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Navigating wicked water governance in the "solutionscape" of science, policy, practice, and participation

Amy L. Fallon, Water and Development Research Group, Department of Built Environment, Aalto University
Bruce A. Lankford, University of East Anglia (UEA), UK
Derek Weston, Pegasys, Pretoria, South Africa


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Many water sustainability and governance issues around the world can be viewed as wicked problems, whereby a solution, even if quite broad and comprehensive, may be contested because of high complexity, uncertainty, and diverging perspectives. These types of issues and their contestation thus create a complex landscape of possible solutions, which we term a water governance “solutionscape.” We develop the concept of the solutionscape to identify different types of solutions that present themselves through the emphases placed upon four major dimensions: science, policy, practice, and participation. After first considering these four dimensions via a literature review, we then conceptualize the solutionscape’s expressions comprising six different solution pathways. These are comprehensive solutions, where all four dimensions are equally supported and integrated; clumsy solutions, where multiple solutions are pursued separately without coordination (risking contradictions); two types of expedient solutions (high and low-cost), which involve attempts to pursue outcomes rapidly; solutionism, which refers to the over-emphasis of one dimension in an attempt to provide a quick-fix (leading to unintended consequences); and finally anti-solutions, whereby one or more dimensions are actively disputed or disregarded by policy makers. An example from South Africa is used to illustrate the framework’s key components. We then discuss the allure of solutionism in solving wicked water problems, and how alternatives might be envisaged with the consideration of often-hidden institutional processes and power. Finally, we consider the value of the solutionscape as an integrative heuristic tool to discuss wicked water problems, recognizing issues such as plural perspectives and power asymmetries between stakeholders.

Key words

complexity; Limpopo River Basin; South Africa; sustainability; transformation; wicked problems

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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087