Managing Change toward Adaptive Water Management through Social Learning

 

Claudia Pahl-Wostl 1Jan Sendzimir 2Paul Jeffrey 3Jeroen Aerts 4Ger Berkamp 5 and Katharine Cross 5

1University of Osnabrueck, 2International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, 3Cranfield University, 4Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 5IUCN – The World Conservation Union

 

 

ABSTRACT
The management of water resources is currently undergoing a paradigm shift toward a more integrated and participatory management style. This paper highlights the need to fully take into account the complexity of the systems to be managed and to give more attention to uncertainties. Achieving this requires adaptive management approaches that can more generally be defined as systematic strategies for improving management policies and practices by learning from the outcomes of previous management actions. This paper describes how the principles of adaptive water management might improve the conceptual and methodological base for sustainable and integrated water management in an uncertain and complex world. Critical debate is structured around four questions:

(1) What types of uncertainty need to be taken into account in water management?

(2) How does adaptive management account for uncertainty?

(3) What are the characteristics of adaptive management regimes?

(4) What is the role of social learning in managing change?

Major transformation processes are needed because, in many cases, the structural requirements, e.g., adaptive institutions and a flexible technical infrastructure, for adaptive management are not available. In conclusion, we itemize a number of research needs and summarize practical recommendations based on the current state of knowledge.
Key words: adaptive management; integrated water resources management; social learning; adaptive governance; change management; uncertainty

INTRODUCTION
In the past, water resources management focused on well-defined problems that grew increasingly urgent during the 19th and 20th centuries as urban populations became more concentrated and industrial and agricultural productivity intensified. Public health problems within cities and the seemingly insatiable demand for more water drove major efforts in urban water management. Eutrophication problems in lakes and coastal seas triggered more involved research and legislation. Rivers were controlled to protect cities and dryland agriculture from flooding. In the short run, technological fixes proved to be very efficient in solving a number of these urgent environmental problems, e.g., the increasing sophistication of wastewater treatment plants addressing problems related to hygiene and pollution. However, these problems were generally dealt with in isolation, and potentially undesirable long-term consequences were not taken into consideration. The system paradigm on which traditional water management has been based has often been characterized as a “command-and-control” approach. System design was typically targeted at high predictability and controllability.

For the past two decades, new and more integrated approaches to water management have been developed and are being implemented to address perceived shortcomings in earlier approaches. During the last decade, the principle of integrated water resources management (IWRM) has, for example, been used as a framework for the implementation of such integrated approaches to water management (GWP-TEC 2000). “Integrated” clearly indicates a desire to functionally engage a range of perspectives by formally considering a wide range of potential trade-offs at different scales in space and time. Such an approach attempts to overcome the shortcomings of technical end-of-pipe solutions that deal with individual problems in isolation and run the risk of causing unexpected consequences (Pahl-Wostl 2007a). However, the implementation of an IWRM approach that fully accounts for the complexity and interdependencies of human-technology-environment (HTE) systems has yet to be realized. The increasing awareness of the complexity of environmental problems and of HTE systems has encouraged the development of new management approaches based on the insight that the systems to be managed are, in broad terms, complex, unpredictable, and characterized by unexpected responses to intervention (Committee on Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research 1999, Pahl-Wostl 2002, Prato 2003, Pahl-Wostl 2007b; S. Light and K. Blann,unpublished manuscript). Such complex adaptive systems are characterized as hierarchies of components interacting within and across scales, with emergent properties that cannot be predicted by knowing the components alone (Lansing 2003). Control is distributed rather than central (Allen and McGlade 1985, Pahl-Wostl 1995). Rather than trying to change the structure of complex, adaptive systems to make them controllable by external intervention, innovative management approaches aim to make use of the self-organizing properties of the systems to be managed.

Increasing awareness of complexity is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for changing water management practices. Recent attempts (e.g., Pahl-Wostl 2002, Galaz 2005, Jeffrey and Gearey 2006, W. Medema, B. McIntosh, and P. Jeffrey, unpublished manuscript) to manage water systems have revealed that major knowledge gaps in the following areas may impede the successful implementation of new management approaches.

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Managing Change toward Adaptive Water

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Pahl-Wostl, C., J. Sendzimir, P. Jeffrey, J. Aerts, G. Berkamp, and K. Cross. 2007. Managing change toward adaptive water management through social learning. Ecology and Society 12(2): 30. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol12/iss2/art30/


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