Adaptive Water Governance: Summary and Synthesis

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Apr 19, 2018
Barbara Cosens, Lance Gunderson



The Adaptive Water Governance project was set up to examine how law, policy, and ecological dynamics influence the governance of regional-scale water-based social-ecological systems in the United States and Australia. With the onset of the Anthropocene, global and regional changes in biophysical inputs to these systems will challenge their capacity to respond while maintaining functions of water supply, flood control, hydropower production, water quality, and biodiversity in a time of aging infrastructure. At the heart of the capacity of these systems to respond to these challenges is their governance. Governance of these complex and dynamic social-environmental systems has moved beyond state-centric, legally bounded control to a complex mix of public/private self-organization. The resilience assessments of case studies and integrative scholarship led to this synthesis, which is presented in the form of three challenges to adaptive water governance. The first is to consider the role of government in removing barriers to adaptive governance by facilitating actions that take advantage of windows of opportunity and institutionalize the results of innovative solutions. The second challenge is to assure that in embracing these new approaches, society must continue to evaluates trade-offs. Such governance should assure that engagement of private and economic actors and the increase in governmental flexibility do not destabilize nor come at the expense of legitimacy, accountability, equity, and justice. Law in its role of establishing the structure and process of government and in placing bounds on the interaction of governmental entities with private actors is a key component in striking the balance between stability in government and adaptability of governance. The third challenge is to identify whether government might be given the authority to facilitate and participate in adaptive governance. Meeting these challenges will increase the capacity of these social-ecological systems to innovate, adapt, and learn their way into an uncertain future, by increasing participation in adaptive governance in ways that are legitimate, transparent, and just.

Read the chapter in Practical Panarchy for Adaptive Water Governance.

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