Regime shifts and the resilience of big river basins
Big river basins can be viewed as complex systems of people and nature. Their ability to
cope with future change while maintaining their own identity, in the form of key system
elements and relationships, is captured by the concept of resilience. I adopt a resilience-
oriented perspective to compare nine different case studies of large river basins that were
undertaken by in-country teams as part of the CGIAR Challenge Program.
Consideration of a generic conceptual model of a large river basin, taken together with
data from different cases, suggests that one of the most critical concerns across all cases is
the resilience of large river basins to changes in water quantity. When a river basin crosses
the point at which water becomes limiting, the social-ecological system (SES) must adapt
rapidly if key elements of the system (such as human wellbeing and biodiversity) are to be
maintained. Entry of a river basin SES into a state in which water is limiting can be viewed
as a social-ecological regime shift. Water limitation imposes the need for a water economy,
with dormant political and institutional links between actors suddenly being activated and
creating further feedbacks to the biophysical subsystem.
Achieving integrated water management across an entire river basin may require
fundamental readjustments in both social elements (e.g., the formation of bridging
organizations that provide a forum for different actors to interact) and managed
biophysical elements (e.g., fertiliser and water use for irrigation). I use information from
the case studies to explore some of the complexities of river basin management, focusing
on the insights that can be generated by applying ideas about resilience. As this discussion
illustrates, a systems perspective has much to offer for river basin management; well-
meaning interventions can easily turn sour if a sectoral approach is adopted.