The article introduces the notion of adaptiveness and discusses the role of social learning in it. Adaptiveness refers to the capacity of a social actor or social–ecological system to adapt in response to, or in anticipation of, changes in the environment. We explore arguments both from a theoretical perspective and through illustrations from case studies of water management in the Alps of Europe and Mekong in southeast Asia. We propose and illustrate that social learning processes are important for building adaptiveness in several ways and at different scales. Social learning can help cope with informational uncertainty; reduce normative uncertainty; build consensus on criteria for monitoring and evaluation; empower stakeholders to take adaptive actions; reduce conflicts and identify synergies between adaptations; and improve fairness of decisions and actions. Findings in the case studies provide some support for these generalizations but often with caveats related to diversity of stakeholder interests, levels of shared understanding versus contested knowledge and scale of coordination. For this reason, we suggest that future work pays greater attention to issues of agency, knowledge and scale: What strategies have individuals and organizations pursued in successful examples of social learning? How are the boundaries and interactions between science, policy and practice managed? How does social learning occur across spatial and temporal scales?
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research; Umweltbundesamt Germany; Umweltbundesamt Austria; Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, Switzerland; Accademia Europea di Bolzano EURAC, Italy; Institut de la Montagne, France; ARSO Ljubljana, Slovenia.
M-POWER or the Mekong Program on Water, Environment and Resilience aims at improving livelihood security, ecosystem and human health in the Mekong region through improving water governance. The goals of the program are pursued by a network which undertakes action research, policy support and facilitation activities. See M-POWER Website: www.mpowernet.org.
Basin Development Plan
Decision Support Framework
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
World Conservation Union
Integrated Water Resources Management
Mekong Program on Water Environment and Resilience
Mekong River Commission
Water Framework Directive
Adger, N. W. (2006). Vulnerability. Global Environmental Change, 16, 268–281.
Adger, W. N., Agrawala, S., Mirza, M. M. Q., Conde, C., O’Brien, K., Pulhin, J., Pulwarty, R., Smit, B., & Takahashi, K. (2007). Assessment of adaptation practices, options, constraints and capacity. In M. L. Parry, O. F. Canziani, J. P. Palutikof, P. J. van der Linden, & C. E. Hanson (Eds.), Climate change 2007: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the fourth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change (pp. 717–743). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Anderies, J. M., Janssen, M. A. & Ostrom, E. (2004). A framework to analyze the robustness of social-ecological systems from an institutional perspective. Ecology and Society, 9, 18. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol19/iss11/art18.
Argyris, C. (1977). Double loop learning in organizations. Harvard Business Review, 55, 115–125.
Armitage, D., Plummer, R., Berkes, F., Arthur, R., Charles, A., Davidson-Hunt, I., et al. (2009). Adaptive co-management for social-ecological complexity. Frontiers in Ecology and Environment, 7, 95–102.
Baran, E., & Myschowoda, C. (2009). Dams and fisheries in the Mekong Basin. Aquatic Ecosystem Health & Management, 12, 227–234.
Baran, E., Schwartz, N., & Kura, Y. (2009). Climate change and fisheries: Vulnerability and adaptation in Cambodia. Penang: WorldFish Center.
Berkes, F. (2009). Evolution of co-management: Role of knowledge generation, bridging organizations and social learning. Journal of Environmental Management, 90, 1692–1702.
Berkes, F., Hughes, T. P., Steneck, R. S., Wilson, J. A., Bellwood, D. R., Crona, B., et al. (2006). Globalization, roving bandits and marine resources. Science, 311, 1557–1558.
Biermann, F. (2007). ‘Earth system governance’ as a crosscutting theme of global change research. Global Environmental Change. Human and Policy Dimensions, 17(3–4), 326–337.
Biermann, F., Betsill, M. M., Gupta, J., Kanie, N., Lebel, L., Liverman, D., Schroeder, H., Siebenhüner, B., & Zondervan, R. (2010). Earth system governance: A research framework. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 10(4).
Biermann, F., Betsill, M. M., Gupta, J., Kanie, N., Lebel, L., Liverman, D., Schroeder, H., & Siebenhüner, B. with contributions from Conca, K., da Costa Ferreira, L., Desai, B., Tay, S., & Zondervan, R. (2009). Earth system governance: People, places and the planet. Science and implementation plan of the Earth System Governance Project. Earth System Governance Report 1, IHDP Report 20. IHDP: The Earth System Governance Project, Bonn.
Browder, G. (2000). An analysis of the negotiation for the 1995 Mekong agreement. International Negotiation, 5, 237–261.
