The fragility of successful social-ecological systems

One of the typical examples of self-governance of the commons are small-scale irrigation systems all around the world who exist for hunderds of years and sometimes even more than a thousand years. They are highly productive and have a diversity of institutional arrangements to solve their collective actions (maintaining the infrastructure and allocating water). They exemplify a diversity of institutional arrangements since they experience a diverse set of disturbances (availability of water, insect outbreaks, availability of labor, etc.).
Will those success stories persist in the age of climate change and globalization? It is not unlikely that these examplars are fragile to the rapid changes in the disturbance regimes we experience. This is dramatic since these small scale irrigation systems generate a large shunk of the world food production in areas with rapidly increasing populations. The reason for this concern is that these systems have been adapted to a particular disturbance regime, while we now experience a rapid change. Furthermore, these systems are successfull since they have been relatively isolated, have context specific institutions and are small scale. Increasingly the network for food production is becoming more dependent on the global market economy (more cash crops, less self-sufficiency), leading to a more volatile market. Globalization also lead to alternative sources of income that let people leave to irrigation communities. Furthermore, we know that uncertainty and larger scale will make collective action problems more difficult.
To sustain food security we need to find ways to make these exemplars robust to changes in disturbance regimes. We are just starting a new project on this within CSID, and also published an editorial of this problem. The project will combine mathematical modeling of robustness tradeoffs, case study analysis and return visits to exemplar case studies, and field experiments on the effect of changing disturbance regimes to understand possible venues for increasing adaptive capacity.

The editorial can be found at:
Anderies, J.M. and M.A. Janssen (2011) The fragility of robust social-ecological systems, Global Environmental Change 21: 1153-1156.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *