An integrated assessment of water governance in social-ecological systemstwo case studies: the Andarax basin in Almeria and the Tucson basin in Arizona

  1. Violeta Cabello Villarejo
Supervised by:
  1. Leandro del Moral Ituarte Director
  2. Juan Mariano Camarillo Naranjo Director
  3. Mario Giampietro Director

Defence university: Universidad de Sevilla

Year of defence: 2016

  1. María Fernanda Pita López Chair
  2. Belén Pedregal Mateos Secretary
  3. Pilar Paneque Committee member
  4. Alberto Matarán Ruiz Committee member
  5. Jesús Ramos Martín Committee member

Type: Thesis

Teseo: 399457 DIALNET lock_openIdus editor


The emergence of sustainable development as a mainstream issue in the global political agenda defused voices critical of the limits to growth by embracing the discourse of ecological modernization. According to this narrative, environmental problems can and should be dealt with by the promotion of economic growth within existing economic and institutional arrangements. The field of water governance echoed this discourse in the new integration ideas of integrated water resources management, which has gradually become a dominant water management paradigm over the last decades. In the meantime, the western scientific arena has experienced a drastic epistemological shift from mechanicism to complexity. A theoretical basis of complexity underpins the new field of sustainability science, which strives to respond to the challenges associated with retrieving unsustainable patterns through inter- and transdisciplinary research on social-ecological systems. However, water science for governance is slowly mirroring the epistemological implications of complexity, such as the existence of multiple perceptions of nature, the multi-scale organization of living systems, and circular causality as the main type of relationship maintaining this organization. Some research challenges associated with these issues are the following: integrated analysis involving multiple scales and dimensions; mechanisms for quality control over the narratives leading problem-solving; and critical assessments of win-win techno-social fixes. This dissertation attempts to respond to these challenges by offering a complex systems perspective on water resources management that conceptualizes watersheds as social-ecological systems. The research objective is to develop an integrated assessment of the implementation of sustainability objectives in water policies in two semi-arid water basins: the Andarax River basin in Almeria (Spain) and the Tucson basin in Arizona (United States). For this purpose, the dissertation proposes a theoretical framework for the integrated assessment of water governance that combines a series of conceptual devices, such as a complex definition of water use, a holarchic depiction of coupled water-human systems, the water metabolism of social-ecological systems, the semiotic process of water management, and water availability as a boundary object. This conceptual repertoire is operationalized through a methodological framework that bridges quantitative analytical tools, such as a spatial-relational data model and the Multi-Scale Analysis of Societal and Ecosystem Metabolism, and qualitative discourse analysis and assessment of public policies. The first case study follows the implementation of the first cycle of the Water Framework Directive 2009-2015 in the Andarax River basin. It begins with a thorough characterization of the water metabolism of one sub-basin, linking the analysis of societal and that of ecosystem metabolism on a spatially explicit basis. It is proposed that the analysis of ecosystem metabolism should be carried out through the eco-hydrological processes that control water resource renewability (supply-side sustainability), the impacts caused to ecosystem health (sink-side sustainability), and the boundary concepts of water availability and ecosystem water requirements. The analysis revealed the metabolic pattern of a high mountain rural system with a multi-functional economy striving to deal with exodus and agricultural land abandonment. Centuries of social-ecological evolution shaping waterscapes through traditional water management practices have influenced the eco-hydrological functioning of the basin, enabling the adaptation to aridity. Management challenges posed by the European water regulatory framework as a new driver of social-ecological change are highlighted. In the second analytical chapter, the interplay between agricultural and water policies is assessed on a multi-scale basis by bridging the analysis of management plans and that of societal metabolic patterns. The resulting analysis shows that the integration of these policies is undertaken at regional level through techno-social fixes consisting mainly of new resources and the improvement of irrigation efficiency. Agriculture is the main driver of water use patterns, and a range of which are found in the basin with different associated challenges regarding the meeting of environmental objectives of the Directive. The trade-offs associated with management decisions are uncovered in terms of the rebound effect in water use and the intensification of the energy cost of the water supply. The case study ends with an assessment of the semiotic process of the water management cycle. Discourse analysis shows the existence of multiple contested narratives surrounding the question of how water should be managed. However, the dominant narratives pervading water management decisions prioritize high-cost supply augmentation as a means of coping with environmental objectives. Critical narratives that pinpoint structural problems of metabolic change in rural communities, offer eco-integrative views of economic development, or denounce institutional dysfunction, are disregarded. The analysis shows that management strategies so far have been largely cost-ineffective in a context of financial austerity, and that the management system is notably vulnerable to perturbations. The improvement of information, transparency and accountability arises as a key challenge in the fostering of trust and the improving of adaptive capacity. The second case study reviews the state of the art of current debates surrounding the sustainability objective in Arizona water policy, focusing on the Tucson basin area. Achieving safe yield for aquifers by 2025 was endorsed in the Groundwater Management Act of 1980, and since then three management cycles have implemented different strategies to pursue this. These combined growth control measures, improved productive efficiency through conservation practices and new resources from the Colorado River and wastewater reclamation. Combining a historical perspective on water use and its drivers with spatial analysis of groundwater management, the analysis of the study area shows how the Central Arizona Project was a tipping point in the water metabolism. The Project allowed continuing fueling economic growth, both through multiplying the sources available and through the infrastructural and institutional complexity involved. The research indicates that growth limitations have only been operative in the agricultural sector, which drives overall demand and overdraft variability. Conservation programs have been effective in the most important segment of the demand, which is the residential use of large urban areas. The recharge and recovery program was the key innovative solution to curbing overdraft, although fiddly accounting and legal mechanisms obscure an uneven progress towards safe yield. The disconnection of recovery from recharge sites entails local impacts on water table levels driven by mines and new developments. While new infrastructures are being negotiated in order to expand the reach of the supply from the canal, vulnerability to potential Colorado water shortages and the high uncertainty over the achievement and maintenance of a distributed safe yield appear as core management issues for the next decade.