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Evaluating Responses in Complex Adaptive Systems: Insights on Water Management from the Southern African Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (SAfMA)

Erin Bohensky, University of Pretoria
Timothy Lynam, University of Zimbabwe

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Ecosystem services are embedded in complex adaptive systems. These systems are riddled with nonlinearities, uncertainties, and surprises, and are made increasingly complex by the many human responses to problems or changes arising within them. In this paper we attempt to determine whether there are certain factors that characterize effective responses in complex systems. We construct a framework for response evaluation with three interconnected scopes or spatial and temporal domains: the scope of an impact, the scope of the awareness of the impact, and the scope of the power or influence to respond. Drawing from the experience of the Southern African Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (SAfMA), we explore the applicability of this framework to the example of water management in southern Africa, where an ongoing paradigm shift in some areas has enabled a transition from supply-side to demand-side responses and the creation of new institutions to manage water across scales. We suggest that the most effective responses exhibit congruence between the impact, awareness, and power scopes; distribute impacts across space and time; expand response options; enhance social memory; and depend on power-distributing mechanisms. We conclude by stressing the need for sufficient flexibility to adapt responses to the specific, ever-evolving contexts in which they are implemented. Although our discussion focuses on water in southern Africa, we believe that the framework has broad applicability to a range of complex systems and places.

Key words

responses; complex adaptive systems; ecosystem services; southern Africa; water management; impact; awareness; power
Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087