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Drought Governance in Transition: a Case Study of the Meuse River Basin in the Netherlands

Abstract

The Netherlands is internationally renowned for its flood risk management, but three consecutive dry years between 2018–2020 fuelled the debate on how to deal with future drought risk. Drought governance in the Netherlands is still in its infancy. The increased sense of urgency has led many scholars and policy makers to call for transitions towards a more anticipatory drought governance which enables transformative actions in an adequate and timely manner. Whilst transitions have been studied before, few have looked at governance systems, and even fewer on the processes that can steer the direction and speed of governance transitions in the future. This paper adopts a novel perspective by combining theories on mechanisms and transitions to analyse future governance transitions. The aim of this study is to identify the key mechanisms that have potential to steer and/or accelerate transitions in Dutch drought governance. This study focusses on the upper part of the Dutch Meuse River basin. Using a document analysis, expert interviews, and focus group discussions, the findings show that five underlying micro-level mechanisms are critical to steer and accelerate transitions. These include social learning, shared problem perception, administrative courage and leadership, persistency, and institutionalisation. The novel transition-mechanistic conceptual approach adopted in this study offers a starting point for other studies that wish to obtain a better understanding of underlying processes in a transition.

Introduction

The Netherlands is internationally renowned for its elaborate coastal, riverine and pluvial flood risk management approaches. For over 300 years, the Dutch have developed technical, societal, and institutional actions to adapt to flood risks (OECD 2014). As a low-lying country, it has substantial freshwater reserves provided through frequent precipitation and its main rivers, the Rhine and Meuse. The amount of freshwater reserves, however, is unevenly distributed throughout the year. In summer, less water is transported by the Rhine and Meuse rivers and evaporation rates are higher (Van der Brugge et al. 2020). While average annual discharge of the Meuse River is 265 m3/s, drought events have potential to reduce this number to less than 10 m3/s (Van Vliet and Zwolsman 2008). Fluctuations in seasonal low flows are not uncommon and have contributed to some remarkable drought events in the last century, including the years 1911, 1921, 1959, and 1976 (Sluijter et al. 2018). The recent consecutive dry years of 2018–2020 show that drought is an urgent issue in the Netherlands.

Droughts are projected to occur more frequently and will have more substantive impacts in the medium and long term in northwest Europe (Özerol 2019; Naumann et al. 2021). The IPCC WGI AR6 assesses that agricultural and ecological drought will increase in this region and that human actions contribute to this change (IPCC 2021). Droughts can have severe impacts as they are among the costliest weather-related extreme events (Naumann et al. 2021; Bednar-Friedl et al. 2022), for example less commercial navigation on the rivers or the need to switch to smaller ships, lowered energy production due to higher cooling water temperatures, or losses of crop yield due to irrigation restrictions. Moreover, ecological losses such as the destruction of sensitive habitats and threatening of cold-adapted species can have lasting consequences (Naumann et al. 2021).

In spite of increased urgency, governing drought risks has been overshadowed by the dominant concerns for governing flood risks in Northwest Europe. Drought governance, understood here as the interaction between public, private, and societal actors in search of means to effectively cope with the current and future occurrence of dry periods (Bressers et al. 2016), is therefore relatively under prepared for future changes (La Jeunesse 2019). Relatively low attention to drought is perhaps no surprise as the sense of urgency and awareness amongst policy makers and societal actors in northwest Europe is limited, primarily due to the water abundancy in the region (Bressers et al. 2016).

To better deal with future drought risks, scholars, politicians and societal actors have called for a transition towards a future drought-proof governance system in many parts of Europe. Transitions in water governance have been frequently analysed in different countries around the globe (i.e. Huitema and Meijerink (2009)). However, transitions related to drought governance remain understudied, particularly in the Northwest European context. Moreover, as a review by Zolfagharian et al. (2019) showed, many transition studies aim to explain past transitions rather than explore how future transition pathways can be designed, steered and accelerated. Insights on what drivers are necessary to enhance drought transitions are limited. The aim of this study is to identify the main societal processes that could influence both the direction and pace of the transition in drought governance, using the upper part of the Meuse River Basin in the Netherlands as case study. This study takes an innovative forward-looking perspective and develops a novel mechanism-based approach to analyse future drought governance. The next section elaborates on the conceptual framework used in this study, followed by a brief presentation of the methods adopted. Section 4 presents the main results, followed by a broader discussion and conclusion on which processes could be helpful in steering or accelerating the drought governance transition.

