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Discovering Resilient Pathways for South African Water Management: Two Frameworks for a Vision

Erin L Bohensky, University of Pretoria and CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems


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Factors that constitute resilience can themselves change over time in social-ecological systems. This poses a major challenge for understanding resilience and suggests greater investigation is needed of how social-ecological systems evolve through time and how to manage along more resilient pathways given continuous change. Resilient pathways account for the changing context of social-ecological systems, such as changing management discourses and their societal inclusiveness, changing system boundaries and external connections, and lingering consequences of past management actions. In this paper I use two well-known conceptual frameworks to explore change in social-ecological systems and associated resilience in the case of water management in South Africa, which is undergoing a major transformation: (1) the conceptual framework of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) and (2) the adaptive cycle described by Holling and others. Both frameworks, with minor adaptations, illustrate the systemís shift from a centralized command-and-control style bureaucracy to a decentralized system guided by new legislation and a vision to balance efficiency, equity, and sustainability. During the former era, water managers attempted to maintain system stability and productivity through institutional and technical means that favored certain sectors of society, but resilience of the water management system declined as a result of increasingly unpopular policies and loss of ecosystem services. In using both frameworks, it becomes clear that the water management system contains two distinct social subsystems, representing South Africaís previously advantaged and disadvantaged populations, and that these do not progress through the phases of the MA framework and adaptive cycle uniformly. This implies particular challenges for achieving the water management vision: (1) the potential for management discourses to be manipulated by powerful groups, (2) equity issues that reflect new system boundaries that extend beyond South Africaís borders, and (3) past overallocation and poor management of water that make the previous level of privileges unattainable today. The South African water sector is a compelling case because of its dramatic transformation with as-yet unknown outcomes, but it presents challenges that are common among many large-scale social-ecological systems. With great international interest in operationalizing resilience definitions and frameworks, this exercise suggests the need to revisit definitions, continue applying these frameworks, and adapting them to capture variations in social-ecological systems.

Key words

adaptive cycle; Millennium Ecosystem Assessment; resilience; resilient pathways; South Africa; water management.

Copyright © 2008 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