Maurits W. Ertsen
“I mean I can book the acts, but I can’t tell the acrobats which way to jump!”James George Hacker (portrayed by Paul Eddington)—Yes Minister, Series 2, Episode 2: ‘Official Secrets‘
Utopia and Irrigation
This is an article about The Irrigation Management Game (IMG), reflecting on my own use of the game in educational settings, and drawing some links with utopian and dystopian thought. The relationship between water and human wellbeing has been extensively studied and debated. Perhaps the most famous overarching theory is that of Karl Wittfogel. Wittfogel argued that certain climates imply certain forms of irrigation, which in turn imply certain political and social institutions. In particular, Wittfogel thought that ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Hellenistic Greece, Imperial Rome, the Abbasid Caliphate, Imperial China, the Moghul Empire, and Incan Peru, were all ‘hydraulic societies,’ whose despotic character arose from the need to manage complex irrigation infrastructures. Although Wittfogel’s environmental determinism has since been discredited, his work remains a great reminder that water management is seldom simply a set of technical problems. Instead, water management is intimately linked with power, labor, knowledge, discipline, control, and utopian and dystopian possibilities. Anyone who has read George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—or is a fan of Michel Foucault—will surely recognize such themes. Irrigation is one of many domains where governments have attempted to improve collective welfare without undue interference in individual freedoms.
Irrigation was on many development agendas, in states as diverse as the Neo-Assyrian empire, colonial states in the 19th and 20th centuries and modern settings. In these developmental settings, irrigation—including its aspects of control—was often associated with utopian futures, at least within state propaganda and planning discourse. In colonial Africa, for example, European powers imposed irrigation regimes on communities they treated as ‘historyless’, while perceiving themselves as creating an ideal, rational order. After the Second World War, with many colonized countries gaining independence, irrigation systems that had been constructed and/or planned became part of post-colonial international development. Former colonial experts became international experts, and new experts were trained within irrigation approaches developed in colonial times.
In the first decades of post-WWII development, the main focus was on building new and rehabilitating existing irrigation infrastructure. From the 1970s onwards, more attention was paid to issues of managing these infrastructures—including relationships between managers, farmers, and other water users. These discussions intensified in the 1980s, if only because results lagged behind the expectations (sometimes too optimistic—utopian!—expectations) of governments and engineers. New methods of design and management began to emerge, and slowly began to adopt more participatory processes, to accommodate stakeholders’ knowledge and wishes. The main topic of this article, the Irrigation Management Game (IMG), is a result of these intensified efforts.
The IMG was initially developed to support discussions among irrigation managers on farmer strategies and water delivery problems, especially in the larger systems in South and South-East Asia. After positioning the IMG within a gaming context, I will examine how the game reflects the realities that I study—both in practical and theoretical terms. I will conclude by suggesting that the IMG allows us to explore how utopia and dystopia are in the making, and not fixed in advance by a given environmental setting and management system. Especially in irrigation, I will suggest, the margin between utopia and dystopia can be thin.
Irrigation and Games
In terms of board games, irrigation is not the most widely used theme. Clearly, the importance of water is recognized in games like Catan (water supply helps a player to gain points) and Lowlands (focusing on floods and investments). In Lowlands, the balance between investment in private assets and communal safety is a key feature. This trade-off can also be found in irrigation, with its issues of distributing a common water source through a canal system. But for the most part, games like Catan and Lowlands don’t offer much insight into connections between irrigation and broader questions of societal power and control.
Another board game which centers on irrigation, with its basic feature of bringing water to plants on fields, is Takenoko. In the bamboo garden of the Japanese emperor, a central pond serves as water source (“takenoko” means “bamboo shoot”). Players have to create new bamboo plots and make them suitable to grow the bamboo—with irrigation canals and other improvements. A gardener is available to grow the bamboo, but a panda (a gift of the Chinese emperor!) aims to eat the bamboo. To complete the setting, there is also a die that needs to be thrown to determine the weather conditions for the round. In short, we find quite a few properties of irrigation systems in Takenoko: plants grow with water, fields need canals, someone (the gardener) needs to take care of the system, someone (the panda) tries to gain advantage, and external conditions matter—arguably, outside interventions are be rather important (as the panda is a gift).