Campbell, I. (2007). Perceptions, data, and river management: Lessons from the Mekong River. Water Resources Research, 43, WO2407.
Costa-Cabral, M., Richey, J., Goteti, G., Lettenmaier, D., Feldkotter, C., & Snidvongs, A. (2007). Landscape structure and use, climate, and water movement in the Mekong River basin. Hydrological Processes, 22, 1731–1746.
Dore, J. (2007). Multi-stakeholder platforms (MSPS): Unfulfilled potential. In L. Lebel, J. Dore, R. Daniel, & Y. Koma (Eds.), Democratizing water governance in the Mekong region (pp. 197–226). Chiang Mai: Mekong Press.
Dore, J., & Lazarus, K. (2009). Demarginalising the Mekong River Commission. In F. Molle, T. Foran, & M. Käkönen (Eds.), Contested waterscapes in the Mekong Region: Hydropower, livelihoods and governance (pp. 357–382). London: Earthscan.
Dore, J. & Lebel, L. (2010). Deliberation, scale and the governance of water resources in the Mekong Region. Environmental Management, 46, 60–80.
Dryzek, J. S. (2001a). Legitimacy and economy in deliberative democracy. Political Theory, 29, 651–669.
Dryzek, J. S. (2001b). Resistance is fertile. Global Environmental Politics, 1, 11–17.
Eastham, J., Mpelaskoka, F., Mainuddin, M., Ticehurst C, Dyce, P., Hodgson, G., Ali, R., & Kirby, M. (2008). Mekong River Basin water resources assessment: Impacts of climate change. CSIRO water for a healthy country national research flagship report.
European Environment Agency (Ed.). (2009). Regional climate change and adaptation. The Alps facing the challenge of changing water resources. Copenhagen: EEA.
Folke, C. (2006). Resilience: The emergence of a perspective for social-ecological systems analyses. Global Environmental Change, 16, 253–267.
Foran, T., & Lebel, L. (2007). Informed and fair? Water and trade futures in the border regions of mainland Southeast Asia. USER working paper WP-2007-02. Unit for Social and Environmental Research, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai. Online: http://www.mpowernet.org/download_pubdoc.php?doc=3730.
Friend, R. M. (2009). Fishing for influence: Fisheries science and evidence in water resources development in the Mekong basin. Water Alternatives, 2, 167–182.
Friend, R., Arthur, R., & Keskinen, M. (2009). Songs of the doomed: The continuing neglect of capture fisheries in hydropower development in the Mekong. In F. Molle, T. Foran, & M. Käkönen (Eds.), Contested waterscapes in the Mekong Region: Hydropower, livelihoods and governance (pp. 307–332). London: Earthscan.
Frommer, B. (2008). Regionale Anpassungsstrategien an den Klimawandel: Ansätze aus Theorie und Praxis. WAR Schriftenreihe, 196, 115–126.
Gallopin, G. (2006). Linkages between vulnerability, resilience and adaptive capacity. Global Environmental Change, 16, 293–303.
Geels, F. W. (2005). Processes and patterns in transitions and system innovations: Refining the co-evolutionary multi-level perspective. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 72, 681–696.
Geels, F. W., & Schot, J. (2007). Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways. Research Policy, 36, 399–417.
Grothmann, T. (2009). The regional perspective: Overview and methodology of regional case studies. In European Environment Agency (Ed.), Regional climate change and adaptation: The Alps facing the challenge of changing water resources (pp. 63–65). EEA technical report no 9/2009, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.
Grothmann, T., Nenz, D., & Pütz, M. (2009). Adaptation in vulnerable alpine regions—lessons learnt from regional case studies. In European Environment Agency (Ed.), Regional climate change and adaptation: The Alps facing the challenge of changing water resources (pp. 96–108). EEA technical report no 9/2009, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen. Online: http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/alps-climate-change-and-adaptation-2009.
Guangin, C., & Liyao, M. (2010). Climate change to blame for Mekong drought. China Daily.
Haas, P. M. (2004). When does power listen to truth? A constructivist approach to the policy process. Journal of European Public Policy, 11, 569–592.
Hallegatte, S. (2009). Strategies to adapt to an uncertain climate change. Global Environmental Change, 19, 240–247.
Hirsch, P., Jensen, K. M., FitzGerald, S., Boer, B., Lyster, R., & Carrard, N. (2006). National interests and transboundary water governance in the Mekong. Australia: Australian Mekong Resource Centre, Danish International Development Assistance.
