DOCTORAL DISSERTATION: Investigating the complex nature of power in water governance -- a framework for incorporating typologies of power into the study of socio-hydrological systems using agent-based models

Event Type: 
Stefania Almazan-Casali
Wednesday, December 1, 2021 - 2:30pm to 3:00pm
Event Sponsor: 
Center for Sustainable Systems
School for Environment and Sustainability


Climate change disruptions on water systems increasingly jeopardize our ability to satisfy current and future water needs of society and the natural environment. Fostering adaptive and resilient water systems will require a transition away from inflexible management approaches. The organizations tasked with governing water continue to face challenges implementing bold climate adaptation strategies that can mitigate the negative impacts of climate change for most water users. Several factors limiting transitions to adaptive and sustainable water governance include centralized decision-making systems and path-dependencies that lock policy makers into unsustainable approaches. Additional challenges arise from the uncertainty and complexity inherent to human-water systems.

Substantial transitions to adaptive governance approaches have failed to materialize, despite progress establishing collaborative and participatory governance systems. Researchers in the environmental governance and climate adaptation literature are increasingly paying attention to issues of power and how it curtails adaptation efforts. Existing research has typified the power dynamics that occur within specific governance systems. However, there is little research exploring how different types of power influence system-wide environmental outcomes as they cascade through the complex links of human-water systems.

This dissertation describes an interdisciplinary approach to analyzing the role of power dynamics on climate change adaptation strategies pursued by the collaborative river basin organization (RBO) of the Piracicaba, Capivari, and Jundiaí (PCJ) Rivers in South-East Brazil. Here I lay the groundwork for systematically exploring how different types of power deployed within water governance organizations may impact system-wide social and environmental outcomes. The second chapter provides a theoretical framework for investigating the complex effects of power in water governance by combining existing frameworks for studying socio-ecological systems with theories of power and agent-based modelling.

Chapter three describes how decision-makers’ knowledge and worldviews play an important role in determining the strategies considered to tackle pressing challenges. I analyzed qualitative data from semi-structured interviews with members of the PCJ RBO discussing their views on the basin’s primary challenges and potential solutions. Results show that RBO members associated with engineering backgrounds view insufficient water supply as the basin’s primary issue and large infrastructure investments as the only viable solution.

In Chapter four, I use a mixed-methods approach combining semi-structured interviews and short behavioral experiments to estimate water rationing patterns and relate said patterns with the PCJ RBO’s overarching investment policies. Results identify municipal users as water recipients and industrial users as water donors as total availability decreases. This pattern, combined with future investments focused on sanitation projects, raises questions about the increased vulnerability of water users who will donate water during times of scarcity.

Finally, chapter five outlines avenues for future research translating the empirically derived insights about water rationing patterns and preferences over policy alternatives into typologies of power. These typologies of power can, in turn, define the decision rules guiding water allocation and investment decisions of an ABM of the PCJ RBO. Such ABMs can be used to explore overall outcomes of changes in water rationing patterns and policy preferences.

This dissertation provides a framework for explicitly analyzing the subtle connections between power and agency in water governance and the strategies deployed to cope with climate change impacts. Moreover, it presents an example of the interdisciplinary work required to inform ABMs used to analyze complex dynamics and provide an iterative computational platform to guide empirical research on water governance.



Stefania Almazan-Casali is a Ph.D. candidate in Resource Policy and Behavior (SEAS) at the University of Michigan. She is affiliated with the Center for Sustainable Systems, working under the supervision of Jose Alfaro.

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