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Economic inequality and institutional adaptation in response to flood hazards: a historical analysis

Bas van Bavel, Utrecht University
Daniel R. Curtis, Leiden University
Tim Soens, University of Antwerp


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To adequately respond to crises, adaptive governance is crucial, but sometimes institutional adaptation is constrained, even when a society is faced with acute hazards. We hypothesize that economic inequality, defined as unequal ownership of wealth and access to resources, crucially interacts with the way institutions function and are adapted or not. Because the time span for societal responses may be lengthy, we use the historical record as a laboratory to test our hypothesis. In doing so, we focus on floods and water management infrastructure. The test area is one where flood hazards were very evident—the Low Countries (present-day Netherlands and Belgium) in the premodern period (1300–1800)—and we employ comparative analysis of three regions within this geographical area.
We draw two conclusions: first, both equitable and inequitable societies can demonstrate resilience in the face of floods, but only if the institutions employed to deal with the hazard are suited to the distributive context. Institutions must change parallel to any changes in inequality. Second, we show that institutional adaptation was not inevitable, but also sometimes failed to occur. Institutional adaptation was never inevitably triggered by stimulus of a hazard, but dependent on socio-political context. Even when vital for the community under threat, adaptation only tended to occur when the vested interests of those with wealth, resources, and power were directly hit.

Key words

adaptation; hazards; history; inequality; institutions; water management

Copyright © 2018 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087