An innocent internet search for “irrigation game” quickly sends you to the Wikipedia page describing that term. This is an account based in game theory, a branch of economics. A “game” in this sense is some class of strategic interaction (perhaps most famously, the Prisoners’ Dilemma). A game is not something that is necessarily played, although in some cases it might be. We read that irrigation games “are cooperative games which model cost sharing problems on networks (more precisely, on rooted trees). The irrigation game is a transferable utility game assigned to a cost-tree problem.” This rather sterile, general concept is then directly related to irrigation, with the example of distributing the costs of maintaining canals.
And indeed, interesting game theory has been done on this general issue, including different experimental settings which focus on the costs and benefits of irrigation, and an irrigation simulation for the Hohokam communities who developed irrigated farming between 500-1500 CE in the Salt and Gila valleys in (what we now call) Arizona. This type of work clearly shows that irrigation lends itself to be studied in terms of rules of a game. In the scientific literature, we encounter quite a few publications on serious, water-related games or experiments with games—either virtual or location-based—with many games focusing on river basins (see Figure 1). Irrigation is associated not only with problems and solutions, but also with puzzles, strategy, competition and cooperation.
Figure 1. A snapshot of the layout of the River Basin Game. 
One of the coolest irrigation game settings I know of—though I have never seen it in its unique location—is the scale model developed in the early 1990s in northern Senegal. The research group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, responsible for my own MSc programme in irrigation, was involved at the time in a large design-research project on small-scale irrigation systems in the region. One PhD researcher focused on communication between engineers and farmers to understand why farmers destroyed irrigation structures or wanted to adapt original layouts. The project explored the different knowledge, ideas and goals of farmers and engineers.  In an attempt to see how engineers and farmers could develop exchanges and learn from each other, the student developed and built a three-dimensional scale model of a village irrigation scheme (Figure 2). The scale model allowed farmers and engineers to explain their points of view through physical demonstrations. It spoke to the potential for play to build rapport and share knowledge, perhaps in transformative ways. Games and models continue to draw interest as ways of resolving complicated decisions involving many stakeholders, in domains beyond irrigation—for example, fisheries management. At the time, a study friend did a field project on this scale model. I was tempted too, but I decided to do my own field study on an irrigation system of 300,000 hectares in northwestern Argentina—I had already been exposed to the Senegalese mini-systems quite extensively in my classes, and I wanted to understand really large systems too.
Games and Reality
My preference for larger irrigation systems would come in handy later, when I myself was in the position to teach irrigation to students of the Water Resources group of Delft University of Technology in the early 2000s. It was then that I first engaged with the IMG.
The IMG was developed in the 1980s, much earlier than the serious games typically found when searching for such games. It is also seems to be a little forgotten… something it shares with the Senegalese scale model. The game aimed to stimulate discussions within the group of irrigation managers on farmer strategies and water delivery problems. In this way, it was designed to link individual human responses to effects on system level and vice versa, both in terms of available water and responses of other water users in the game environment.
I was presented with one of the few remaining hard copies of the game, with the game canvas as its most visible and heavy element (Figure 3). Obviously, the IMG is highly simplified—and the version I play in class leaves out several of the original details. Nevertheless, it offers surprisingly realistic basic rules for gravity-flow irrigation systems. The game design is based on an irrigation system that takes water from a river, and brings water to eight units (Figure 3). Each unit represents one group of players, which can grow crops on four fields. The three crops that can be grown on those fields (rice, maize, soy) have their different water demands and yield responses. The water that is available is allocated to fields by a management group (a separate small group of players). Each field displays different water demands, with water being computed in steps of 5. When playing, I provide players with A3 sheets with the fields printed, allowing the water (pawns!) to be positioned on the fields—allowing visual and straightforward “water-keeping” (Figures 4 and 5). Imagine the look I was given when I asked for 500 blue pawns in the board-game shop!
The original IMG was designed to play in a real-life setting. I do have a digital version as well, which was made to facilitate easy transport of the game (the canvas is quite heavy)—and which allowed me to keep playing the game in my class when we were asked to go to online education in the Covid-19 pandemic. I must confess the game went pretty well in digital settings too, although a little slower. The main reason that I prefer to play the game in person is the specific atmosphere that is created in the room when the game sequence unfolds.
