Adaptive Governance in North American Water Systems: A Legal Perspective on Resilience and Reconciliation

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Feb 22, 2019
Barbara Cosens and Lance Gunderson



Governance lies at the heart of the capacity of water based social-ecological systems to manage resilience. Case studies of North American water basins reveal that the massive engineering of these systems have facilitated economic and social development to meet objectives of navigation, irrigation, flood control, hydropower, safe drinking water, recreation and pollution abatement. To meet these goals, the governance and management of these systems successfully stabilized key hydrologic and ecosystem processes, which in turn led to a decline in ecological resilience and adaptive capacity. While efforts to recover lost ecosystem functions within managed river systems are underway, the capacity to adapt to these restoration efforts and the system in general to ongoing climate change, is hindered by physical infrastructure, legal fragmentation and governmental inflexibility. Response to accelerating change and the inadequacy of fragmented legal regimes is apparent in emergence of self-organized governance at the problem or basin-regional scale. Such self-organization is categorized as adaptive governance or in this application, adaptive water governance. Self-organization alone will not allow adaptation to keep pace with accelerating global change and climate uncertainty. Adaptive water governance requires government facilitation to build adaptive capacity in time to respond to change and ensure that greater involvement of private actors and increased flexibility do not come at the expense of legitimacy, transparency, accountability, equity and justice.

Read the chapter in the book Water Resilience

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