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Progress in socio‐hydrology: a meta‐analysis of challenges and opportunities

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Socio‐hydrology was introduced 4 years ago into the scientific lexicon, and elicited several reactions about the meaning and originality of the concept. However, there has also been much activity triggered by the original paper, including further commentaries that clarified the definitions, and several papers that acted on the definitions, and through these activities further clarified and illustrated the meaning and usefulness of socio‐hydrology for understanding coupled human–water systems and to assist with sustainable water management. This paper restates the case for socio‐hydrology by articulating the need to consider the two‐way feedbacks between human and water systems in order to explain puzzles, paradoxes, and unintended consequences that arise in the context of water management, and to suggest ways to avoid or overcome these challenges. The paper then presents a critical review of past research on socio‐hydrology through the prism of historical, comparative, and process socio‐hydrology, documenting both the progress made and the challenges faced. Much of the work done so far has involved studies of socio‐hydrological systems in spatially isolated domains (e.g., river basins), and phenomena that involve emergent patterns in the time domain. The modeling studies so far have involved testing hypotheses about how these temporal patterns arise. An important feature that distinguishes socio‐hydrology from other related fields is the importance of allowing human agency (e.g., socioeconomics, technology, norms, and values) to be endogenous to the systems. This paper articulates the need to extend socio‐hydrology to explore phenomena in space and in space‐time, as the world becomes increasingly globalized and human–water systems become highly interconnected. The endogenization of human agency, in terms of values and norms, technology, economics, and trade must now be extended to space and to space‐time. This is a necessity, and a challenge, for water sustainability, but presents exciting opportunities for further research. WIREs Water 2017, 4:e1193. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1193 This article is categorized under: Engineering Water > Planning Water Science of Water > Hydrological Processes Human Water > Water Governance
Annual rainfall and farmer suicide rates for Maharashtra state in India. The time series has been normalized by subtracting the mean from the time series and dividing by its standard deviation. Two phases are shown, Phase 1, when suicide rate counter‐intuitively rises and falls along with annual rainfall. In Phase II, the suicide rate does not correlate well with annual rainfall. The two phases demonstrate that there is more to the dynamics of farmer suicides than pattern of annual rainfall. The figure shows a phenomenon that often emerges from small holder systems in emerging economies, where more and more farmers can be under distress in spite of high economic growth rates. Further it shows that pattern of water availability on its own cannot explain the pattern of farmers suicides in Maharashtra. Sources: www.tropmet.res.in, https://psainath.org/maharashtra‐crosses‐60000‐farm‐suicides/.
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Notion of interlinked socio‐hydrological systems at multiple space and time scales. Three socio‐hydrological systems are considered at different spatiotemporal scales. Basin‐scale socio‐hydrology prevails at finest spatiotemporal scales, followed by trade and associated economic activities that occur at regional scale with patterns of trade evolving at decadal scale. These kinds of socio‐hydrologies may influence the hydrological cycle at planetary scale. The arrows indicate the feedbacks between various scales.
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Endogenous human agency and the role of institutions. Community sensitivity is critical in feeding back negative consequences of past actions on human agency of water and land use. Yet desirable remedial actions only take place if the link in the sensitivity loop between behavioral response and land and water use, which is institutional in nature, is strong. Contrast this with Figure where the feedback from environmental awareness and human agency of irrigated agriculture is weak. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2014)
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The three subdisciplines of socio‐hydrology and the method of scientific inquiry. This demonstrates that the standard method of scientific inquiry can be implemented to the diversity of coupled human–water systems using the three different but complementary pathways of socio‐hydrology. (See Ref 40 for the three complementary pathways of socio‐hydrology).
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Aral sea desiccation. Left panel, 1960 shoreline versus present (Source: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/WorldOfChange/aral_sea.php?all=y) and right panel, a general framework coupling various possible elements of the dynamics. Green arrows indicate positive feedbacks, red arrows indicate negative feedbacks, and dashed red arrows indicate weak negative feedbacks, due to which drying out of Aral sea went without check. The collapse of the Aral sea may be attributed to weak institutions that could have otherwise inhibited the expansion of total irrigated area. This happened in spite of heightened concerns for environmental hazard (such as health concerns).
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