Aeirial view of a river in Colombia with landmasses of trees and buildings extending into the waterway

Photo: Darowin Noesi / Getty Images

A cornerstone of SEI’s water planning work is to solicit the input of a wide variety of parties in a given watershed to help foster buy-in and understanding of newly developed water management plans.

A major tool that helps achieve that is a scenario-running exercise known as serious games . They have been used all over the world as a strategic planning tool intended to promote a common understanding among disparate parties around their decision-making.

In SEI’s Water Beyond Boundaries work in Colombia’s Campoalegre River basin last year, these serious games united people from all sectors and user perspectives in that watershed to help them formulate their new Integrated River Basin Management Plan, known as POMCA .

The Campoalegre basin is a coffee production centre, also characterized by unequal land distribution, severe income inequality and disadvantaged conditions for Indigenous residents – and many struggle to access clean water and sewage. These challenges make water planning ripe for conflict.

Serious games offer a space where communities, authorities and government could generate consensus around the management, use and conservation of the basin. They provide a safe environment that encourages openness around otherwise delicate or contentious issues – and prompts the basin’s users and stakeholders to see the trade-offs of different decisions and look for the ones that would achieve their desired outcomes.

“We use serious games to really help with participation process because people with different roles can talk together,” said Tania Santos, research fellow at SEI Latin America. “It integrates the different perspectives of people who live in one place.”

In a serious game, participants tackle a hypothetical scenario relevant to their community . For example, the players might consider a flood that endangers residents in a particular part of the basin and generate ideas on how to minimize harm. They use SEI’s flagship water modelling software, WEAP, to run scenarios and learn how various actions can affect outcomes for the area’s water resources. Researchers collect the information generated in these games and use them to inform policy.

“The formulation completely changed the way we approach different issues and guaranteed the participation of every person that represents each sector of the community.”

— José Vicente Villegas, president of the Campoalegre basin council

The game enables residents and decision makers in a basin to understand the very technical nature of integrated water resource management and brings together different parties that otherwise may never have interacted and shared their perspectives – representatives from local communities, academia, hydropower, public services, business and more.

“In the game, everyone can speak the same language and understand the consequences of various decisions,” said Camilo González, research assistant at SEI Latin America. “It is a tool to help us learn from people who don’t usually speak up so much; it amplifies their voices.”

SEI isn’t the only organization to employ serious games. Groups such as World Wildlife Fund and the US Army Corps of Engineers have used serious games to communicate complex ideas and inspire critical thinking in a range of contexts. And SEI has used this approach in southern Africa and Thailand, with plans to expand the practice to the Colorado River basin – showing that serious games can help tackle difficult situations in complicated systems.

Because of the ongoing pandemic last year, Santos and González hosted the POMCA serious game sessions for the Campoalegre River basin remotely. But that might have proven an advantage, suggested Martha Patricia García, professional in charge of POMCA at CORPOCALDAS, a subnational environmental authority.

“This was the first time that we had to do a process with virtual support, with results that exceeded our expectations,” García said. “In this way, the community is more (of a) participator and less timid to express its points of view and it allowed dialogues between participants that would not have occurred in person.”

The first session was so successful that participants requested a second.

“The formulation completely changed the way we approach different issues and guaranteed the participation of every person that represents each sector of the community,” said José Vicente Villegas, president of the Campoalegre basin council. “Through an interactive and virtual strategy, we were able to participate and provide alternative solutions to multiple problems and needs from the point of view, knowledge and criteria of each participant.”

SEI’s Water Beyond Boundaries initiative – in which serious games play a critical role for co-designing water policy – led to the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the national Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development. This MoU initiates a collaboration with SEI to consider the Water Beyond Boundaries approach in updating its national Integrated Water Resources Management Policy. Through this partnership, Colombia hopes to improve the participation process in planning tools such as POMCA.

“We are sure that this alliance with the SEI will contribute to improving water management in our country, helping us to analyse the connections between society, the economy and our ecosystems,” said Carlos Correa, Minister of the Environment and Sustainable Development.