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Ecosystem Services Linking Social and Ecological Systems: River Brownification and the Response of Downstream Stakeholders

Magnus Tuvendal, Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University, Sweden; Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden
Thomas Elmqvist, Department of Systems Ecology, Stockholm University, Sweden; Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden


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The theoretical framework of ecosystem services and that of resilience thinking are combined in an empirical case study of a social-ecological system. In the River Helge å catchment in southern Sweden, a slow increase in dissolved organic carbon (DOC) results in brownification of the water with consequences on ecosystem services in the lower part of the catchment of concern by local resource managers. An assessment of ecosystem service delivery was conducted to (1) identify plausible drivers of brownification in the study site and assess future ecosystem service delivery for stakeholders in downstream areas. An analysis of the perspective of beneficiaries, using qualitative methods, was pursued to (2) evaluate the impacts of brownification on downstream stakeholders.

Our analyses of drivers of brownification in combination with climate change projections suggests that Kristianstads Vattenrike Biosphere Reserve will experience extreme water flows much more frequently than the system is accustomed to today, and that these water flows will be highly affected by brownification. The combination of severe summer flooding and high water color constituted a new disturbance regime and thus requires new adaptive strategies by local stakeholders. A range of coping and adaptation strategies were displayed by the farmers but also a possible transformation strategy, i.e., abandonment of the seasonally flooded meadows. Because hay making and grazing are central components in the active management of the Kristianstads Vattenrike Biosphere Reserve, to discontinue this practice would have system-wide ramifications for the Biosphere Reserve. The vulnerability of fishing in the culturally significant ”Eel Coast,” part of the downstream area, was also exposed.

We argue that for environmental monitoring of slow changing variables to make sense to local stakeholders, clear links to ecosystem service benefits are required. The responsibility for this and thus for matching of social and ecological scales falls heavily on regional managers. We further argue that resilience of a
social-ecological system can be estimated by observing and analyzing how local
stakeholders respond to disturbances, i.e., by analyzing their response

Key words

adaptation; brownification; coping; ecosystem service; governance; resilience; response strategies; social-ecological system; transformation

Copyright © 2011 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