Wageningen University: Researcher Francisco Alpizar featured in PNAS Special Feature: Sustaining the Commons

Monitoring shared resources
Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics for demonstrating that humans can create rules and institutions that permit sustainable management of shared resources without resorting to privatization or government expropriation. One purported enabling condition for success is monitoring of the shared resource by community members. Whether such monitoring can be encouraged where it is absent, and thereby improve resource management, is not well understood.

In a on the field experiment, researchers, including Chair and Professor of the Environmental and Natural Resource Economics Group, at the Department of Social Sciences at Wageningen University and Research, Francisco Alpizar, assessed whether an externally encouraged, community-based monitoring program improved water management. After 1 year, they detect modest reductions in groundwater pumping and modest improvements in water quality and user satisfaction. Although replications are needed, the results imply that externally encouraged, community-based monitoring can improve the management of shared resources.

The authors of this Special Feature use harmonized research on complex socioecological systems to accelerate the accumulation of generalizable knowledge and shed light on the causal relationships between community monitoring and common-pool resource outcomes.

About the paper
The “Community-based monitoring to facilitate water management by local institutions in Costa Rica” article tackles a global problem: water scarcity. This ongoing problem can be compounded by inefficient water management, including underinvestment in infrastructure, underpricing of water use, and underenforcement of user rules. Here, we explore whether these inefficiencies can be reduced in rural Costa Rica via an externally driven community monitoring program (i.e., a program initiated by an outside organization and run by citizens). The monitoring program aimed to reduce groundwater extraction from aquifers, as well as to improve water quality and user satisfaction, by supplying additional information about field conditions and additional scrutiny of user and management authority activities and by fostering citizen engagement in water management.

Using a specially designed smartphone application (app) and WhatsApp, monitors could report weekly on the conditions of the water system, including service disruptions, water quality, leaks, and source contamination. The app automatically compiled the individual reports into a summary report, which was then made available to the community water management committees and water users. The program was randomly implemented in 80 of 161 communities that expressed an interest in participating. One year after the program started, we detect modest, albeit imprecisely estimated, effects of the program in the predicted directions: less groundwater extracted, better water quality, and more satisfied users. Although the estimated effects are imprecise, the monitoring program appears to be equally or more cost effective for reducing groundwater extraction than another program in the same region that encouraged households to adopt water-efficient technologies.

The Sustaining the Commons: Advancing Understanding of Common Pool Resource Management Special Feature reports on whether external interventions can enhance weak or absent institutional features for successful community-based, common-pool resource management.

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