The Panarchy: Welcome

Welcome to this inaugural post of “The Panarchy,” a blog series that will explore research that examines the dynamic interaction of social and ecological systems in Central Eurasia. The blog series takes its name from conceptual developments in “resilience thinking,” a branch of scholarship concerned with the triggers and processes that compose growth, collapse, and transformation in interconnected economic, ecological, and social systems across scales.

The notion of panarchy, as developed by Gunderson and Holling contrasts with rigid, top-down hierarchies, with clearly delineated relationships. Panarchy suggests processes guided by nested, adaptive cycles, in which change or crisis at one scale can trigger change at another, larger or smaller scale, often in unpredictable ways. This relationship offers a fitting conceptualization of the “cascades of change” that have rippled across Central Eurasia in the last decades, as well as of aspects of culture and ecology that have managed to persist in the face of transformation. Gunderson and Holling (2002) write, “The essential focus of panarchy is to rationalize the interplay between change and persistence, between the predictable and unpredictable.”

The focus of this blog series, “The Panarchy,” will be an exploration of persistence and change as expressed in the relationship between society and ecology in Central Eurasia. The goal of the series will be an interdisciplinary exploration of the historical and contemporary, global and local forces that undergird human-environment dynamics, as a basis to assess the myriad efforts undertaken by people, governments, and organizations to shape or respond to them.

This first post will lay the groundwork for the exploration of a topic, which is both timely and of timeless significance for Central Eurasian societies, economies and ecosystems. That topic is water cooperation. Along with other issues suggested by social-ecological interactions, subsequent posts will continue to examine Central Eurasian water research from a variety of perspectives, as water constitutes a fundamental link between the persistence of Central Eurasian societies and the environmental limits and changes to which those societies have adapted for thousands of years.

On Friday the international community will turn its attention to water, in observation of World Water Day. The United Nations has designated 2013 The International Year of Water Cooperation. On a list of regions where water cooperation is both vital to development goals and perplexing to the national, regional and international actors that seek to achieve them, Central Eurasia must be near the top.

In September 2012, The International Journal of Water Resources Development ran a special issue titled, “Water and Security in Central Asia: A Rubik’s Cube.” The editors (Stucki, Wegerich, Rahaman, and Varis) describe a situation in which efforts to resolve one aspect of water management in Central Asia reveal disorder in another. Each face of the cube is a country whose needs must be met. Each sticker represents a “policy, practice, cause or impact,” and each color a stakeholder with its own unique interests in the process (395). Arrangements that satisfy certain interests disrupt others, the perfect solution remains elusive, and the correct strategy to achieve it depends on one’s understanding of the problem.

Their analysis recalls notions of “wicked problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973),” which, as opposed to “tame problems,” belie rational problem-solving approaches. The key to resolving a “wicked problem” involves more than using the correct data, since what is “correct” depends on each actor’s position within the problem. Instead, competing interests must have a place at the table, where the substance of their disagreements can be made explicit and channeled through legitimate institutions. The articles that contribute to the International Journal of Water Resources Development’s “Rubik’s Cube,” suggest that such a process in Central Asia remains to be seen.

In the special issue, The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (Libert and Lipponen, 2012) presents findings from a regional assessment, titled “Challenges and Opportunities for Transboundary Water Cooperation in Central Asia.” This assessment details some of the paradoxes that contribute to troublesome configurations of water users’ interests. According to the authors, “By providing a picture of the state of transboundary waters and by identifying joint priorities and challenges, the second assessment seeks to inform, guide, and stimulate further action by governments, river basin organizations, the international community, and the civil society (566).” Certainly, the findings suggest that for several Central Eurasian countries, this International Year of Water Cooperation might be a difficult one.

Among the most important barriers to regional cooperation, the authors identify conflicts between those countries who draw on water reserves for hydropower production in the winter (namely upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), and those countries who require the release of water in the summer for intensive irrigation (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan). These conflicting uses, coupled with overall dependency on irrigated agriculture leave the region vulnerable to “hydrological extremes – floods and droughts (567),” with lacking or outdated regulatory frameworks in place to anticipate water use conflicts and scarcity (565).

Subsequent posts in “The Panarchy” will explore, in greater detail, some of these barriers, as well as efforts that have been taken to overcome them. In recognition of the International Year of Water Cooperation, events have been planned throughout the region to approach some of these topics. This blog will seek to remain current with these developments and link them to those research efforts that shed light on the forces of change and continuity that shape the relationship between society and ecology in Central Eurasia today. Thanks for following along, and I look forward to your comments.