Social tipping points in global groundwater management

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Groundwater is critical to global food security, environmental flows, and millions of rural livelihoods in the face of climate change1. Although a third of Earth’s largest groundwater basins are being depleted by irrigated agriculture2, little is known about the conditions that lead resource users to comply with conservation policies. Here we developed an agent-based model3,4 of irrigated agriculture rooted in principles of cooperation5,6 and collective action7 and grounded on the World Values Survey Wave 6 (n = 90,350). Simulations of three major aquifer systems facing unsustainable demands reveal tipping points where social norms towards groundwater conservation shift abruptly with small changes in cultural values and monitoring and enforcement provisions. These tipping points are amplified by group size and best invoked by engaging a minority of rule followers. Overall, we present a powerful tool for evaluating the contingency of regulatory compliance upon cultural, socioeconomic, institutional and physical conditions, and its susceptibility to change beyond thresholds. Managing these thresholds may help to avoid unsustainable groundwater development, reduce enforcement costs, better account for cultural diversity in transboundary aquifer management and increase community resilience to changes in regional climate. Although we focus on groundwater, our methods and findings apply broadly to other resource management issues.

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We acknowledge support from CSIRO Land & Water, and D. Sinclair for his role in the design of empirical studies in the Murray–Darling Basin. We also acknowledge the participation of 672 anonymous Australian farmers, and the WVS interviewees who made this research possible. The Australian Research Council and the National Water Commission (through the NCGRT) funded part of this research through an ARC Linkage Grant with DPI Water (LP130100967) and an ARC DECRA (DE140101216). DPI Water provided institutional support, provision of mailing databases, testing of research questions with relevant DPI Water divisions (monitoring, regulation, education), and assistance with consultation with Members of the NSW Irrigators’ Council and other industry associations (for example, NSW farmers) who were also consulted in the development of the survey questions. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information


  1. CSIRO Land & Water, Perth, Western Australia, 6014, Australia

    • Juan Carlos Castilla-Rho
    •  & Rodrigo Rojas
  2. UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, 2052, Australia

    • Juan Carlos Castilla-Rho
    •  & Martin S. Andersen
  3. Connected Waters Initiative Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, 2052, Australia

    • Martin S. Andersen
    •  & Cameron Holley
  4. UNSW Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, 2052, Australia

    • Cameron Holley
  5. Institute of Earth Surface Dynamics, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, 1015, Switzerland

    • Gregoire Mariethoz


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J.C.C.-R., R.R. and G.M. conceived the research ideas and designed the study; C.H. conducted and analysed the Murray–Darling Basin water license surveys; J.C.C.-R. implemented the model, performed the computational experiments, designed figures and analysed the World Values Survey data. J.C.C.-R. and R.R. wrote the manuscript. All authors contributed to the analysis, interpretation, and editing of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Juan Carlos Castilla-Rho or Rodrigo Rojas.

Electronic supplementary material

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–10, Supplementary Tables 1–3, Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary References 1–42.

  2. Life Sciences Reporting Summary