Concepts of Adaptation

What does adaptation mean? In relation to natural resource issues, at least two core concepts are common. The first involves the growing field of 'adaptive' management. This term is generally used to describe management systems that focus on the resource base itself but are intended to work in a flexible manner and that respond to changes as they occur over time. The management system is 'adaptive' in that it has inbuilt mechanisms whereby the tools and objectives of management can be adjusted as new information becomes available or other conditions change. In many situations, adaptive management approaches provide for review processes at specific intervals so that such adjustments can occur.

The second concept, which I am primarily dealing with in this chapter, involves tailoring responses to the larger context in which they fit - i.e. adapting to the context rather than defining response strategies based on a relatively narrow predefined set of hydrologically focused management objectives and techniques. From this perspective, adaptation emphasizes approaches that focus on adjusting livelihood, economic and other systems in ways that mitigate the impact of groundwater problems - i.e. the core goal is to adjust society to groundwater conditions rather than attempting to 'manage' the resource base itself. This is, however, simply a matter of emphasis and does not exclude direct attempts to manage the resource base. In some contexts, direct management may be viable and adaptation in the larger sense would include both conventional and water-focused iterative 'adaptive' groundwater management strategies. Except where explicitly noted, the term 'adaptation' in the remainder of this chapter refers to the second larger concept rather than the more narrowly defined adaptive management processes.

Substantive work related to the conceptual foundations of adaptation processes has been undertaken by a number of authors loosely grouped into the Resilience Alliance.4 Many of the concepts underlying adaptation in social systems have emerged from research on systems dynamics and the application of insights on adaptation gained from ecosystems research (Holling, 2001; Gunderson and Holling, 2002; Holling et al., 2002). This research emphasizes core phases in the ongoing processes by which natural systems evolve. These phases can be seen as a loop, outlined in Fig. 9.1 from the Resilience Alliance, that consists of: 'entrepreneurial exploitation (r), organizational consolidation (K), creative destruction (Q), and re- or destructuring (a)' (Holling, 2004). The core insight here is that systems - whether in the natural environment or, as many members of the Resilience Alliance would argue, in the social and institutional environment, progress through very clear phases. These phases start with initial expansion under conditions in which core resources (nutrients, energy, finances, etc.) are readily available and the system is relatively unstructured, followed by a phase of consolidation or restructuring.

In the case of groundwater, these two phases would be represented by the initial spread of energized irrigation when expansion led to rapid increases in productivity and has now transited into highly efficient, but much less diversified (more structured), forms of intensive agricultural production. The process of increasing structure as resources are captured leads to efficient systems that are also increasingly rigid in that the available resources tend to be evermore fully captured and utilized. Rigidity, in turn, creates the conditions for creative destruction when surprises or extreme events shake the system. Again, in the groundwater case, this might be a drought hitting when aquifers have been fully exploited. When intensification captures all recharge, the groundwater buffer that provided resilience against drought is no longer reliable and intensive agriculture cannot continue in locations where access to groundwater fails. The disruption caused by this phase breaks system rigidity and frees resources (in

Reorganization Conservation

Reorganization Conservation

Growth

Release

Fig. 9.1. System dynamics. (From the Resilience Alliance.)5

Growth

Release

Fig. 9.1. System dynamics. (From the Resilience Alliance.)5

the groundwater case, an example would be the human and financial capital that had been fully invested in intensive agriculture), and leads, in turn, to a phase of reorganization.

Studies on system resilience indicate that the process of growth, conservation, release and reorganization occurs at all levels in a system and is interlinked across such levels, as the household, livelihood system, village and regional economic levels within any given agricultural economy. The studies also indicate that the nature of creative destruction is heavily dependent on the degree to which the r-K growth to conservation phase has resulted in the creation of a highly structured system. Basically, the more structured a system becomes, the greater is the destruction when it fails. When systems are constantly responding to small destructive events across several levels, the degree to which they become rigidly structured is limited by continuous processes of release and reorganization - that is adaptation. Such systems tend to be much more resilient, and much less subject to fundamental reorganization, when surprise events occur. However, when disruption is limited, efficiency and rigidity both grow. Again, to relate this to groundwater, by eliminating the constant need to adjust to variations in precipitation and water supply, access to groundwater has enabled the development of efficient and intensive, but also rigid, agricultural livelihood systems. When drought and groundwater overdraft in conjunction eliminate access to secure water supplies, livelihood systems based primarily on intensive irrigated agriculture have low resilience and lack capacity to adapt without first undergoing significant reorganization.

The conceptual frameworks described are closely related to concepts of risk. As the risk management literature clearly documents, exposure to, and familiarity with, risk is a key factor underlying the incentive to develop coping and avoidance strategies (Wisner et al., 2004).

What does this imply for responses to emerging groundwater problems? While exploration of all the implications is well beyond the scope of this chapter, a few observations appear central:

1. It indicates that disruption, change and adaptation are inherently interlinked processes and that periods of disruption should be recognized as opportunities as well as times of crisis. Probably the most 'natural' time of change in an agricultural economy based on intensive groundwater use is during drought or similar times of 'crisis'. This is the time when creative destruction is likely to occur and livelihood, economic and political systems will be forced to adapt. In contrast, periods of stability are likely to be periods when change is resisted.

2. It implies that activities designed to buffer livelihood or agricultural systems against variability are likely to increase rigidity and reduce adaptive capacity. The shift away from rain-fed systems into systems based on groundwater irrigation that has occurred in India over the last 50 years - while it has allowed tremendous increases in productivity and been a major factor for reducing poverty (Moench, 2003) - has also encouraged the development of systems that are much more dependent on secure water supplies and much less resilient when water supply reliability declines. While it is important to avoid large-scale disruption of agricultural systems, exposure to risk and variability is essential in order to maintain resilience of the system as a whole. In the case of groundwater overdraft, actions that protect people against immediate loss also reduce the incentive to undertake structural changes that would, in a larger sense, reduce vulnerability.

3. It suggests that principles central to resilience in ecological systems (such as diversification) are also central to the development of resilient livelihood systems. Livelihood founded primarily on groundwater-dependent agricultural systems is likely to be much less resilient when the resource fails than that based on a diversified portfolio of agricultural and non-agricultural activities. Similarly, within agricultural livelihood systems resilience is likely to be enhanced when those systems involve a mix of crops, crop varieties and agriculturally related activities (e.g. animal husbandry). Diversification both between and within livelihood systems is important.

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