The role of interacting social and institutional norms in stressed groundwater systems


Groundwater resources play an important role for irrigation, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions, where groundwater depletion poses a critical threat to agricultural production and associated local livelihoods. However, the relationship between groundwater use, farming, and poverty, particularly with regards to informal mechanisms of resources management, remains poorly understood. Here, we assess this relationship by developing a behavioural model of groundwater user groups, empirically grounded in the politically fragile context of Tunisia. The model integrates biophysical aquifer dynamics, institutional governance, and farmer decision-making, all of which are co-occurring under conditions of aquifer depletion and illicit groundwater extraction. The paper examines how community-level norms drive distributional outcomes of farmer behaviours and traces pathways of local system collapse — whether hydrogeological or financial. Through this model, we explore how varying levels of trust and leadership, ecological conditions, and agricultural strategies can delay or avoid collapse of the social-ecological system. Results indicate limits to collective action under path- dependent aquifer depletion, which ultimately leads to the hydrogeological collapse of groundwater user groups independent of social and institutional norms. Despite this inevitable hydrogeological collapse of user groups, the most common cause of water user group failure is bankruptcy, which is linked to the erosion of social norms regarding fee payment. Social and institutional norms, however, can serve to delay the financial collapse of user groups. In the politically fragile system of Tunisia, low levels of trust in government result in low social penalties for illicit water withdrawals. In the absence of alternative irrigation sources, this serves as a temporary buffer against income-poverty. These results highlight the need for polycentric coordination at the aquifer-level as well as income diversification beyond agriculture to sustain local livelihoods.

Journal of Environmental Management