Building Flood Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems

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Historic driving forces of economic development, continually growing population and expanding inequities, are already challenging the resilience of the social-ecological system (SES) on multiple fronts, including socially, economically and environmentally. Existing and increasing threats from climate change will exacerbate the challenges in managing for resilience. The dynamic nature, involvement of multiscale feedback mechanisms between the natural and social sub-systems, possible existence of multiple states of the social-ecological system and inability to ever gain full control or understanding make it a challenge for institutions and actors to define and manage the system boundaries, its components and feedbacks. This complexity requires a transdisciplinary approach that integrates those most impacted into building knowledge and solutions across the environmental, economic and social fields. Similarly, institutions managing these systems will need to develop new approaches and strategies to integrate social, ecological, economic and political aspects of the SES and expand the participation of individual actors in the system, including a redistribution of power to successfully achieve resilience outcomes.

The Social-Ecological Resilience Framework, proposed here, seeks to build resilience in the SES through purposeful interventions to maintain or change the forms, functions or both. This framework relates the key terms of sustainability, adaptation, transition and transformation, under the overall umbrella term of resilience. Within this framework, resilience is defined as the ability of the system to sustain, adapt, transition or transform in the face of acute or systemic change. Each subsequent term is then defined by the level of change in forms and functions: (1) sustainable maintains the same forms and functions, (2) adaptation changes the forms while maintain the functions, (3) transition changes the functions while maintaining the forms and (4) transformation changes both forms and functions. The framework can be used to manage the changes that society is experiencing in these systems.

Adaptive management and social learning are two examples of approaches for managing the SES under the overarching construct of the Social-Ecological Resilience Framework. Adaptive management, an iterative decision-making process to address uncertainties and adapt to future conditions, should be combined with social learning, a participatory process where knowledge, skills and values are gained or modified through social interactions and collective learning.

This dissertation demonstrates the framework and these approaches through five case studies focused on building resilience to flood impacts. Flooding is the costliest natural disaster in the world. However, the calculation of disasters costs typically only includes the cost of flood damages to infrastructure. But flooding is also putting a toll on society’s ability to provide social services, maintain important social factors, such as community cohesion, impacting both physical and mental health, exacerbating inequities and deteriorating the environment and ecosystem services, all with significant costs.

In China’s Sponge Cities Program, the key takeaway is that defining the SES, both geographically and in terms of important forms and functions relevant to achieving the resilience goals, should be identified early to be able to address any barriers to success. The key takeaway of the Coastal Structures case study is that roles and responsibilities need to be clearly defined for institutions and actors, by which they can collectively achieve both institutional goals of reducing the societal impacts of flooding and the actors’ goals of reducing their own impacts to well-being. In the Honduras case study, the key takeaway is that building institutional support requires a redistribution of power dynamics to facilitate bottom-up approaches that can increase the utility of resilience actions to solving more than one social, ecological or economic problem within the SES. In Indonesia’s case study, by identifying the key forms and functions for each resilience goal, the range of possible vulnerabilities can be better defined, and timelines of potential changes and strategies to safeguard that positive outcomes are achieved can be developed. And finally, in Louisiana, the key takeaway is that institutions should not be defining the future of the SES without all the key actors engaged or represented. Institutions should support building a common vision of a resilient future through an integrated adaptive management and social learning program.

The dissertation discusses a proposed Social-Ecological Resilience Framework (Chapter 1) to define key terms that integrates the notion of resilience, sustainability, adaptation, transition and transformation in relationship to each other and in relationship to the form and function of the SES. Several case studies from around the world demonstrate various aspects of operationalizing the framework. Technical aspects of adaptive management are developed and applied to a case study in Louisiana (Chapter 2). Lastly, social learning is then integrated into adaptive management using the same case study (Chapter 3). Both of these two chapters discuss actions to build resilience in the SES at a localized scale.

Managing a social-ecological system (SES) can be an arduous task, and many institutions, such as governmental, non-profit, and research entities, may feel overwhelmed by the complexity and scope of this challenge. It's tempting to concentrate on a particular aspect of the system that seems more manageable or familiar. Nevertheless, without adopting a systems-thinking approach and examining the interactions within and beyond the SES, there is a risk of unintended and cascading consequences and missed opportunities to tackle multiple vulnerabilities collectively. Although this dissertation focuses on flood-related risks, the underlying themes and methodologies are relevant to any disaster, whether caused by nature or humans. Ultimately, our shared efforts to shape a more equitable, resilient, and sustainable world for present and future generations can benefit from these approaches.