U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


Date of this Version



Ecology and Society 18(2): 10. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-05357-180210


Considering the challenges and threats currently facing water management and the exacerbation of uncertainty by climate change, the need for flexible yet robust and legitimate environmental regulation is evident. The European Union took a novel approach toward sustainable water resource management with the passage of the EU Water Framework Directive in 2000. The Directive promotes sustainable water use through long-term protection of available water resources, progressively reduces discharges of hazardous substances in ground and surface waters, and mitigates the effects of floods and droughts. The lofty goal of achieving good status of all waters requires strong adaptive capacity, given the large amounts of uncertainty in water management. Striking the right balance between flexibility in local implementation and robust and enforceable standards is essential to promoting adaptive capacity in water governance, yet achieving these goals simultaneously poses unique difficulty. Applied resilience science reveals a conceptual framework for analyzing the adaptive capacity of governance structures that includes multiple overlapping levels of control or coordination, information flow horizontally and vertically, meaningful public participation, local capacity building, authority to respond to changed circumstances, and robust monitoring, system feedback, and enforcement. Analyzing the Directive through the lens of resilience science, we highlight key elements of modern European water management and their contribution to the resilience of the system and conclude that the potential lack of enforcement and adequate feedback of monitoring results does not promote managing for resilience. However, the scale-appropriate governance aspects of the EU approach promotes adaptive capacity by enabling vertical and horizontal information flow, building local capacity, and delegating control at multiple relevant scales.