Bruce Lankford

Systems & people-centred water and irrigation

Serious gaming and deliberative tools

The River Basin Game

the river basin game


One of my interests is in the use of gaming to enter into, frame and resolve issues of conflict over natural resources. Serious games, via metaphor, create exploratory portals to address competition and co-operation as well as user understanding of natural resources.  (See Lankford and Watson metaphor river basin game 2007). I’m exploring this issue via the ‘marbles game’ or ‘river basin game’ (see photo above and the description below) and role-playing Excel spreadsheets.

A full explanation of how the game can be played is given in this IWMI Working Paper.

YouTube: Two videos of the game played by water officers at a training session can be found here (competition round) and here (cooperative round).   A short video of farmers in Tanzania using the game can be found here.

The River Basin Game (RBG) is a two-day workshop designed around a board game to help resolve conflicts over water. The game is a role-playing tool for promoting dialogue and decision-making over water resources where irrigation is present. The RBG is a physical representation of a catchment (or small river basin) as seen in the photos. The board has a slope and uses glass marbles to reflect upstream-downstream flow of water. Upstream abstractors/users of water are favoured over downstream abstractors and users of water. This difference often gives rise to inequality in water access for rural people—which can result in conflict. The game allows local users to reflect on the distribution of water in various situations and to strategize accordingly by taking up roles such as ‘advantaged upstream abstractor’ or ‘disadvantaged downstream abstractor’. The game then asks players to act both competitively and then co-operatively, and in doing so, helps contrast these responses. This generates discussion on ways to identify wasteful usage and then how manage water more equitably.

There are four ways of using the River Basin Game:

  1. With students and researchers of water management to teach common property management of water. This has worked well with both undergraduate and postgraduate students. The game has also been played with a group of scientists in order to discuss the nature of gaming in natural resource management.
  2. With local resource users (farmers, livestock keepers, domestic drawers, etc.) of water to facilitate local decision-making with regard to the allocation of water. This type of game also allows external researchers to observe current problems and proposed solutions.
  3. With higher-level decision-makers to reveal the issues facing local users, and the beneficial & negative outcomes that their actions might have on them.
  4. With both higher-level institutions and local resource users to generate a comprehensive picture of how mutual collaboration, flexibility and support is required to manage water at the basin level.

How the game is played – a two day event

Experience gained by the author over the last six years shows that the game is best played as a part of a two day workshop. The game itself is only in the morning of the first day. In addition, the benefits of the game are optimised if it is kept simple, and is employed with the aim of comparing outcomes of competitive individualistic behaviour against co-operative collective responses. The game is not designed to quantitatively help users allocate water – this stage comes afterwards in the discussions held.


Players benefit from having two days and a highly structured and organized schedule to ‘problem-frame’ their water issues in detail. Players call upon with their own experiences to discuss issues, and do not need any specific prior training. In a relatively safe and sociable environment, the game creates a ‘space’ that utilizes serious play to demonstrate various dimensions of irrigation, water-based livelihoods and river basin management at the local level. The game verifies simple linear and spatial relationships between upstream abstraction and downstream water shortages (these relationships may seem obvious to outsiders, but often one would hear the upstream users saying that they did not realize the consequences of their actions on users some 50 km away). The game elicits many suggestions regarding solutions such as adding canals and using short season varieties, and revealed to users that they hold the key to managing water rather than relying on external agents and solutions (although timely suggestions from attendant technical experts were well received by participants). Consensus-building is encouraged by the game, particularly on agreements to start catchment-wide meetings to share water. The game demonstrates how the different organizations working in the basin should work with water users to remove constraints and to facilitate the new agreements generated at the workshop.

For further publications on how the game has been played and received see below:

  1. Magombeyi, M.S., Rollin, D., Lankford, B.A. (2008). The river basin game as a tool for collective water management at community level in South Africa, Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, Parts A/B/C (33): 873-880.
  2. Rajabu, K. R. M. (2007) Use and impacts of the river basin game in implementing integrated water resources management in Mkoji sub-catchment in Tanzania. Agricultural water management. vol. 94, 1-3, pp. 63-72
  3. Consultancy report: NIGERIA, 2005, Facilitation of Water Sharing Arrangements in the Hadejia Jama‟are Komadugu Yobe Basin (HJKYB) – with the River Basin Game Dialogue Tool. Final report. For DFID: Joint Wetlands Livelihoods project. UK. 65 pp.