Lesson 1 Activity 2 - Water Sharing

This activity is designed to highlight some of the interesting dynamics that come about when a group of individuals has to make decisions regarding a shared resource. In this “participatory simulation” students will act as stakeholders in a water-sharing scenario. When considering a shared resource like a water well, it is important to understand that each member in a community that uses this well has an impact on every other well user. An individual has the ability to choose what amount of the resource they will take based on some simple rules.

  • Participatory Simulation: “Some for All or All for One”
  • Debrief the participatory simulation
  • Reflect on Water Sharing as an example of a complex systems 
  • Wrap-Up: How can computer modeling help us understand resource management?

"Some for All or All for One" participatory simulation

  • Before running the participatory simulation, fill the water bucket with the equivalent of 6 drinking cups of water. (Use the plastic cups that will be distributed to the stakeholders.)
  • Select 10 to 12 students to play the roles of stakeholders in a community. The remaining students are observers who should quietly observe the game in progress.
  • Have the stakeholders form a circle then face out from the center. Give each stakeholder an empty cup. Tell the stakeholders that they will have the opportunity to take the water they need. Then tell the stakeholders that whatever is left in the bucket at the end of the round, the teacher will double and redistribute to everyone equally. Note that since the stakeholders are facing away from the center of the circle; they cannot see each other’s action.
  • Play three rounds as follows.

   Round 1: (Do group discussion prior to playing the round.)

  • Explain the rules then play one round as specified above. Each stakeholder has the opportunity to take the water he or she needs, up to a full cup’s worth. Remember that players are facing out and shouldn’t see what the others stakeholders are taking.
  • Example scenario — there are 10 stakeholders; you start with the equivalent of 6 cups of water. Each stakeholder takes the equivalent of ½ a cup. At the end of round 1, there are now 5 cups distributed among stakeholders, plus 1 cup remaining in the bucket. The teacher now doubles that to 2 cups. Each player now gets an additional 2/10 of a cup. Note that if some stakeholders take full cups worth of water, others will be left with none!
  • When all stakeholders have had a turn, have the stakeholders turn so that they are facing into the circle and compare what choices the other stakeholders made. When some stakeholders see what has happened, they might think it ‘isn’t fair.’
  • Remind the stakeholders that everyone made their choices individually.
  • Allow students to have a short discussion before the next round.

   Round 2: (Do group discussion prior to water distribution.)

  • Reset the game to the original configuration with 6 cups of water in the bucket and none in the stakeholders’ cups.
  • In this round, stakeholders are allowed to have a group discussion before the water gets distributed. The group can discuss the strategies beforehand but then they must go back to facing out so they cannot see what the other stakeholders actually do. 
  • Follow the same rules – the limit is 1 cup for each player, then the remaining amount gets doubled after the round and redistributed.
  • Again allow time to have a short discussion of what happened before the next round.

   Round 3: ‘The Punishment’ round

  • This time, do not reset the game to the original configuration!
  • In this round, each stakeholder can ‘pay’ the teacher 1/3 of a cup of water to take away 1 cup of water from someone else in the group.

Debrief the Participatory Simulation

Making decisions as an individual or as a group have can often lead to unexpected results. If you were to study the ‘average’ decision that individuals make, it will not always be a good predictor of what the group as a whole will decide. Individuals may act differently when they are cooperating. In small groups, humans will often cooperate because they are related or friends with the others in the groups. Cooperation and sharing resources was necessary for our human ancestors’ early survival, yet cooperation still exists today. There aren’t many that are ‘free loaders.’ People in these groups tend to help out and eventually get rewarded by receiving help from others. There are many examples of where cooperation is seen in humans — a group of hunters going after a large prey, cooperating on the playing field to win a game, community gardens and farms, volunteering to help pass out papers in the classroom, etc. However, even if cooperation is still very common in humans, it doesn’t mean that everyone in a group will cooperate with a group decision. In this case, an individual could ‘defect’ from the cooperation yet still benefit from the resources that are in the community. In a group of cooperative people, it is often beneficial for a person to act in a selfish way.

  • Ask the stakeholders: How did you decide how much water to take? Did you change your ‘strategy’ after the first round? Did you consider the options for how much water to take from an individual perspective from a group perspective?
  • Most likely there are a few that are ‘defectors’ and act in a more selfish way. Ask “Do you think it is typical for a group of people that share a resource to have a few that act in a selfish way?”
  • Ask observing (non-stakeholder) students “Can you think of any real-world situations that are similar to this game?”
  • If an individual acts out of self-interest but the action ultimately proves to be self-defeating, how might they act in the future?
  • Ask “What do you think would happen if there was no punishment round?”'
  • Relate to students that scientists study the “evolution of cooperation” using computer models and simulations of simple scenarios like the one they just played.
  • Resources and further reading:


How can computer modeling help us understand resource management?  If we were to model the game we just played, what would the agents represent? What rules would the agents follow? What kinds of questions could we try to answer using the model?  Reflect on these questions and post your reflection in your portfolio in the section "Reflections->Computer Modeling and Simulation" under the heading "Modeling water sharing."