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

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: Lancaster Environment Centre


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.


10 25 50
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 suitability.
Exploitation Route The findings are being used for teaching by the wider team of academics involved in the project. eg MA Political ecology, Lancaster Environment centre, UG course of water justice, University of California, UG and PG masters students in Sociology , University of Casablanca, Master students in water governance UNESCO-IHe, the Netherlands

Some of the younger researchers employed o this project have used this as a base to apply for further funding for a project on Careful Irrigation - concerning water governance and agro-ecology.

The project findings are also put to use by the non academic partners (SOPPECOM, ACWADAM) in their work with communities, government agencies and NGO's
Sectors Agriculture

Food and Drink

Communities and Social Services/Policy



Democracy and Justice

Description The focus of the Lancaster (UK), Netherlands, and French (CIRAD) teams were on facilitating academic partnerships between the team members. Therefore, the project?s involvement with stakeholders has been via other partners in the team like ACWADAM or theTanzaniateam.Asmuchaspossible,wedisseminatedtheprojectfindingsbeyonduniversityaudiencelikeschoolsandthe general public through online webinars and guest lectures. During the design of the project, the CIRAD team prioritised alternative ways of producing and visualising knowledge like field narratives, podcasts, videos, etc. During implementation, there were many interactions with stakeholders; for example during the field trainings in Morocco (see video submitted in outputs). Stakeholders contributed to the research by questioning and complementing research results. In Tanzania, the project benefited greatly from the involvement of well diggers in establishing a photo narrative about well digging activities, where those actually accessing groundwater became part of the knowledge production. This led to new insights in the practices of groundwater development and management that would have not been possible without their involvement. The initial cross-visits organized by the different project members benefited immensely from the close interactions with stakeholders, who were interested in learning from people from other countries. Besides, and in particular with our partners in India, the findings from the research would have been very different had the stakeholders not participated in the design and implementation of the project. For example, many of the research questions related to water use practices or inflow and outflow of labour and capital for irrigated agriculture would not have emerged had it not been for the intensive discussions with the water users. This contributed to enhanced understanding aquifer and groundwater, in general for both Randullabad and Ravangaon. The stakeholders were involved in data collection, facilitating field work and dissemination of knowledge. In particular, the California case study underwent a process of stakeholder involvement that included the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency (PVWMA). This is the groundwater sustainability agency selected to meet the conservation and stewardship goals laid out in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of CA. In their discussions, they identified three possible research activities: 1. Conduct a focused case study of PV Water?s Coastal Distribution System (CDS) as a successful infrastructural effort to protect farmland against salt water intrusion. CDS provides supplemental, blended water (recycled water, well water and groundwater from further inland in the basin) for irrigation. Through participant observation, interviews, and archival research with PV Water staff to visit the CDS, we wanted to examine the intersections between infrastructure, knowledge, and institutions to identify best practices toward coastal sustainability and seawater intrusion mitigation. 2. Explore the application of PV Water?s Recharge Net Metering (ReNeM) is a strategy that incentivizes MAR by offsetting costs incurred by landowners for operation and maintenance of water collection and infiltration systems that are placed on their land. Participants receive a rebate on pumping or other use fees based on the quantity of water infiltrated. The California team was interested in examining who participates, why, and how does ReNeM potentially shape or reflect the ideas and values of the participants? The project was interested in the ways in which the infrastructure of PVWMA mixed groundwater with other sources of water, such as treated water; how the agency partnered with UCSC faculty to incentivize groundwater recharge; and how the agency undertook the process required by SGMA to include ?disadvantaged groups? in its policy processes. Unfortunately, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were not able to conduct fieldwork, but instead a graduate student on our team attended online community meetings as part of the SGMA process and engaged local farmworker families in a community garden, where they cultivate their own foodways. The California team entered into discussions with farmworker families to better understand their relationship to land and water, especially families with mixed generations (most parents are immigrants, most children were born here). We sought out semi- autonomous life-affirming spaces such as community gardens to speak with farmworkers to discuss their perspectives on water as it related to their positionalities as part of an exploited labor force, directly impacted by climate change and working in the agricultural industry. This provided an important contrast point to ways the water agency understands water, versus residents whom are caught up in an agricultural industry that, in part, supports water agencies agendas.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Environment,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal

Policy & public services

Description AFWA 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Afrcian Water association - Largest water conference in Africa - academics, practitioners, policy makers and business. This year in Kampala under the theme 'breaking new ground: accelerating access to water and sanitation for all'. UPGRO basically had its own stream one of the conference venues, and Hidden Crisis well represented in a number of sessions.
Bring together a diverse range of practitioners, scientists, development partners and industry representatives, working across different areas of water and sanitation sector across the world.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Schools talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Talk to schools in association with GeographicAsscoiation on Transformations to Sustainability
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
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 Seminars for MA Political Ecology Students November 2022, March 2023 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Workshop sessions held in November 2021 and March 2022 for MA Political Ecology students - presentations by project colleagues of their work and how they go about it, workshop exercises to exlpore the dynamics of sustainable water governance more deeply.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
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 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