Transitions: Mechanisms to Steer and Accelerate Drought Governance

Transition Theory

This study uses transition theory as a lens to analyse the transition in drought governance in the Netherlands. This transition is more broadly classified as a sustainability transition, defined as ‘a radical transformation towards a sustainable society, as a response to a number of persistent problems confronting contemporary societies’ (Grin et al. 2010, p. 1). Similar to other types of transitions, sustainability transitions are multi-level and multi-phase processes that can be intentionally governed towards a desirable direction and/or outcome (Rotmans et al. 2007; Herrfahrdt-Pähle et al. 2020). The multi-level concept within transition theory suggests that transitions take place at three different levels in society: a high-level overarching landscape, a prevailing regime system, and innovative niche(s) at the lowest level (Geels and Kemp 2000). In addition, the concept of multi-phase points to the observation that transitions unfold in four successive phases: pre-development, take-off, acceleration, and stabilisation (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Transitions unfold in four phases (multi-phase) and take place at three different levels (multi-level). Through transition management and steering and accelerating mechanisms, the transition can be influenced. The black dashed arrows indicate that the transition can be accelerated or slowed down

Departing from the idea that transitions take place in multiple phases and manifest at different levels in society, the concept of transition management (TM) revolves around the process of steering transitions into the direction of a more sustainable future, through continuous influencing and adjusting (Loorbach and Rotmans 2006). Steering is particularly relevant in the pre-development and take-off phases since it takes more effort to adjust the direction of a transition in later stages (Geels and Kemp 2000). As part of TM, the establishment of transition arenas with innovative actors helps creating an environment for a transition to come about. However, TM mainly concentrates on experimentation and vision-making in the early phases of a transition and focuses less on how to accelerate and stabilise. Yet in the light of pressing sustainability and climatic challenges, future transitions may have to unfold more rapidly, and thus ongoing transitions may need to accelerate (Köhler et al. 2019; Markard et al. 2020). Although it is unfeasible to fully control a transition, its direction and pace can be influenced (Van der Brugge et al. 2005).

Transition Mechanisms

Although an early call by Geels (2002) was made to conduct more research focused on transition mechanisms, studies addressing this quest are limited (Papachristos 2018). Transition literature has been particularly interested in identifying lock-in mechanisms or impediments for change (e.g. Klitkou et al. (2015) and Markard et al. (2020)), while the acceleration phase remains largely understudied (Ehnert et al. 2018; Gorissen et al. 2018). Transition theory provides limited insights on particular processes that have potential to influence the direction and speed of transitions. This paper therefore draws on the broader social mechanisms in literature to develop a novel perspective on how to operationalise the steering and acceleration of transitions.

Mechanisms are widely used concepts in the social and natural sciences. This study combines different definitions from the social and political sciences to formulate a tailored definition of mechanisms that fits the topic of transitions. An early definition is provided by Bunge (1997), who related mechanisms to a process of change: ‘a mechanism is a process in a concrete system that is capable of bringing about or preventing some change in the system’ (p. 414). Similarly, Hedström (2005) also adopted a change perspective but included the role of actors and argued that mechanisms comprise multiple different entities (actors) including their activities and mutual relations, which could consequently produce change. Hedström and Swedberg (1998) argued that social mechanisms take place at both macro and micro level and identify three types of mechanisms: situational mechanisms (macro to micro), action-formation mechanisms (micro to micro) and transformational mechanisms (micro to macro). Together, these types of mechanisms can be illustrated by the bathtub model (see Fig. 2). This research is confined to micro-level mechanisms, encompassing individuals and their interactions.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Bathtub model presenting three types of mechanisms, based on Hedström and Swedberg (1998)

It is important to understand that a mechanism is always a process that influences, under specific contextual conditions, a particular outcome (Pawson and Tilley 1997). Social mechanisms in this study are expected to influence, through steering and accelerating processes, the direction and speed of transitions. Mechanisms occur under particular contextual conditions (Wellstead 2018; Rosenbloom 2020). Understanding how certain conditions could trigger a social mechanism is therefore essential to design future transitions (Pawson and Tilley 1997; Biesbroek et al. 2017). Falleti and Lynch (2009) describe this context as ‘the relevant aspects of a setting in which an array of initial conditions leads to an outcome of a defined scope and meaning via causal mechanisms’ (p. 1143). A useful model in this respect is the CMO model developed by Pawson and Tilley (1997), showing that Mechanisms produce a particular (un)intended Outcome provided that Conditions are in place. Integrating the aforementioned interpretations of mechanisms, this paper conceptualises mechanisms as activities in which different actors interact or a recurring pattern of behaviour observed in individual people or organisations that can lead, under favourable conditions, to a transition. Like most of the transitions literature, social mechanisms literature has focussed on historical cases, trying to find empirical evidence to uncover the mechanisms responsible for producing a certain outcome. No studies exist that use a social mechanism-based approach for future drought governance.

Although transition management stresses that transitions can be influenced in terms of direction and speed (Van der Brugge et al. 2005), the transition literature is less explicit on how to steer and accelerate. Since there are no readily available typologies or hypotheses to start our study of mechanisms to drought governance transitions, we take an inductive approach and uncover these mechanisms empirically.

Methodological Approach for Identifying Future Transition Mechanisms

Case Study Selection

To analyse future transitions in the Netherlands, a single case approach was used: the upper part of the Dutch Meuse River basin (hereafter called the basin). This part of the river transects the elevated sandy soils (ESS) region, which is highly susceptible to drought. Originating in the north of France, the Meuse is a rain-fed river characterised by highly fluctuating discharges throughout the year with occasional low flows in summer of less than 10 m3/s, and potential high water levels in winter, exceeding 2500 m3/s (Van Vliet and Zwolsman 2008). The river’s high dependency on precipitation makes the Meuse vulnerable to droughts, as the events in 1976, 2003, and 2018–2020 show (Van Vliet and Zwolsman 2008; Witte et al. 2020). Inland regions in the Netherlands, including a large part of the Dutch Meuse River basin, will experience more droughts due to climate change (Philip et al. 2020). Public authorities in the ESS project group include the provinces of Noord-Brabant and Limburg, and four regional water authorities (RBOM 2021). The selected case was analysed through a historical analysis (Sect. 3.2) and future analysis (Sect. 3.3).

Historical Case Analysis

To reconstruct the past drought governance developments since the 1950s, a content analysis of approximately 40 key policy documents and reports was performed. In addition, 12 online expert interviews were conducted with actors from the case study area to gather information on how the transition has evolved over the past decades. Interviewees included respondents from the provinces of Limburg and Noord-Brabant, water board Limburg and water board Aa & Maas, and three of the most drought-affected sectors: drinking water, nature, and agriculture. These sectors mainly operate at the provincial level, and therefore, municipalities and other urban actors were excluded. The obtained information through interviews and the document analysis resulted in a timeline of past developments in the drought transition and indications of the main drivers of drought governance in the basin. The historical insights served as the starting point for the future case analysis.

Future Case Analysis

Interviewees in the first step were also asked about whether a transition in drought governance was needed and their ideas on how to steer and accelerate it. Next, two online focus group discussions (FGDs) with each five stakeholders were organised to gain deeper understandings of the future phases of the drought governance transition. Participants mostly included senior officials or directors with an administrative or policy position involved in the drinking water sector or employed at governmental organisations and farmer and nature associations. During the FGDs, participants were asked to reflect on a number of propositions formulated by the research team on how to steer and accelerate the transition. They were invited to collectively brainstorm on what actions or interventions might be necessary to move the transition forward. The researcher only played a facilitating role in the discussions.

Through an open coding procedure in Atlas.ti, the interviews and FGDs led to the identification of seven themes that participants deemed relevant for steering and accelerating the drought transition. Based on these themes, five micro-level mechanisms were identified that have potential to steer and/or accelerate the transition. The research followed what is called ‘process-induction’ whereby generalizable insights are constructed by inductive observation from case studies (George and Bennett 2005). The approach is operationalised by cycling between the data from the interviews and focus group discussions, extracting recurrent or key processes identified, and critically reflecting and inferring if these processes are necessary for explaining the outcome. During the stage in which the important from less important processes are identified, the challenge is to provide a convincing causal account of the claimed cause-effect relationship, thereby rendering alternative explanations to be less likely. Since several social mechanisms have been documented, part of the process is also one of ‘pattern matching’ whereby empirical insights are linked to known and theorized mechanisms found in the literature (Biesbroek et al. 2014). The aim of such an approach is not to be all-encompassing but rather focus on the key processes as these provide leverage points for action.

Limitations

Several limitations exist. First, identifying plausible future mechanisms was a new approach used in this study, yet this approach was coupled with high degrees of uncertainty since these processes cannot be directly observed and need to be constructed through interaction. However, as the next section will demonstrate, the mechanisms uncovered in this study helped to increase insights on what processes are likely to be necessary in the short and medium term and offer a conceptual point for studying underlying processes in transitions. Second, this study only concentrated on a specific part of the Meuse River basin in the Netherlands to identify drought governance transition mechanisms. Selecting one case study allowed us to perform a more coherent and in-depth analysis but analysing more cases could enable cross-case comparison and increase understanding on transition mechanisms. Third, the case study focused on a selected group of key actors (i.e. specific transition players), yet some actors may not have been comprehensively included in the analysis.

Results

Historical Case Analysis

Decisions and interventions in the previous century have influenced how Dutch drought governance and management is arranged today and thus forms the broader context from which the transition departs. This section gives an overview of the main developments in the Netherlands regarding drought governance and management between 1950 and 2021.

1950 – 1970: Agrohydrology

The first period (1950 – 1970) was characterised by a strong focus on intensified water systems and quick drainage of excess water to allow for increased food production, which was a key priority shortly after the Second World War ended. Large land consolidation projects were executed at this time and the water system was particularly designed to meet agrohydrological needs, often at the expense of nature. Moreover, the 1953 floods, costing the lives of 1,836 people, meant the political attention was geared towards preventing such disastrous events from ever happening again.

1970 – 2000: Ecohydrology

From the 1970s onwards, the issue of drought in nature received more attention in both science and policy spheres, giving rise to the notion of ecohydrology; water and ecosystem functions were increasingly considered simultaneously. The 1976 drought was a turning point in many respects as it demonstrated the impacts of droughts. Between 1976 and 1983 a large policy analysis on drought was conducted, known as the PAWN (Policy Analysis for Water Management in the Netherlands) study. The study’s findings were used as an input for various national policy documents and programmes. Moreover, a National Water Distribution Committee (in Dutch: Landelijke Coördinatiecommissie Waterverdeling; LCW) was installed around this time which would set clear rules how to distribute water in times of drought. Despite high attention in the 1980s and various stream restoration projects, the near flood events in 1993 and 1995 quickly turned attention back to flood protection.

2000 – 2010: Institution Building

At the start of the twenty-first century, a national drought study and new drought event in 2003 placed drought back on the agenda. The 2003 drought also demonstrated that drought governance, particularly intergovernmental interactions and coordination, required attention. The tasks of LCW were expanded and additional support to drought issues was given by establishing the Management Team Water Shortages (in Dutch: Management Team Watertekorten; MTW). An important milestone for drought governance was the appointment of the Delta Committee in 2007 which advised to consider long-term water availability in the Netherlands by offering a range of possible scenarios and options.

2010 – 2021: Delta Programme

In September 2010, the first national Delta Programme was presented. As part of this programme, the Delta Plan Freshwater continues to be an important programme on drought governance. From 2015 onwards, the subnational Delta Plan for the Elevated Sandy Soils (roughly the south-eastern part of the Netherlands), focuses on making the area more resilient to water shortages. Although the Delta Programme looks ahead to the year 2050, long-term thinking is not common practice in the wider drought community. While some parties in the basin (e.g. regional water authority) engage in long-term strategy development for drought management, an overarching long-term drought vision that is broadly supported by all relevant stakeholders in the region is currently missing.

As noted by an interviewee, before 2018 it was predominantly experts and a few civil servants who were aware of the importance of drought impacts for the Netherlands. The intangible and largely invisible character of drought complicated the creation of a sense of urgency and awareness in society. The three consecutive dry years of 2018 – 2020 contributed to a rapidly increasing concern, including political attention at the national and regional levels. The establishment of a national Drought Policy Platform (in Dutch: Beleidstafel Droogte) and two provincial policy platforms at the basin level (Broad Administrative Groundwater Platform and Climate Platform Limburg) have brought different key stakeholders together. These networks help raise awareness for drought and continuously stimulate knowledge exchange between stakeholders.

With respect to the public budget for dealing with freshwater shortages, it can be questioned whether the reserved financial resources through the Delta Programme are sufficient in the light of pressing climatic circumstances. Some FGD participants argued that the total budget for combatting drought is relatively small in comparison to the investments for water safety. Moreover, large-scale groundwater exploitation is relatively cheap, thereby wrongfully sustaining the idea that groundwater is an abundant resource.

To summarize, historically the focus has predominantly been on flood protection and relatively easy-to-implement measures to optimise the incumbent system, rather than realising a transition. Although drought has become an important topic of debate, it seems challenging to move the governance transition forward. Drought governance in the Netherlands is currently still in the pre-development phase (see Fig. 1).

Future Case Analysis

The historical case analysis demonstrates that drought has been increasingly addressed in both policy and practical initiatives, but a large-scale drought approach is still missing in the Netherlands. This section discusses five micro-level mechanisms that were identified through an in-depth analysis of the empirical data. Inspired by the condition-mechanism-outcome (CMO) model, enabling condition(s) and outcome(s) were linked to the five mechanisms. All mechanisms contribute to steering and/or accelerating a shift in drought governance and stimulate the transition’s take-off and acceleration phases.

Social Learning and Shared Problem Perception for a Long-term Drought Vision

During the focus group discussions, it became clear that the recent dry years (2018–2020) created momentum and offered room for debate among policy makers and practitioners. A wide range of both regime and niche actors have already started to meet and critically think about the drought issue, illustrated by the Drought Policy Platform at the national level and two administrative policy platforms at the provincial level. The two latter platforms are still active and are considered as seedbeds for ambitious and innovative ideas and form transition arenas. Respondents argued that these networks form an important, enabling condition to trigger two mechanisms: social learning and shared problem perception (see Fig. 3a).

Fig. 3
figure 3

Five micro-level mechanisms (in green font), including social learning and shared problem perception (a), administrative courage and leadership (b), and persistency and institutionalisation (c). The cloud shapes illustrate situations or events at the landscape level and the rectangles represent developments or activities at both the regime and niche levels

First, the mechanism of social learning involves the bottom-up participatory process of joint fact finding and knowledge exchange between different actors about drought. Social learning is a key process since subjective reasoning based on own interests only hinders the speed of the transition. Social learning contributes to developing shared knowledge with the goal to get a better understanding of the issue, both in terms of the cause of the problem and how to address it. More broadly, learning, such as learning-by-doing and doing-by-learning, is an important element of transition management in which governmental actors frequently take a guiding role (Kemp and Loorbach 2003). This is for instance visible in Climate Platform Limburg where the water authority takes a leading role in setting out a long-term strategy for 2050. What actors learn and experience is highly important to realise change. Accordingly, the relevance of social learning is emphasised in various fields, including policy change (Dewulf et al. 2009).