Holling, C. S. (2001). Understanding the complexity of economic, ecological and social systems. Ecosystems, 4, 390–405.
Huitema, D., Cornelisse, C., & Ottow, B. (2010). Is the jury still out? Towards greater insight in policy learning in participatory decision processes. The case of Dutch citizens’ juries on water management in the Rhine basin. Ecology and Society, 15, 16. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol15/iss11/art16.
Huitema, D., van de Kerkhof, M., Bos-Gorter, L., & Ovaa, E. (2009). Public participation in water management. An analysis of innovative approaches from The Netherlands. In H. Folmer & S. Reinhard (Eds.), Water problems and policies in The Netherlands (pp. 225–248). Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future Press.
Huitema, D., van de Kerkhof, M., & Pesch, U. (2007). The nature of the beast: Are citizens’ juries deliberative or pluralist? Policy Sciences, 4, 287–311.
IUCN, TEI, IWMI & M-POWER. (2007a). Exploring water futures together: Mekong Region waters dialogue. Report from regional dialogue. World Conservation Union, Thailand Environment Institute, International Water Management Institute, and Mekong Program on Water, Environment & Resilience, Vientiane. [online available: http://www.mpowernet.org/download_pubdoc.php?doc=3274].
IUCN, TEI, IWMI & M-POWER. (2007b). Exploring water futures together: Mekong Region waters dialogue. Resource papers from regional dialogue, Vientiane, Lao PDR, World Conservation Union, Thailand Environment Institute, International Water Management Institute, Mekong Program on Water, Environment & Resilience (p. 129). Available on-line: http://www.mpowernet.org/download_pubdoc.php?doc=4059).
Jacobs, J. W. (2002). The Mekong River Commission: Transboundary water resources planning and regional security. The Geographical Journal, 168, 354–364.
Käkönen, M., & Hirsch, P. (2009). The antipolitics of Mekong knowledge production. In F. Molle, T. Foran, & M. Käkönen (Eds.), Contested waterscapes in the Mekong region: Hydropower, livelihoods and governance (pp. 333–365). London: Earthscan.
Karl, H. A., Susskind, L. E., & Wallace, K. H. (2007). A dialogue not a diatribe: Effective integration of science and policy through joint fact finding. Environment, 49, 20–34.
Kates, R. W., Parris, T. M., & Leiserowitz, A. A. (2005). What is sustainable development? Goals, indicators, values and practice. Environment, 47, 8–21.
Keskinen, M., Chinvanno, S., Kummu, M., Nuorteva, P., Snidvongs, A., Varis, O., & Västilä, K. (2010). Climate change and water resources in the Lower Mekong River Basin: Putting adaptation into context. Journal of Water and Climate Change, 1, 103–117.
Lebel, L. (2009). Scenarios as boundary objects in the allocation of water resources and services in the Mekong region. USER working paper WP-2009-03, Unit for Social and Environmental Research, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai.
Lebel, L., Anderies, J. M., Campbell, B., Folke, C., Hatfield-Dodds, S., Hughes, T., & Wilson, J. (2006). Governance and the capacity to manage resilience in regional social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society, 11(1), 11, 19. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss11/art19/.
Lebel, L., Dore, J., Daniel, R., & Koma, Y. S. (Eds.). (2007). Democratizing water governance in the Mekong region. Chiang Mai: Mekong Press.
Lebel, L., Foran, T., Garden, P., & Manuta, B. J. (2009a). Adaptation to climate change and social justice: Challenges for flood and disaster management in Thailand. In F. Ludwig, P. Kabat, H. van Schaik, & M. van der Valk (Eds.), Climate change adaptation in the water sector (pp. 125–141). London: Earthscan.
Lebel, L., Sinh, B. T., Garden, P., Seng, S., Tuan, L. A., & Truc, D. V. (2009b). The promise of flood protection: Dykes and dams, drains and diversions. In F. Molle, T. Foran, & J. Kakonen (Eds.), Contested waterscapes in the Mekong region (pp. 283–306). London: Earthscan.
Lebel, L, Xu, J., Bastakoti, R. C. & Lamba, A. (2010) Pursuits of adaptiveness in the shared rivers of Monsoon Asia. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 10(4).
Leeuwis, C., & Pyburn, R. (Eds.). (2002). Wheelbarrows full of frogs. Assen: Koninklijke Van Gorcum.
Molle, F. (2008). Nirvana concepts, narratives and policy models: Insights from the water sector. Water Alternatives, 1, 23–40.
Molle, F., Foran, T., & Käkönen, M. (Eds.). (2009a). Contested waterscapes in the Mekong region: Hydropower, livelihoods and governance. London: Earthscan.
Molle, F., Lebel, L., & Foran, T. (2009b). Contested Mekong waterscapes: Where to next? In F. Molle, T. Foran, & M. Käkönen (Eds.), Contested waterscapes in the Mekong region: Hydropower, livelihoods and governance (pp. 383–413). London: Earthscan.
Mostert, E., Pahl-Wostl, C., Rees, Y., Searle, B., Tabara, D., & Tippett, J. (2007). Social learning in European river-basin management: Barriers and fostering mechanisms from 10 river basins. Ecology and Society, 12, 19 [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol12/iss11/art19/.
MRC. (2003). Guidelines for stakeholder participation. Phnom Penh: Mekong River Commission.
MRC. (2005). The MRC basin development plan. Stakeholder participation. BDP Library Volume 5. Mekong River Commission.
MRC. (2006). Basin development plan. Programme phase 2. 2006–2010. August 2006. Mekong River Commission.
MRC. (2008a). Flood situation report, August 2008. MRC technical paper no. 21, 1 September 2008, Mekong River Commission Secretariat, Vientianne.
MRC. (2008b). Stakeholder consultation on MRC’s basin development plan phase 2 (BDP2) and its inception report. In Consultation proceedings. 12–13 March 2008, Vientiane, Lao PDR. Vientiane: Mekong River Commission.
MRC. (2009a). Climate change adaptation in the Lower Mekong Basin countries. Regional synthesis report. Climate change and adaptation initiative. Mekong River Commission, Vientiane.
MRC. (2009b). Stakeholder participation and communication plan for basin development planning in the lower Mekong basin. Basin Development Plan Programme Phase 2. July 2009, Mekong River Commission, Vientiane.
MRC (2010). Mekong Prime Ministers agree to prioritise climate change as summit ends. Media Release. 5 April 2010. Mekong River Commission, Vientiane.
MRCS. (2008a). Approach and process to formulate and assess basin-wide development scenarios. BDP2 Discussion Paper Number 1. Draft 4 July 2008. Mekong River Commission Secretariat, Vientiane.
MRCS. (2008b). Assessment framework for the development of the IWRM-based Basin Development Plan. BDP2 Discussion Paper Number 2 (Part 1—Assessment of Development Scenarios). Draft 18 July 2008. Mekong River Commission Secretariat, Vientiane.
MRCS. (2010). Stakeholder analysis for the MRC Basin Development Plan Programme Phase 2 (BDP2). Complementary document to the stakeholder participation and communication plan for the Basin Development Planning in the Lower Mekong Basin. Final report, March 2010, Mekong River Commission Secretariat, Vientiane.
Muro, M., & Jeffrey, P. (2008). A critical review of the theory and application of social learning in participatory natural resource management processes. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 51, 325–344.
Nenz, D., Grothmann, T., Schauser, I., Hain, B., Sandei, P. C., Houi, D. & Lavaud, J. (2009). Adaptation at the European scale—cooperation with alpine water towers. In European Environment Agency (EEA) (Ed.), Regional climate change and adaptation: The Alps facing the challenge of changing water resources (pp. 109–121). EEA technical report no 9/2009, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen. Online: http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/alps-climate-change-and-adaptation-2009.
Newig, J. (2007). Does public participation in environmental decisions lead to improved environmental quality? Towards an analytical framework. Communication, Cooperation, Participation (International Journal of Sustainability Communication), 1, 51–71.
Newig, J., Pahl-Wostl, C., & Sigel, K. (2005). The role of public participation in managing uncertainty in the implementation of the Water Framework Directive. European Environment, 15, 333–343.
Newig, J., Voß, J.-P., & Monstadt, J. (Eds.). (2008). Governance for sustainable development: Steering in contexts of ambivalence, uncertainty and distributed power. London: Routledge.
Olsson, P., Gunderson, L. H., Carpenter, S. R., Ryan, P., Lebel, L., Folke, C., & Holling, C. S. (2006). Shooting the rapids: Navigating transitions to adaptive governance of social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society, 11, 18 [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss11/art18/.
Paavola, J., & Adger, N. W. (2006). Fair adaptation to climate change. Ecological Economics, 56, 594–609.
Pahl-Wostl, C. (2007). Transitions towards adaptive management of water facing climate and global change. Water Resources Management, 21, 49–62.
Pahl-Wostl, C. (2009). A conceptual framework for analyzing adaptive capacity and multi-level learning processes in resource governance regimes. Global Environmental Change, 19, 345–365.