Reality and Utopia
The way I play the irrigation game and how I study irrigation in different temporal and spatial settings coincide, in the sense that I challenge stereotypical ideas on irrigation within scholarly discussions. In many fields, including archaeology, anthropology, and even engineering, a strict distinction between centralized systems and community-based systems is still prevalent. The centralized system would typically imply a physically massive infrastructure, authoritarian management, and dystopian politics (using some variant of Wittfogel’s outdated notion of “hydraulic despotism”). Community-based systems have their own set of stereotypical associations. They are always small, cute, cooperative, and desirable. Both centralized and community-based systems are treated as definitely self-evident too. In other words, they are supposedly easy to distinguish, and once a system has been identified as one or the other, the other features follow inevitably. Such a line of reasoning builds on the claim that despotic or cooperative settings can become so, because they are so.
This circular reasoning can be seen in many analysis efforts in irrigation, when the perceived properties of the irrigation setting determine which of the two models is applicable. Obviously, there are more top-down, state-managed systems, and more bottom-up, community-based systems. What I would suggest, however, is that both need to be understood in similar terms: they need to be realized through actions. Realizing irrigation is hard work in any setting. Community cooperation requires work, but top-down control may not be that easy either. In both situations, power relations are (re)shaped all the time, at least partially through the infrastructure.
I think I can claim that the IMG reflects my approach to irrigation quite well—and allows students and other players to experience that. In contrast to the River Basin Game with its marbles (Figure 1) and the Senegal scale model with its real water (Figure 2), the IMG does not have a real-life mechanism to move water through the game setting. In the game sequence, the management moves the water through the canal to the units by simply announcing how much water moves. These numbers are written on Post-its or other items that can stick on the canvas at the location of flow. As the irrigation system is supposed to be driven by gravity energy only, the order of water allocation is always the same: from unit 1 in the upstream to unit 8 in the downstream. Along the way, the amount of water still available to units is determined by how much water the management allocated—but also by events and interventions beyond the control of the management.
The events are a property of the game design. The game is guided by a facilitator, who is not part of the irrigation setting itself (in class, I have that role). The facilitator explains the rules at the start, guides the game procedures, and typically organizes the discussion after the game is finished. The facilitator has a series of “Event Cards”, which include events like a breach in the canal, the need to pay for extra maintenance, or the malfunctioning of a distribution structure—with options for less water being taken or more. Furthermore, after one full round (one season), when players have some experience with the game logic, units are allowed to try to intervene in management decisions. These interventions are a property of the game design as well, but how players apply the general rule of “the option to intervene” depends on the players, the management, and what happened in the first season.
As such, each game is distinctive. Obviously, one would expect that the upstream units are less affected by events and interventions, if only because there is less chance that something happens close to them. This can indeed be observed: upstream farmers typically can access more water compared to downstream units. But this does not mean that downstream farmers are always worse off. Depending on how they select their crops, buy or sell water (which is allowed), create coalitions with other units (as a protection against group interventions), and engagements between farmers and managers, all players/units create their own irrigation world. The performance of the game determines whether this water world becomes “despotic” or “cooperative”.
When playing the IMG in a room, the game procedures, the choices, the negotiations, and the water moving through the system are visible to all. All players, with their different positions (the downstream farmers are furthest away from the canvas, for example), and interpretations of what is happening, can see their own reality unfold in terms of water becoming available or not. Students that play the game experience to some extent how choices by themselves and others affect their options. These students see how the physical setting of the canal, expressed in pawns available to them, and the way crops demand their water, is affecting their strategies. In a world as small as a classroom, with the certainty that after class all can go home safe and sound, the IMG brings some of the hardship of irrigation—when in either despotic or communal settings, choices affect real lives of farmers, managers, and many others.
Utopia or Dystopia
In this chapter, I have related a serious game about irrigation to scholarly debates on irrigation across fields such as water resources management, archaeology and engineering. Irrigation has long been linked with utopian thinking, in its development by (colonial) authorities with aspirations of an ideal ‘civilizing’ order; in its architectural and aesthetic affinity with high modernist mega-projects; and in the possibility of governing a vital natural resource in the common interest and in harmony with nature. On the other hand, many critics – especially of larger-scale irrigation interventions by national states and international institutions – have stressed the dystopian nature of such interventions..
