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Robust-yet-fragile nature of partly engineered social-ecological systems: a case study of coastal Bangladesh

Asif Ishtiaque, School of Geographical Sciences & Urban Planning, Arizona State university, Tempe, AZ, USA
Nikhil Sangwan, Lyles School of Civil Engineering, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA
David J. Yu, Lyles School of Civil Engineering, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA; Department of Political Science, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA; Center for the Environment, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA


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Modern social-ecological systems are often partly engineered to enhance the robustness (or reduce the variance) of human welfare to environmental fluctuations over a foreseeable time horizon. Recent studies show, however, that subtle trade-offs are usually inherent in such efforts of enhancing short-term robustness. Managing variance on short time scales is likely to be associated with the buildup of hidden fragilities on longer time scales. Using a flood-prone social-ecological system (SES) of coastal Bangladesh as an example, this paper investigates some of the ways in which such robustness-fragility trade-offs can manifest. This SES has been extensively modified in the last few decades through the construction of large-scale flood protection structures (polders) and the introduction of commercial shrimp farming to enhance the robustness of food production to hydrological variability. Our case study analysis of the long-term changes in the SES shows that, although the modifications helped with stability in short time scales, the resulting changes also induced unforeseen problems such as infrastructure maintenance issues, land degradation and sinking, and exposure to market volatility. With this paper therefore we contribute to better understanding of the notion of robustness-fragility trade-offs by illustrating an exemplary case of the phenomenon in the engineered coastal environment context.

Key words

coastal resilience; coastal vulnerability; cyclone; embankments; flooding; infrastructure; land subsidence; polder; robustness; robustness-fragility trade-offs; saline water intrusion; social-ecological systems; socio-hydrology; storm

Copyright © 2017 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