Against the current: rewiring rigidity trap dynamics in urban water governance through civic engagement


This paper investigates how the agency of local residents can affect persistent and unsustainable practices in urban water supply governance. Using a case study from Bangalore, India, we analyze a social–ecological trap which developed after a shift to external water provision paired with rapid urbanization. The reluctance of forsaking initial investments in infrastructure and competence, and the subsequent loss of the local network of lakes built for harvesting rainwater, reinforced dependence on external sources while undermining groundwater levels in the city. These feedbacks made water scarcity a structurally persistent feature of Bangalore. This situation started to change when local residents recently started organizing to preserve and restore Bangalore’s lakes. By entering collaborative management agreements with municipal authorities, these lake groups have restored and established effective protection of five lakes. Through a case study of this civic engagement we show that the lake restorations have the potential to counteract trap mechanisms by restoring ecological functions, and by reducing water scarcity as groundwater levels rise and authorities are relieved from maintenance and monitoring tasks. Importantly, these lake groups have also created opportunities for over a dozen similar groups to form across the city. This demonstrates that social movements can be an important source of change in social–ecological traps.

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The authors would like to thank all interviewees for the warm hospitality in Bangalore. We also thank Bhagyalakshmi Srinivas for the fieldwork assistance, Vanessa Masterson for comments on an early draft of this paper, and Patrick Keys for reviewing the language. This study has been carried out partly funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and by a core grant from the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (MISTRA).

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Correspondence to Johan Enqvist.

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Handled by Keith Tidball, Cornell University, USA.

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Enqvist, J., Tengö, M. & Boonstra, W.J. Against the current: rewiring rigidity trap dynamics in urban water governance through civic engagement. Sustain Sci 11, 919–933 (2016).

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  • Agency
  • Bangalore, India
  • Environmental governance
  • Social–ecological systems
  • Social movements
  • Urbanization