Second, through social learning, the mechanism of shared problem perception is more likely to be activated, which is an essential component of social learning (Pahl-Wostl 2002; Dewulf et al. 2009). Shared problem perception is a process in which all stakeholders involved in the drought issue (both affected and non-affected stakeholders) acknowledge that drought is a collective societal problem. Collectively recognising the issue and stressing the importance of a joint approach is key to this mechanism. As noted by the FGD participants, an equal balance of responsibilities regarding the issue is essential, thereby going beyond the narrow focus of only holding particular actor groups or sectors accountable for a problem.

Social or collective learning and shared problem perception are essential elements of transition management (Kemp and Loorbach 2003; Rotmans et al. 2007). The necessary conditions (i.e. the occurrence of dry years and the establishment of policy platforms (see Fig. 3a)) are already in place to strengthen social learning processes, but shared problem perception is limited. While the mechanism of social learning is predominantly steering the transition (considering different perspectives and plot a course), it is expected that shared problem perception has an accelerating effect on the drought governance transition as it encourages all actors to take action. When both mechanisms are sufficiently present in the basin, the formulation of a long-term drought vision that is broadly supported by all actors involved is more plausible.

Administrative Courage and Leadership for Mobilising Resources

Learning in networks alone is not enough to realise change ‘because some form of leadership must emerge to move the system into the next phase’ (Olsson et al. 2006, p. 4). In line with this, several FGD participants stressed the need of bold administrators. Accordingly, the third micro-level mechanism identified is one of administrative courage and leadership, which captures the internal process of administrators that swim against the tide (i.e. incumbent regime system), have the guts to take transformative decisions, and are able to withstand societal unease and resistance. A leading organisation or key individual could play an essential role in activating this mechanism. For instance, as noted by one of the FGD participants, appointing a regional drought commissioner for the ESS region who bears responsibility for the direction and progress of the drought approach could be helpful.

Enabling conditions for administrative courage and leadership to occur include 1) the presence of dry years, which serves as a wake-up call for administrators, and 2) the opportunity offered during elections to use drought as a means to achieve electoral gain (i.e. win votes). During periods of election, politicians and administrators could express concern about drought and show courage and leadership towards society to alleviate the issue.

The actions of brave leading figures can eventually lead to an increase in human and financial resources for drought management (see Fig. 3b). While some respondents take the opinion that more financial resources will not necessarily accelerate the transition, others call for increased budgets. Some interviewees argued that the Delta Plan for the Elevated Sandy Soils might need a similar funding and governance structure as the national water safety programme (in Dutch: Hoogwaterbeschermingsprogramma; HWBP). The pressing drought circumstances of the last three years could provide the necessary external conditions to introduce such a large drought programme.

At the landscape level, paying more attention to non-economic topics (e.g. climate, nature, environment) in general is another condition that is expected by the FGD participants to have a reinforcing effect on the outcome. The mechanism of administrative courage and leadership is arguably needed to break through prevailing institutional structures, such as the cultural pattern of attention for flooding at the expense of drought. A study by Biesbroek et al. (2011) already stressed that enhanced leadership at the Dutch central government is perceived necessary for successful climate change adaptation. Moreover, although not necessarily described as a mechanism, leadership is considered a key feature for transformation in the context of resiliency and climate change adaptation more broadly (Kates et al. 2012; Termeer et al. 2017; Herrfahrdt-Pähle et al. 2020). Respondents argued that the third mechanism of administrative courage and leadership is expected to have both a steering and accelerating effect on the transition. Courage and leadership help to introduce fundamentally different approaches (other direction, thus steering) that contribute to the transition’s speed (acceleration).

