Prescriptions for adaptive comanagement: the case of flood management in the German Rhine basin

Gert Becker, Dave Huitema, Jeroen C. J. H. Aerts

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Centrally administered bureaucracies are ill suited to managing the environmental resources of complex social-ecological systems. Therefore management approaches are required that can better deal with its complexity and uncertainty, which are further exacerbated by developments such as climate change. Adaptive comanagement (ACM) has emerged as a relatively novel governance approach and potential solution to the challenges arising. Adaptive comanagement hinges on certain institutional prescriptions intended to enhance the adaptability of management by improving the comprehension of and response to the complex context and surprises of social-ecological systems. The ACM literature describes that for enhanced adaptability, institutional arrangements should be polycentric, aligned with the scale of ecosystems (the bioregional approach), feature open and participatory governance, and involve much experimentation. The case of flood management in the German part of the Rhine basin is used to provide an assessment of these ideas. We analyze whether and to what degree the prescriptions have been implemented and whether or not certain fundamental changes seen in German flood management can be traced back to the application of the prescriptions. Our study demonstrates a transition from the traditional engineering and “flood control” approach to a more holistic management concept based on a risk perspective. In this process, the four ACM prescriptions have made an important contribution in preparing or facilitating policy changes. The findings suggest that the application of the prescriptions requires the right supporting context before they can be applied to the fullest extent possible, such as a high problem pressure, new discourses, or leading actors. A major constraint arises in the misalignment of political power and of the different interests of the actors, which contribute to reactive management and inadequate interplay. To address this, we recommend further analysis of the role of coordinated and long term planning. This might reveal evidence to overcome institutional coordination failures, improve knowledge transfer and communication, and increase adoption of the ACM prescriptions, with the aim to enhance adaptability of the system.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
JournalEcology and Society
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2015


  • adaptability
  • adaptive comanagement
  • flood management
  • German Rhine basin


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