Ecology and Society Ecology and Society
E&S Home > Vol. 25, Iss. 2 > Art. 23 > Abstract Open Access Publishing 
Developing a sustainability science approach for water systems

Christa Brelsford, Human Dynamics Group, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Marion Dumas, Grantham Research Institute, London School of Economics
Edella Schlager, School of Government and Public Policy, University of Arizona
Brian J Dermody, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University
Michael Aiuvalasit, Illinois State Archaeological Survey, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Melissa R Allen-Dumas, Computational Urban Sciences Group, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Janice Beecher, Michigan State University
Udit Bhatia, Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar
Paolo D'Odorico, Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California Berkeley
Margaret Garcia, School of Engineering and the Built Environment, Arizona State University
Patricia Gober, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, Arizona State University
David Groenfeldt, Water-Culture Institute; Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico
Steve Lansing, Santa Fe Institute; Complexity Science Hub Vienna
Kaveh Madani, Department of Political Science and The MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, Yale University; Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London
Linda Estelí Méndez-Barrientos, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California Davis
Elena Mondino, Department of Earth Sciences, Uppsala University; Centre of Natural Hazards and Disaster Science, Sweden
Marc F Müller, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences, University of Notre Dame
Frances C O'Donnell, Department of Civil Engineering, Auburn University
Patrick M Owuor, Department of Anthropology and Global Health, Northwestern University
James Rising, Grantham Research Institute, London School of Economics
Matthew R Sanderson, Department of Sociology, Kansas State University
Felipe A. A. Souza, São Carlos School of Engineering, University of São Paulo
Samuel C Zipper, Kansas Geological Survey, University of Kansas


Full Text: HTML   
Download Citation


We convened a workshop to enable scientists who study water systems from both social science and physical science perspectives to develop a shared language. This shared language is necessary to bridge a divide between these disciplines’ different conceptual frameworks. As a result of this workshop, we argue that we should view socio-hydrological systems as structurally co-constituted of social, engineered, and natural elements and study the “characteristic management challenges” that emerge from this structure and reoccur across time, space, and socioeconomic contexts. This approach is in contrast to theories that view these systems as separately conceptualized natural and social domains connected by bi-directional feedbacks, as is prevalent in much of the water systems research arising from the physical sciences. A focus on emergent characteristic management challenges encourages us to go beyond searching for evidence of feedbacks and instead ask questions such as: What types of innovations have successfully been used to address these challenges? What structural components of the system affect its resilience to hydrological events and through what mechanisms? Are there differences between successful and unsuccessful strategies to solve one of the characteristic management challenges? If so, how are these differences affected by institutional structure and ecological and economic contexts? To answer these questions, social processes must now take center stage in the study and practice of water management. We also argue that water systems are an important class of coupled systems with relevance for sustainability science because they are particularly amenable to the kinds of systematic comparisons that allow knowledge to accumulate. Indeed, the characteristic management challenges we identify are few in number and recur over most of human history and in most geographical locations. This recurrence should allow us to accumulate knowledge to answer the above questions by studying the long historical record of institutional innovations to manage water systems.

Key words

institutions; socio-hydrology; water systems

Copyright © 2020 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087