Ecology and Society Ecology and Society
E&S Home > Vol. 26, Iss. 1 > Art. 22 > Abstract Open Access Publishing 
Systematic learning in water governance: insights from five local adaptive management projects for water quality innovation

Elisa Kochskämper, Working group Governance and Sustainability, Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany; Research Department Institutional Change and Regional Public Goods, Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space, Erkner, Germany
Tomas M. Koontz, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, University of Washington Tacoma
Jens Newig, Working group Governance and Sustainability, Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany


Full Text: HTML   
Download Citation


Adaptive management has been proliferating since the 1970s as a policy approach for dealing with uncertainty in environmental governance through learning. Learning takes place through a cyclical approach of experimentation and (possible) adjustment. However, few empirical studies exist that cover full iterations of adaptive management cycles. We report on five adaptive management projects on water quality enhancement, of which four led to innovations in the small-scale management of waterways in northern Germany. We trace processes as well as outcomes, to identify factors affecting learning, environmental improvement, and the successful delivery of a project throughout a management cycle.

Our findings point to a key difference between two kinds of uncertainty in the studied processes: ecological uncertainty (whether and how interventions will be effective in improving water quality) and what we term “social uncertainty” (how stakeholders will respond to interventions). We find that those managers performed better who addressed both kinds of uncertainty. Factors for dealing with social uncertainties were usually rather different than the ones linked to knowledge gain for the results in the rivers, and their acknowledgment was decisive for successful project delivery. On a conceptual level, our findings suggest that the model of a dual feedback cycle, including both types of uncertainties, allows for more clear-cut conceptual differentiation and empirical outcome measurement of adaptive management processes.

Key words

comparative research; environmental governance; implementation; public participation; Water Framework Directive

Copyright © 2021 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