Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Second paper submitted: deltas as co-evolving social, ecological and technological systems

Last week I submitted my second paper to Ecology and Society. For those interested, here you’ll find a short version of the paper (or, extended version of the abstract ;p).

In its academic publications, Ecology and Society emphasizes the interplay between society and ecological systems. Since 2003 the journal has focused on topics related to the management of ecosystems, of societal processes in relation to ecological processes, and on different modes of governance or politics involved with nature. Concepts such as resilience and adaptability originate in this field, trying to express states or capacities of complex and coupled social-ecological systems.

What I found most interesting about the journal, and which is also highlighted in my paper, is the interplay between ecology, or 'delta environment' a bit more specifically, and society in terms of water policy & interventions. But what can be remarked about studies that use valuable social-ecological perspectives to look at deltas (for example, see Garschagen (from p.45) on the Mekong, and Pel et al on the Netherlands) is that they do not go into much detail about hydraulic engineering. And how hydraulic engineering influences the way delta systems (the social-ecological one) develop over time. Therefore, the manuscript reaches out to the domain of socio-technical systems research to see which concepts can be helpful to understand social, environmental, and technological (hydraulic) dynamics in delta systems over time.

If we take the Netherlands as a more specific example, various types of technology have materialized, often triggered by dynamics or (flood) events in the natural system. Social actors’ deliberations about how to respond to a watery event, or overall policy approach resulted into certain (policy) decisions or choices for certain technological interventions. These technological interventions are constructed by means of  rather ‘simple’ science and construction works, others by means of more complex models or high-tech engineering. River embankments or smaller dams can be examples of the former (although nowadays constructing an earthen 'bundh' is quite a scientificalized task...), while the Oosterschelde storm surge barrier can be an example of the latter. Once constructed, these objects start to influence both the delta environment (for example changes in water and sediment processes) as well as society's responses to a 'constructed' environment (for example, rapid socio-economic developments behind the dykes, feeling of being safe).

Drawing from socio-technical systems research, technological interventions may lead to responses that reinforce the existence of the infrastructure under review: embankments are raised over and over again, and the negative side effects of the Oosterschelde storm surge barrier are addressed as second-order problems. This sets the delta on a certain trajectory in which technology can arguably be said to already ‘sketch’ or outline the direction, or future, towards which the delta is evolving as a whole. This we have called a 'delta trajectory'. 

Researchers have argued that these rigid trajectories are not very sustainable when seen over longer timescales. But, there are options to move away from seemingly path-dependent approaches. Those come at huge social (resistance) and economic costs - see for example the Room for the River programme, which is based on river widening instead of only raising and strengthening embankments. The domain of eco-engineering or ecosystem-based flood management also provide concepts that combine ecological delta dynamics with technological possibilities. Bringing societal demands, natural processes and technological possibilities more in tune with each other may help to develop sustainable trajectories.

Hopefully the paper will be accepted by the editors of the journal for the review process, and once that has been completed successfully, it will appear online in a few months’ time!

1 comment:

  1. December 2015. Ecology&Society has accepted the reviewed and slightly modified version of the manuscript. I expect that the article will be available early next year!