the world, information relevant to groundwater exploitation is fragmentary and not easily accessible. Besides this epistemic
fragmentation, public awareness regarding sustainable development has focused primarily on global warming issues, such as rising ocean levels or the
condition of glaciers, without making explicit the crucial impact of groundwater overexploitation on rises in sea level (Taylor et al. 2013). Hence we
respond to the urgent need to develop public awareness of the social significance of groundwater practices for human development.
The consortium will organize open workshops in India and the Netherlands and it will promote the project among students and relevant stakeholders
in each country. It will also produce two types of output beyond conventional academic publications in order to reach a broader audience interested
in sustainable development:
1) A 15-to-20-minute educational TED Talk summarizing the main findings of the project by the leader of the project (TED2019).
2) A multilingual website that consolidates the fragmentary information about groundwater provided by relevant stakeholders, an online discussion
forum for cooperation partners and partner projects in different parts of the world, a professional documentary, and a joint book.

We expect these dissemination activities to have not only an educational effect on public audiences regarding the development of a more sustainable
use of groundwater but also a policy impact among stakeholders. This knowledge dissemination is particularly relevant as groundwater governance
failures are often attributed to weak or even non-existent knowledge of local contexts. As the project is based on an innovative focus on
groundwater practices, the new knowledge produced will contribute to the reshaping of policies concerning groundwater governance. Research
findings will be disseminated through existing knowledge and policy networks within each country, which stem from previous and ongoing research
of the different team members. Dissemination is also being planned through a series of policy briefs and popular articles in Spanish, Arabic, French
and Swahili that will contribute to the ongoing (local) debates about the depletion of aquifers.

We will present our research findings to transdisciplinary audiences at various academic conferences (Science and Technology Studies 4S, American
Anthropological Association, Royal Geographical Society, WaterNet Conference) and will prioritize the following top-ranked journals for
publication: 1) Water International, 2) Cultural Anthropology, 3) Science, Technology and Human Values, and 4) Geoforum. The articles will be
drafted to feed into a collective monograph provisionally titled: Transformations to groundwater sustainability: Practical lessons on the social life of
Academically, the project will offer a new conceptual repertoire for theorizing the relevance that local practices play in groundwater governance. In
accordance with Horizon 2020, the potential for knowledge dissemination will be maximized by making the data available online through the project
website. Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) will not be protected: project results will be made publicly available to ensure that its impact extends
beyond the duration of the project.


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Description There is a great dissonance between everyday groundwater practices and some of the mainstream groundwater governance literature that mainly focuses on control and individual choice. In our project we have found evidence that governing groundwater involves diverse processes of sharing difficult waters; circularity and community initiatives to protect the aquifer. This doesn't mean that farmers and other groundwater users need to be romanticised, neither that these examples are free from complexities and contradictions- in contrast we argue that there is a need to refresh and rethink the vocabulary of 'control' and 'individuality' that characterises current conceptualisation of groundwater governance as well as what is desired as pathways for transformation. In the India case of Ravangoan, for instance, planned conjunctive use of groundwater and surface water will enhance the existing hydro-physical, institutional and social systems. With the heavy reliance on groundwater to meet the demands for commercial agriculture, issues of water insecurity are rising and with insufficient response from the state or the community. This is where the project places emphasis on the need to rethink governance to achieve integrated management for improved outcomes. Moreover, building capacities of water managers and communities by developing planned conjunctive use could improve existing management and regulatory arrangements of water through data around aquifers, canal releases, cropping patterns, models of groundwater ownership, all of which have implications for social and institutional behaviour. This also has a spill over effect where building socio-political and economic capital ensures that inequities across class, caste and gender are addressed. Indeed, project-wide we found ways of knowing groundwater that somehow exceed or are beyond the more techno-scientific-based explanations of (ground)water management and governance such as the use of pozas in Peru or the means by which, in many farmer fields, groundwater is detected - like as dowsing or interpreting the local environment. While these knowledges are often marginalized or even ridiculed, they hold insights with regard to caring, conviviality and collectiveness that we believe are valuable for the needed transformations to groundwater sustainability.
Exploitation Route See report on stakeholder involvement
Sectors Agriculture

