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The European Water Framework Directive: How Ecological Assumptions Frame Technical and Social Change

Patrick Steyaert, French National Agricultural Research Institute (INRA)
Guillaume Ollivier, French National Agricultural Research Institute (INRA)


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The European Water Framework Directive (WFD) is built upon significant cognitive developments in the field of ecological science but also encourages active involvement of all interested parties in its implementation. The coexistence in the same policy text of both substantive and procedural approaches to policy development stimulated this research as did our concerns about the implications of substantive ecological visions within the WFD policy for promoting, or not, social learning processes through participatory designs. We have used a qualitative analysis of the WFD text which shows the ecological dimension of the WFD dedicates its quasi-exclusive attention to a particular current of thought in ecosystems science focusing on ecosystems status and stability and considering human activities as disturbance factors. This particular worldview is juxtaposed within the WFD with a more utilitarian one that gives rise to many policy exemptions without changing the general underlying ecological model. We discuss these policy statements in the light of the tension between substantive and procedural policy developments. We argue that the dominant substantive approach of the WFD, comprising particular ecological assumptions built upon "compositionalism," seems to be contradictory with its espoused intention of involving the public. We discuss that current of thought in regard to more functionalist thinking and adaptive management, which offers greater opportunities for social learning, i.e., place a set of interdependent stakeholders in an intersubjective position in which they operate a "social construction" of water problems through the co-production of knowledge.

Key words

ecological status; policy analysis; public participation; reference system; social learning; Water Framework Directive.

Copyright © 2007 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work 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