Any game of course embeds its own set of political and technical assumptions. However, my experience with the IMG is that tends to productively challenge assumptions about irrigation management, rather than reinforce them. Long after Wittfogel’s work, theories of irrigation remain haunted by environmental determinism, as well as rather binary understanding of the relationship between irrigation and social and political order. The game allows us to bring nuance, depth and unpredictability to the theme of irrigation management. Participants are encouraged to consider irrigation as a performed reality—the game is literally a performance itself—which allows both central control and community management, depending on how the players in each setting (decide to) interact. This opens up a whole new set of research options to discuss what irrigation worlds might look like, and how we decide to conceptualize them in our own research and design. Thinking through the IMG forces us to put less focus on how utopia might come about, and more focus on why an irrigated world does not change into dystopia every day.
Burton M.A. 1989. Experiences with the Irrigation Management Game. Irrigation and Drainage Systems 3: 217–228.
Burton M.A. 1993 The Irrigation Management Game: A role playing exercise for training in irrigation management. Irrigation and Drainage Systems, 7, 305-318
Catan Card Game https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/278/catan-card-game
Craven J., Angarita H., Corzo Perez G.A., and Vasquez D. 2017 Development and testing of a river basin management simulation game for integrated management of the Magdalena-Cauca river basin. Environmental Modelling & Software 90, 78-88
Ertsen M.W. 2016a Friendship is a slow ripening fruit. An agency perspective on water, values, and infrastructure, World Archaeology 48, 500-516
Ertsen M.W. 2016b A matter of relationships: Actor-networks of colonial rule in the Gezira irrigation system, Sudan. Water Alternatives 9(2)203-221
Ertsen M.W. 2007 The development of irrigation design schools or how history structures human action, Irrigation and Drainage, 56, 1-19
Ertsen M.W. and Van Nooijen R. 2009 The man swimming against the stream knows the strength of it. Hydraulics and social relations in an Argentinean irrigation system, Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, 34, 2000-2008
Irrigation Game Wikipedia entry on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irrigation_game
Janssen, M.A. and Baggio, J.A. 2017. Using agent-based models to compare behavioral theories on experimental data: Application for irrigation games. Journal of Environmental Psychology 52, 194–203.
Lankford, B.A.; Sokile, C.S.; Yawson, D.K.; Levite H. (2004): The river basin game: A water dialogue tool. Working Paper 75. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute.
Latour, B. 1991. Technology is Society Made Durable, in A Sociology of Monsters Essays on Power, Technology and Domination, edited by J. Law, 103-132.
Latour, B. and Strum, S.C. 1986. Human social origins: oh please, tell us another story. Journal of Sociological and Biological Structures 9: 169-187.
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.
Mithen, S. 2012. Thirst: Water and Power in the Ancient World. Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Molle, F., Mollinga, P.P., and Wester, P. 2009. Hydraulic bureaucracies and the hydraulic mission: Flows of water, flows of power. Water Alternatives 2(3): 328‐349
Murphy, J.T. 2012. Exploring Complexity with the Hohokam Water Management Simulation: A Middle Way for Archaeological Modeling. Ecological Modelling 241: 15–29.
Orduña Alegría M.E., Schütze N. and Zipper S.C. 2020 A Serious Board Game to Analyze Socio-Ecological Dynamics towards Collaboration in Agriculture. Sustainability 12, 5301; doi:10.3390/su12135301
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
Rusca M., Heun J., and Schwartz K. 2012 Water management simulation games and the construction of knowledge. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 16, 2749–2757
Scheer S. 1996 Communication between irrigation engineers and farmers: The case of project design in North Senegal. PhD thesis Wageningen University
Sewell, W.H. 2005. Logics of history. Social theory and social transformation. Chicago University Press.
Strum, S.S. and Latour, B. 1987. Redefining the social link: from baboons to humans. Social Science Information 26(4): 783-802.
