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Using ‘adaptive co-management’ strategies for uncertain freshwater futures

July 15, 2016
Water seeps across landscapes and lives... Flooded agricultural fields. Image: Broo_am | Flickr Creative Commons

Water seeps across landscapes and lives… Flooded agricultural fields. Image: Broo_am | Flickr Creative Commons

Global freshwater systems are becoming increasingly variable and unpredictable, largely due to the impacts of human pressures and climate change (see, for discussion, this paper (pdf))

In recent years, there have been severe floods and droughts across Europe, changes in water chemistry and quality, and shifts in biodiversity due to the introduction and invasion of non-native species and the extinction of other species that once played an important part in ecosystem webs. These are broad-brush descriptions, of course, but these trends point to an increasing uncertainty in the pressures impacting freshwaters, and the resulting impacts on their health and diversity.

We know that increasing human pressures and climate change are likely to pose new challenges for water management, but it is difficult to fully predict what these challenges will be, and how and where they will occur. A key question, then, is how water management – both now and in the future – can cope with unpredictability and shocks?

A new study published in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management assesses the potential of ‘adaptive co-management’ approaches for managing uncertainty in freshwater systems. A meshing of established co-management and adaptive management approaches, adaptive co-management is underpinned by the idea that humans are part of nature, and that social and ecological systems must be managed as part of an interdependent whole.

You can read an introduction to the approach in a 2007 chapter written by Derek Armitage, Fikret Berkes and Nancy Doubleday here. Advocates of the approach suggest that adaptive co-management can help protect ecosystems whilst at the same time maintaining human livelihoods.

Adaptive co-management brings together members of local communities, resource users, managers and government to collectively decide on (and implement) priorities for management.  This assimilation of different knowledge sets about the local environment is done within an adaptive framework for management, which can change in approach in response to new conditions: a process of ‘learning by doing’.  This creates flexible management approaches which can react to new knowledge and environmental and social changes (e.g. invasive species, increased rainfall, pollution or water demands) in the future.

The authors of the new open-access study, Luke Whaley of Kings College London and Edward Weatherhead of Cranfield University, analysed existing English-focused research and policy documents to assess how government policy can create the conditions for effective adaptive co-management strategies.

Their analysis identified five policy conditions that could enable adaptive co-management for addressing uncertainty in water management.

1. An awareness of the diverse functions of water

Water provides many functions in addition to being a resource for human use.  Although not mentioned by the authors, here the ecosystem service framework is useful in outlining these myriad functions: biodiversity habitat, water purification, flood protection, aesthetic inspiration and so on.

The authors suggest that a better understanding of the numerous ways that water supports and benefits human (and non-human) life can help foster a more sustainable environmental ethic among different communities in a catchment.

2. Openness to change and uncertainty

The authors suggest that policy makers need to be aware that freshwater systems are increasingly variable and prone to shocks and surprises.  Modern ecology emphasises the dynamism and flux of natural systems, which rarely reach a fixed equilibrium state.

So, instead of attempting to restrict change and reduce uncertainty in freshwater systems (e.g. through building ever higher flood walls), new approaches emphasise ‘learning to live’ with change (e.g. restricting building on flood plains, installing early warning flood systems).

3. An emphasis on resilience and adaptive capacity

Resilience describes the ability of a social or ecological system to absorb disturbances while retaining the same basic ways of functioning.  Resilience also indicates a system’s capacity to adapt to stress and change. Resilience can be both ecological (e.g. ability of biodiversity to cope with pollution) and social (e.g. the ability of communities to deal with flooding).  A system’s potential to absorb shocks and stresses is often termed its adaptive capacity.

The authors suggest that policy makers should attempt to promote resilience and adaptive capacity in both ecological and social elements of freshwater systems.  For example, this might involve planting artificial reed beds to buffer pollution, or providing information for local communities on how to deal with water scarcity.

4. Promoting participation across scales

Traditionally, environmental policy has been formed and administered by central government at a distance from the environments to be managed.  Adaptive co-management, on the other hand, emphasises collaboration between stakeholders in a water catchment (public, businesses, local government, NGOs etc) to co-produce knowledge about the environment, and to participate in the decision-making processes which shape it.

5. A social process based on joint learning

Finally, under the adaptive co-management approach, water management is framed not just as a technical challenge, but as a long-term social process of ‘learning to live with water’.  Individuals and communities brought into decision-making in a catchment can feedback on the success of management strategies, and even reshape understandings and framings of the issues at stake.  This allows for management approaches to be flexible and adaptive to the ‘on the ground’ experiences of engaged communities living in a changing environment.

Adaptive co-management for uncertain freshwater futures

The study finds examples of these themes in current European water policy. The EU Water Framework Directive encourages stakeholder participation at the regional river-basin scale as part of efforts to improve water bodies towards ‘good’ ecological status.   In addition, they attribute the influence of the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in promoting ecosystem-based approaches to water management in the EU.

In their analysis of UK policy documents, the authors identify a failure on the part of policy-makers to adequately prioritise the place of social learning as a central mechanism by which water management can progress and adapt to changing circumstances. Similarly, they identify a weak focus on uncertainty and the need to live with it, instead of simply attempting to reduce or eliminate it, and a failure to link resilience and adaptive capacity to social dimensions of water management.

In summing up, Whaley and Weatherhead suggest that improving these two final deficiencies in current practice – social learning and social resilience and adaptive capacity – is a key step in improving water policy and management for an uncertain future.

Luke Whaley , Edward Weatherhead (2016) Managing water through change and uncertainty: comparing lessons from the adaptive co-management literature to recent policy developments in England, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management , Vol. 59, Iss. 10, 2016

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