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Socio-hydrology: an interplay of design and self-organization in a multilevel world

David J. Yu, Lyles School of Civil Engineering, Purdue University; Department of Political Science, Purdue University; Center for the Environment, Purdue University
Heejun Chang, Geography Department, Portland State University
Taylor T. Davis, Department of Philosophy, Purdue University; Center for the Environment, Purdue University
Vicken Hillis, Human-Environment Systems, Boise State University
Landon T Marston, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Virginia Tech
Woi Sok Oh, Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, University of Florida
Murugesu Sivapalan, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Department of Geography and Geographic Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Timothy M. Waring, School of Economics, Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, University of Maine


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The emerging field of socio-hydrology is a special case of social-ecological systems research that focuses on coupled human-water systems, exploring how the hydrologic cycle and human cultural traits coevolve and how such coevolutions lead to phenomena of relevance to water security and sustainability. As such, most problems tackled by socio-hydrology involve some aspects of engineering design, such as large-scale water infrastructure, and self-organization in a broad context, such as cultural change at the population level and the hydrologic shift at the river basin or aquifer level. However, within the field of socio-hydrology, it has been difficult to find general theories that assist our understanding of the dynamics emerging from the interplay between design and self-organization, hindering generalization of phenomena between cases. We address this gap by developing insights on how the theoretical frameworks of robustness-fragility trade-off and cultural multilevel selection can inform our understanding in this regard. We apply the two theories to two cases in the Ganges Brahmaputra Delta in Bangladesh and the Kissimmee River Basin in Florida, illustrating how the two theories may provide general insights into causal mechanisms shaping the socio-hydrological phenomena observed in the two cases. Specifically, we use the two theories to address (1) the transference of system fragility across different domains due to design choices and (2) the multilevel social processes in the nested organizational hierarchy that lead to the formation or collapse of shared cultural traits. We show that these two theories, separately or taken together, can provide richer theoretical grounding for understanding socio-hydrological phenomena.

Key words

coupled human-water system; cultural evolution; cultural multilevel selection; robustness; robustness-fragility trade-offs; socio-hydrology; the levee effect

Copyright © 2020 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