Institutionalisation and Persistency for Continuous Attention and a Consistent Drought Approach

As discussed earlier, the three consecutive dry years of 2018–2020 have proven to be an important external condition or ‘window of opportunity’ at the landscape level for increased urgency and attention at the national political level, as part of the regime. To continue momentum of governance transitions, it is essential to cherish the sense of urgency. The fourth micro-level mechanism of persistency encompasses the recurring pattern of sustained efforts by a group of actors in addressing a particular issue and preserve and capitalise on the high sense of urgency. As noted by respondents this mechanism could be activated by a regional drought commissioner but could also be deployed more collectively through multi-stakeholder partnerships, such as the provincial policy platforms. Persistency involves breaking through deadlocks and ensuring a high level of institutional continuity (Herrfahrdt-Pähle and Pahl-Wostl 2012). The mechanism of persistency thus has a reinforcing effect on the institutionalisation process (see Fig. 3c).

The fifth mechanism of institutionalisation captures the process of embedding and transmitting new visions, ideas and values into new or existing institutions, which eventually become stable and ‘the new normal’. Institutionalisation therefore creates stability and continuity in the process and is a critical process in transitions (Eshuis and Gerrits 2021). In addition, it was noted by a FGD participant that uniformity in the approach can accelerate the transition and preserve long-term attention for the drought issue. Although the drought issue is currently embedded in the Delta Programme, respondents questioned whether this degree of institutionalisation is enough given the prospect of more frequent and intense drought events in the future. It is crucial to benefit from the gained momentum as it offers the opportunity to increasingly institutionalise the drought approach in a more transformative way. Respondents suggested, for example, introducing a national drought programme with a similar governance and funding system as the national programme for water safety to institutionalise actions. Another example is the payment for the high use of (ground)water. If the drought issue becomes more strongly institutionalised, it is likely that uniformity of the approach will increase and have a positive impact on the acceleration of the transition.

Both the mechanisms of persistency and institutionalisation contribute to continuous and long-term attention for the drought issue (see Fig. 3c). More specifically, the mechanism of institutionalisation contributes to continuity between successive administrative periods (e.g. at provinces and water authorities). Persistency and institutionalisation will likely both have a steering effect on the transition as they shape and solidify the direction of the transition. Once institutionalisation is taking place, this will also have an accelerating effect since the broadly acknowledged drought approach is then increasingly embedded and ‘normalised’ in day-to-day practices.

The five micro-level mechanisms discussed here all contribute to either the transition’s direction, speed, or both. The mechanisms of social learning and shared problem perception are mechanisms that have been partly introduced already yet need to be continued in order to produce a steering and accelerating effect. Subsequently, after sufficient learning processes, deviating from prevailing ideas and taking transformative decisions asks for administrative courage and leadership. Activating the mechanisms of persistency and institutionalisation does not depend on other mechanisms to occur and may be activated as soon as possible. Persistency is arguably necessary throughout the entire course of the transition.

Discussion

This study adopted a novel mechanism-based approach to identify plausible future transition processes and pathways. The need to scrutinise transition mechanisms was already stressed nearly two decades ago (Geels 2002). However, limited research has covered this aspect so far (Papachristos 2018). Scholars who did make an attempt to trace transition mechanisms often took a retrospective view and searched for lock-in mechanisms (e.g. Klitkou et al. (2015)) and other hindering processes for change (e.g. Markard et al. (2020)). In contrast, this research aimed to find mechanisms that contribute to a transition through steering and accelerating processes and took a forward-looking perspective. This future-oriented approach is still relatively unexplored in transition studies (Zolfagharian et al. 2019). However, insights on this are necessary given the substantial challenges posed by sustainability issues, of which drought and freshwater availability are key examples. Moreover, the number of studies that addressed the acceleration phase of a transition is currently scarce (Köhler et al. 2019). This research contributed to this knowledge gap as it primarily focused on steering and accelerating processes that ought to be relevant in the take-off and acceleration phases. Future case studies on governance transitions could use the novel transition-mechanism conceptual framework to identify essential processes that could steer and/or accelerate a shift. Such insights could further strengthen theory-building on how to govern drought transitions across context. Lastly, understanding micro-level (individuals and their interactions) transition processes is key for moving the transition through the acceleration and towards the stabilisation phase (Murto et al. 2020). This study identified five micro-level mechanisms and suggests that particular conditions are necessary for these processes to emerge. It should be noted, however, that there could be other conditions needed to trigger the mechanisms.

