Capacity Building and Postgraduate Modules

One capacity-building tool I have found useful is the WaterMan Simulation game.


“A simulation is essentially a simplified slice of reality. Its structure reflects a real world process that the designer wishes to teach or investigate. The simulation serves as a vehicle for testing that process or for learning more about its working”, Games for Growth, Gordon, A K (1972)


The challenge, of course, is that in necessarily ‘simplifying’ reality students become frustrated by the shortcomings of the modelling of managing. But in making it more like ‘real life’ the simulation becomes overly-complicated and therefore difficult to comprehend in the time available, let alone understand the cycle of results being achieved.


Always emphasising that WaterMan is not about getting the ‘right answer’, let alone ‘winning’ the simulation against the other groups, however much we would all want to achieve such goals but all about learning as participants go through the simulation cycles.


WaterMan?  It’s just like reality! (reported a past student, working with a UK utility)


WaterMan Simulation

I wanted to develop something like this having become frustrated at teaching management and finance with case studies where students reported back at the end of the afternoon with their understanding and comments and, apart from my comments, there could be no feedback on the validity and viability of their analysis and proposals. So having experienced the MarkStrat simulation during my MBA (intrigued to see that it still going strong as well: I went ahead to develop a dynamic case study ……  with ongoing thanks for Rod Shaw, WEDC for the design of the logo and Darren Saywell, now Director Water Services at AECOM. A long time ago his first task at WEDC (from memory) was to prepare the original spreadsheet model for me (so much in it has changed over the years, so much is just the same!).


The simulation takes into account population growth, inflation of construction costs over the period as well as inflation of customer expectations within an assumed growing economy…. Not to mention price elasticity related to tariff increases. But there are no disasters (floods or droughts), elections, sacking of managing directors, scale factors on investments …. Or even a cost related to the inordinate management time taken up in talking to international donors and financiers!


WATERman has a simple structure repeated over several simulated ‘years’.  The basic elements of the simulation are:

  • A number of water utilities which are responsible for managing the water and sanitation services in a number of (fictitious) secondary cities. For the sake of later comparisons, each city is given the same starting position.

  • WATERman is normally run in groups of two or three participants.  Each two/three person ‘utility team’ manages the water and sanitation services for their city alone, and does so for the ‘game’ length of four simulated ‘periods’ – each representing one year (the years represent the decision cycles – however because the simulation ‘foreshortens time’, ie decisions to invest & build bring instant service, costs and benefits, it is sometimes helpful to think of each simulation ‘year’ as representing a couple of ‘real’ years). The ‘cities’ are only in competition to the extent of having to share the limited central government grants for improving water supply and sanitation, which are usually distributed relative to the size of the unserved population.


  • The simulation begins with each utility team examining the briefing documents particular to their secondary city.  Participants are encouraged to work collectively in order to analyse the present financial and operational status of their utility; to determine what they plan to achieve in the immediate operational cycle; and to identify the means by which they will accomplish those goals: investments in hardware and software, tariff-setting and financing. ​​


Making decisions

At the end of that first simulation session, an investment decision sheet, reflecting that collective action, is submitted to the simulation manager (‘government water utility auditor’) for implementation and accounting. ​​

Getting feed-back and deciding again

  • For each simulation session, the simulation manager returns, at the start of the next simulation cycle, the following output to each utility team:

  • Performance indicators reflecting the previous operational cycle

  • Balance sheet for the current operational cycle

  • Income statement for the current operational cycle

  • A new decision sheet for the next cycle


Over the years, we have deliberately kept the inputs and outputs paper based … so that the participants have the information and requests for decisions in front of them on the shared desk or table and by having the physical manifestation, rather than a computer screen, I believe people allow themselves to process the ideas and information in a much deeper way as they often discuss for a couple of hours their previous cycle’s results and how they want to adjust their strategy for the next cycle. So, it is not a ‘computer game’ where participants could randomly put in numbers and, in effect, test the model. It is a simulation game where participants really think through, and learn about, the sorts of challenges facing utility managers and the tools which they need to be able to do that.


As one utility Director of Operations said, after participating in the simulation, ‘if we had that much information it would be easy to run our business’. To which the response has to be ‘easier’, nothing is easy in balancing so many competing requirements and stakeholder interests in low-income economies trying to serve even lower-income customers.


The WaterMan simulation is presently run annually at Cranfield University, now as part of the Management and Governance Module of the Water and Sanitation for Development MSc. It is also used in an abbreviated form, to simulate regulatory decision-making, on the AgroParisTech Water for All Masters in Montpellier.

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