Human Agency

Water systems, with their many entities, social and physical, their many interactions within a changing environment and the resulting emergent properties, are typical examples of systems for which agent-based modelling could yield fruitful analysis. Because of the highly detailed and complex relations between human actions and the social and material context in water systems, however, it is extremely difficult to develop full-scale agent-based models for irrigation. Not only do we need to better understand the effect of material conditions on human actions but we also need to better understand how human agency is linked to rules and flows within water systems. The extra feedbacks between material environment – the water system within its hydrological context – and humans requires detailed understanding of daily realities in water systems.

Understanding hydrological and hydraulic aspects of water systems is already challenging, but including the human dimension is even more so. Nevertheless, it can be achieved. In recent papers (Ertsen 2010; Ertsen and Van der Spek 2009; Ertsen and Van Nooijen 2009) it is shown how interactions between humans, hydrology and hydraulics within modern and ancient irrigation systems create patterns of water use. Furthermore, even though these patterns may very often be idiosyncratic and unpredictable, they can be studied systematically. Building on these recent insights, we work on developing an agent-based modelling applicable to water systems, with our current focus on irrigation. One of our main issues of focus is on the meaning of a shift from water balances to water flows – including attention for relevant time-scales – in building understanding on human agency through agent-based modelling.

In irrigation systems, human actions – like manipulating gates, sharing water, cooperation and conflict –shape reality. Irrigation as agricultural practice is as much about manipulating water flows in short time periods of hours and days as it is about balancing water volumes over time periods of months or even seasons. It is vital to include in the analysis how each and every day irrigators have to work hard to bring this water to their fields. Daily activities shape irrigation. Results of short term manipulations by individual agents may be expressed in effects on different and usually larger temporal and spatial scales influencing complete societies. People fight over water today, which hampers cooperation tomorrow or next year. Many farmers worldwide use groundwater pumps, recycle drainage water or construct farm reservoirs, all strengthening farmers’ control, as they are less dependent on canal water – usually controlled by outside institutions. Within negotiations, multitudes of stakeholders interact on decisions to be made.

If you want to know more about human agency, please contact Maurits Ertsen.


  • Ertsen M.W. 2010 Structuring properties of irrigation systems. Understanding relations between humans and hydraulics through modeling. Water History, 2, 165-183
  • Ertsen M.W. and Van der Spek J. 2009 Modeling an irrigation ditch opens up the world. Hydrology and hydraulics of an ancient irrigation system in Peru. Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, 34, 176-191
  • Ertsen M.W. and Van Nooijen R. 2009 The man swimming against the stream knows the strength of it. Hydraulics and social relations in an Argentinean irrigation system. Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, 34, 2000-2008

 Systems of Interest

 WRM Issues

 Relevant Tools

 Irrigation Systems

 International Conflicts




 Real-time Control

 River Basins


 Stakeholder Analysis

 Urban Areas