The interviews and focus group discussions showed that various and diverging perspectives are present on how to enhance the drought governance transition. This plurality of views forms a starting point for debate on how to organise the transition in drought governance. The mechanisms identified in this case study can be broadly linked to two transition pathways: incremental change and transformational change. Incremental change generally refers to a relatively slow, consolidating approach focused on achieve concrete small wins that do not fundamentally deviate from prevailing ways of doing. Over long(er) periods of time this could lead to fundamental transformations of systems. Two mechanisms discussed in this study have potential to produce incremental change. First, the mechanism of persistency is expected to move the transition forward in a slow but steady manner. It suggests a long-term process of attention in which a series of small steps are implemented rather than a few radical ones. Second, the mechanism of institutionalisation fits an incremental pathway as it has potential to gradually develop and consolidate new approaches. In contrast, transformative change is considered to be in-depth, large-scale, and quick (Termeer et al. 2017). Two of the identified mechanisms in this study have transformative potential. First, administrative courage and leadership might involve radical decision-taking and the implementation of novel measures, thereby inducing transformative change. Second, the mechanism of institutionalisation does not only potentially produce incremental change but might also have a transformative effect. For instance, introducing a large-scale programme for drought with increased budget and an enhanced governance structure institutionalises the drought approach in a more transformative way.

The incremental change approach has hitherto dominated over transformational change in climate change adaptation (Wise et al. 2014). Similarly, the case study shows that the approaches adopted so far in the Dutch drought governance transition’s pre-development phase (see Sect. 4.1) were largely incremental in nature. However, there is increased debate on whether such a pathway is sufficient in the light of pressing climatic circumstances (Kates et al. 2012). In other words, the speed at which drought risks develop may surpass the incremental steps taken. Furthermore, incremental changes may create path-dependencies that cannot be easily fixed (or only solved at high costs) with transformational interventions.

Finally, the mechanism-based approach adopted in this study proved an important step for analysing future transition processes, but the novel theoretical perspective requires further elaboration. Gaining insights in underlying (governance) processes that have potential to positively influence transitions in the future under particular contextual conditions is critical. However, more research is needed to better understand which actors play a role in triggering particular mechanisms and when these actions should be performed. This will offer more concrete intervention points and directions for potential transition pathways. Nevertheless, the added value of tracing future mechanisms lies in the opportunity to use these processes to induce multiple separate drivers for change simultaneously. This study pioneered in developing a mechanism-based approach to understand future transition processes, yet additional (case) studies are needed to advance mechanistic thinking regarding transitions and to improve the conceptual framework.

Conclusion

This study adopted a forward-looking approach and analysed the future of the Dutch drought governance system from a transition-mechanistic perspective. The study aimed to obtain a better theoretical understanding of how transitions can be steered and accelerated with micro-level mechanisms. Drawing on a case study of the Dutch elevated sandy soil region of the Meuse River basin, our main findings show that five mechanisms are considered key to steer and accelerate the transition: social learning, shared problem perception, administrative courage and leadership, persistency, and institutionalisation. Appointing a (regional) drought commissioner might be an important step as this key figure could play a pivotal role in activating most of the identified mechanisms. Although our findings cannot be easily transferred to other contexts, the mechanisms found in this study offer relevant insights for other climate-related transitions that are in need of steering and/or acceleration.

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RCB executed the research under the supervision of RB and BvB. The first version of the manuscript was drafted by RCB, and RB and BvB commented on all versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Romy Carmen Brockhoff.

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Brockhoff, R.C., Biesbroek, R. & Van der Bolt, B. Drought Governance in Transition: a Case Study of the Meuse River Basin in the Netherlands. Water Resour Manage 36, 2623–2638 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11269-022-03164-7

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Keywords

  • Drought governance
  • Transition management
  • Mechanisms
  • Meuse river basin