Food and Drink

Communities and Social Services/Policy


Description Ingeneral,interactions with stakeholders were strong in the beginning of the project (including during the design phase),but were more difficult during the Covid period. However, project members kept in close contact with stakeholders all along this period, as evidenced by the many publications on the difficulties (but also the solidarity observed) faced by stakeholders.Since the beginningof 2021, there are increasingly face-to-face interactions with stakeholders and field travel and interactions are possible again. The knowledge on groundwater governance in Tanzania gained through the T2GS project fed into a review of the national water policy, commissioned by the Tanzanian government and executed by T2GS team members from NM-AIST in Tanzania and Stockholm University in Sweden. This led to specific recommendations for adapting the Tanzanian National Water Policy in the field of groundwater. The impact of these recommendations is not yet clear, as the new policy has not yet come out. In the case of the India team, stakeholder involvement was good in Randullabad and moderate in Ravangaon. The aquifer delineation and characterization was done in both the villages. An attempt was made to prepare the groundwater balance in both the villages. These findings were shared in Randullabad with the governing council that strengthened the existing groundwater management protocols developed by the village under the Participatory Groundwater Management program in Randullabad. Due to COVID, several online workshops were held with all the T2GS partners across different study sites to optimise stakeholder engagement. However, at the community level in the Indian study site, dialogue and exchange of findings with the community was done as an ongoing process. A feedback workshop was conducted with the community recently to share the findings from the research. There was an overwhelming response to the workshop which was attended by over 100 participants, a majority of who were from the village where the study was conducted. Based on the feedback, the team at SOPPECOM, along with ACWADAM will now finalise the report. The next steps towards the outcome, would require a publication of the study report in the public domain based on which a dialogue with the Government would become possible. The paper would highlight the pathway for possible solutions to address the crisis around groundwater use. For the California team, researchers engaged multiple country-based researchers in discussions regarding what we coined the ?California Dream? which then evolved into the CA Imaginary. Which was a kind of export of a particular way of knowing, relating to and managing water which supported a global export economy, racial capitalism and coloniality. Many other countries either sought to be like California's agricultural system, or brought in engineers to envision and build these systems, which relied on the exploitation of water and land to generate mass economic gains. What is compelling about these California-specific hydraulic discourses and practices is how they traveled through global circuits of the newly emergent fields of hydraulic engineering and allowed for the expansion of state-led large-scale water management and agriculture. Also as part of the California project, a dialogue was opened with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, the descendants of the Uypi speaking Awaswas Tribe whose unceded lands constitute Santa Cruz and Santa Clara Counties in the Central Coast of California. The AMTB are actively working to defend a sacred site, Juristac, from a proposed gravel and sand mine. This mine would have significant consequences not only culturally, but also ecologically and hydrologically, as it would destroy animal habitat, disrupt landscape connectivity for species such as mountain lions, and reduce groundwater and surface water quality and disrupt hydrological regimes in the watershed. Members of the CA case study team are leveraging our academic work to participate in the public comment process of the Environmental Impact Report.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education
Impact Types Societal

Policy & public services

Description Conference presetnation at Tanzania National Multi Sectoral Forum on Water Resources in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on December 3rd, 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Conference participation and presentation by Chris de Bont on groundwater governance in Tanzania National Multi sectoral forum on water resources in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on December 3rd, 2019
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Seminar - Feminist perspectives on political ecology/T2GS 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact In this seminar, Seema Kulkarni (SOPPECOM), Margreet Zwarteveen (IHE-Delft) both PI's on the T2GS project drew on their respective academic and advocacy experiences to reflect on how a Feminist Political Ecology lens furthers understanding of people-environment relations. In conversation they address both the potential and the challenges of applying a feminist political ecology approach to promoting progressive change. Frances cleaver chaired, Muna Dajani facilitated.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description T2GS Podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Every month, we will share narratives of knowing, accessing and sharing groundwater from different perspectives and places
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
Description The 20th WaterNet/WARFSA/GWPSA Symposium in Johannesburg, South Africa, 30 October - 1 November 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Tavengwa Chitata ( PhD student) made a project related presentation for which he won a prize.
Audience was the network of water training institutes in southern/eastern Africa
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Ways of Knowing Water Workshop 5th November 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact 'Ways of Knowing Water ' workshop at which team members Cleaver, Bonelli, Zwarteveen and Kemerink presented project work.
Aim of workshop was to bring together people ( staff, students) working on water from different disciplinary angles.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Website and website content 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Website constructed to present ongoing work of the project and particularly to highlight cross learning learning about transformations to sustainability
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020