Tianduowa Z., Woodson K.C. and Ertsen M.W. 2018 Reconstructing Ancient Hohokam Irrigation Systems in the Middle Gila River Valley, Arizona, United States of America. Human Ecology 46: 735-746
Water Matters. http://watermatters.uliege.be/
Wilkinson, T.J., E. Wilkinson, J.A. Ur, and M. Altaweel, 2005. “Landscape and Settlement in the Neo-Assyrian Empire.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 340:23-56.
Wittfogel, K. 1957. Oriental Despotism. A Comparative Study of Total Power. Yale University Press
 Wittfogel, K. 1957. Oriental Despotism. A Comparative Study of Total Power. Yale University Press
 See for example Mithen, S. 2012. Thirst: Water and Power in the Ancient World. Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
 Wilkinson, T.J., E. Wilkinson, J.A. Ur, and M. Altaweel, 2005. ‘Landscape and Settlement in the Neo-Assyrian Empire.’ Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 340:23-56.
 Ertsen M.W. 2016b. ‘A matter of relationships: Actor-networks of colonial rule in the Gezira irrigation system, Sudan.’ Water Alternatives 9(2)203-221. Ertsen M.W. 2007 The development of irrigation design schools or how history structures human action, Irrigation and Drainage, 56, 1-19.
 Molle, F., Mollinga, P.P., and Wester, P. 2009. Hydraulic bureaucracies and the hydraulic mission: Flows of water, flows of power. Water Alternatives 2(3): 328‐349
 Ertsen M.W. 2007 The development of irrigation design schools or how history structures human action, Irrigation and Drainage, 56, 1-19.
 Burton M.A. 1989. Experiences with the Irrigation Management Game. Irrigation and Drainage Systems 3: 217–228. Burton M.A. 1993 The Irrigation Management Game: A role playing exercise for training in irrigation management. Irrigation and Drainage Systems, 7, 305-318
 Catan Card Game https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/278/catan-card-game; Lowlands https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/242804/lowlands
 Janssen, M.A. and Baggio, J.A. 2017. Using agent-based models to compare behavioral theories on experimental data: Application for irrigation games. Journal of Environmental Psychology 52, 194–203.
 Murphy, J.T. 2012. Exploring Complexity with the Hohokam Water Management Simulation: A Middle Way for Archaeological Modeling. Ecological Modelling 241: 15–29.
 Craven J., Angarita H., Corzo Perez G.A., and Vasquez D. 2017 Development and testing of a river basin management simulation game for integrated management of the Magdalena-Cauca river basin. Environmental Modelling & Software 90, 78-88; Lankford et al. (2004): The river basin game: A water dialogue tool.; 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.; Orduña Alegría et al 2020; Rajabu (2007) and Rusca et al 2012
 Lankford, B.A.; Sokile, C.S.; Yawson, D.K.; Levite H. (2004): The river basin game: A water dialogue tool. Working Paper 75. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute.
 Scheer S. 1996 Communication between irrigation engineers and farmers: The case of project design in North Senegal. PhD thesis Wageningen University.
 Crosman, Katherine M., Natalie A. Dowling, and Ann Bostrom. 2020. ‘The Effects of Fishpath, a Multi-Stakeholder Decision-Support Tool, on Stakeholder Buy-in to Management in Data-Limited Fisheries’. Marine Policy 122 (December): 104215. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2020.104215.
 Colleagues from Leuven University have used this digital version to develop their own web-based irrigation game, which focuses more on issues of crop growth and water availability. See http://watermatters.uliege.be/.
 See for example Ertsen and Van Nooijen 2009 on the large-scale Argentinean system that I worked in as a student; or Tianduowa et al 2018 on the Hohokam systems.
 Ertsen M.W. 2016a; Latour 1991; Latour and Strum 1986; Sewell 2005; Strum and Latour 1987.
Maurits Ertsen is associate professor within the Water Resources Management group of Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands. Sustainable water management, closely associated with success and collapse of human civilizations, has become crucial given current climate variability. Maurits studies how longer-term water practices emerge from short-term actions of human and non-human agents in current, historical, and archaeological periods in places ranging from Peru to the Near East, in close cooperation with universities, NGOs, and the private sector. Between 2009-2022, Maurits was one of the main editors of the journal Water History. He is still coordinating editor of the Dutch Tijdschrift voor Waterstaatsgeschiedenis.
Water Resources Management
Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands