Adaptive management and water security in a global context: definitions, concepts, and examples.

Published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, v. 21:70-77

Varady, R. G, Zuniga-Teran, A. A., MGarfin, Gregg, M.

Publication year 2016
IAI Program


IAI Project CRN3056


•Equity should be a main goal of any water management approach.

•Quantifying change is critical, yet difficult to do and costly in the long-term.

•Social learning is key for adaptive management and requires more research.


Conventional water governance that centralizes decision-making and focuses on increasing supply has sometimes led to ecological degradation and inequitable outcomes. As a corrective, Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) incorporates sustainability principles that integrate social, ecological, and infrastructural systems. However, this governance mode still does not address complex issues for an uncertain future, and fails to offer a clear goal. Adaptive management, another approach, relies on public participation and active knowledge exchange between scientists and policy-makers it also incorporates uncertainty into decision-making. The concept of water security emerged subsequently to address the lack of a clear goal for water management. In this paper, we set into context the terms "adaptive management" and "water security" and review their evolution and their critiques. Both concepts require measurement and monitoring of outcomes in order to determine progress toward established goals so as to guide decision-making. We discuss the challenges and different ways of measuring water security and offer a representative list of potential indicators. The essay provides some examples of adaptive-management studies across the world and discusses adaptive management as it relates to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Our concluding remarks reflect on present challenges, practical limitations, and promising ideas for a future type of water governance that is participatory, equitable, and adaptive.