When Strengths Can Become Weaknesses: Emerging Vulnerabilities in Coupled Natural Human Systems under Globalization and Climate Change

Long-lived coupled natural human systems (CNHs) are often distinguished by how they have evolved the right fit between their biophysical and social sub-systems. Researchers have characterized this fit in terms of the close feedbacks that enable a system to function well when faced with a known set of disturbance regimes. This project addresses a key question that naturally arises when these systems are exposed to a new set of disturbance regimes or novel change as is likely to occur with increased globalization and climate change: to what extent do the interdependencies that developed to strengthen the system's capacity to fit to a certain set of disturbances limit or enhance its capacity to refit to new conditions? To address this question, the project team will focus on a particular class of CNHs - small scale irrigation systems where the built infrastructure plays a critical role in resource provision. A multi-method approach will be employed that begins with the qualitative analysis of a large number of case studies to develop a typology of irrigation systems. A subset of previously examined exemplar cases will be revisited to examine how they have coped with new vulnerabilities that have emerged. In parallel, field experiments will be conducted with resource users and infrastructure providers that apply principles of behavioral economics to social dilemmas that emerge in irrigation systems in order to test the robustness of collective action to different stressors. These will be followed by laboratory experiments with college students to examine whether the findings can be generalized to other systems. Finally, insights from the case studies and experiments will be used to develop formal dynamic models of prototypical irrigation-based CNHs. Using tools from dynamical systems and robust control complemented by numerical experiments and simulation (including agent-based approaches), the qualitative dynamics and associated robustness-vulnerability characteristics of these systems will be studied in order to distill a set of institutional design principles for use in the development of tools for anticipatory governance.

In addition to the study of coupled natural human systems (CNHs) in its own right, this project is motivated by an important practical consideration. The pace at which social and natural systems are currently changing - driven to a large degree by globalization and climate change - has challenged the capacity of several CNHs to self-organize and respond effectively to this change. Ongoing field studies have shown that small scale farms (less than 2 hectares), which constitute 90% of farms worldwide and consume an estimated 70% of developed water supplies, are the most vulnerable to such changes. Since these farms also produce 40% of agricultural output globally and support the majority of world?s poorest people, it is essential to enhance their adaptive capacity in order to maintain food security and alleviate poverty. Focusing on the in-depth study of small-scale irrigation systems, this project pushes ideas of resource governance beyond traditional approaches. Rather than seeking the "best" policies for a specific system under a given set of shocks, it seeks to understand how CNHs cope with change under a wide range of disturbance regimes. The theoretical foundation for the project is based on a key insight from engineering: feedback (of which management and governance in CNHs are examples) can be used to stabilize a system and reduce its sensitivity to a given set of disturbances. However, this stabilizing feedback can increase sensitivity to new types of disturbances. By studying responses to a suite of disturbances, this project helps advance a more nuanced understanding of evolution of CNHs in terms of recognizing how in becoming finely-tuned to certain disturbances, systems become increasingly vulnerable to others. Building on this insight through theoretical modelling as well as case studies and field experiments from a wide variety of settings in the southwestern US, India, Nepal and Thailand, this project will develop a set of tools that will contribute to the capacity of policy makers to better anticipate emerging vulnerabilities and design learning and adaptive mechanisms to cope more effectively with change.

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