Pahl-Wostl, C., Craps, M., Dewulf, A., Mostert, E., Tabara, D., & Taillieu, T. (2007). Social learning and water resources management. Ecology and Society, 12, 5.
Pahl-Wostl, C., & Hare, M. (2004). Processes of social learning in integrated resources management. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 14, 193–206.
Plummer, R., & Armitage, D. (2007). A resilience-based framework for evaluating adaptive co-management: Linking ecology, economics and society in a complex world. Ecological Economics, 61, 62–74.
Rowe, G., & Frewer, L. J. (2000). Public participation methods: A framework for evaluation. Science, Technology & Human Values, 25, 3–29.
Schusler, T. M., Decker, D. J., & Pfeffer, M. J. (2003). Social learning for collaborative natural resource management. Society and Natural Resources, 15, 309–326.
Siebenhüner, B. (2005). The role of social learning on the road to sustainability. In J. N. Rosenau, E. U. Weizsäcker, & U. Petschow (Eds.), Governance and sustainability (pp. 86–99). Sheffield: Greenleaf.
Siebenhüner, B. (2008). Learning in international organizations in global environmental governance. Global Environmental Politics, 8, 92–116.
Smit, B., & Wandel, J. (2006). Adaptation, adaptive capacity, and vulnerability. Global Environmental Change, 16, 282–292.
Sneddon, C., & Fox, C. (2007). Power, development, and institutional change: Participatory governance in the lower Mekong basin. World Development, 35, 2161–2181.
Sneddon, C., & Fox, C. (2008). River-basin politics and the rise of ecological and transnational democracy in Southeast Asia and Southern Africa. Water Alternatives, 1, 66–88.
Social Learning Group. (2001). Learning to manage global environmental risks: A comparative history of social responses to climate change, ozone depletion and acid rain. Cambridge, MA: MIT.
Talisse, R. B. (2005). Deliberativist responses to the activist challenges: A continuation of Young’s dialectic. Philosophy and Social Criticism, 31, 423–444.
Thomas, D. S. G., & Twyman, C. (2005). Equity and justice in climate change adaptation amongst natural-resource-dependent societies. Global Environmental Change, 15, 115–124.
TKK & SEA-START RC. (2009). Water and climate change in the lower Mekong basin: Diagnosis and recommendations for adaptation. Water and Development Research Group, Helsinki University of Technology (TKK) and Southeast Asia START Regional Center (SEA-START RC), Chulalongkorn University.
Walker, B., Carpenter, S. R., Anderies, J., Abel, N., Cumming, G. S., Janssen, M. A., Lebel, L., Norberg, J., Peterson, G. D., & Pritchard, L. (2002). Resilience management in social-ecological systems: A working hypothesis for a participatory approach. Conservation Ecology, 6, 14. http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol16/iss11/art14.
Warner, J. F. (2006). More sustainable participation? Multi-stakeholder platforms for integrated catchment management. Water Resources Development, 22, 15–35.
Weingartner, R., Viviroli, D., & Schädler, B. (2007). Water resources in mountain regions: A methodological approach to assess the water balance in a highland–lowland system. Hydrological Processes, 21, 578–585.
World Bank & Asian Development Bank. (2006). WB/ADB joint working paper on future directions for water resources management in the Mekong River Basin: Mekong Water Resources Assistance Strategy (MWRAS). June 2006. The World Bank and Asian Development Bank.
Young, I. M. (2001). Activist challenges to deliberative democracy. Political Theory, 29, 670–690.
The case study in the Mekong Region was carried out with support from IFAD and Echel Eau for financial support through the Challenge Program on Water and Food for project PN50 (M-POWER). The analysis is also a contribution to the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013) under grant agreement no. 226571 for the Twin2Go project. The case studies in the European Alps were carried out and partly analysed in the context of a study conducted by a consortium of various European partners including Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany; Umweltbundesamt Germany; Umweltbundesamt Austria; Accademia Europea di Bolzano (EURAC), Italy; Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, Switzerland; Institut de la Montagne, France; ARSO Ljubljana, Slovenia. The study was funded by the European Environment Agency, UBA Dessau and UBA Vienna. Finally, thanks to the two anonymous reviewers and the special issue editors Frank Biermann and Ruben Zondervan for their constructive feedback.
About this article
Cite this article
Lebel, L., Grothmann, T. & Siebenhüner, B. The role of social learning in adaptiveness: insights from water management. Int Environ Agreements 10, 333–353 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10784-010-9142-6
- European Alps
- Social learning
- Mekong River
- Water management