Understanding the governance of sustainability pathways: hydraulic megaprojects, social–ecological traps, and power in networks of action situations

Pablo F. Méndez, Floriane Clement, Guillermo Palau-Salvador, Ricardo Diaz-Delgado, Sergio Villamayor-Tomas
Sustainability Science

To enable sustainability pathways, we need to understand how social–ecological systems (SES) respond to different governance configurations, considering their historical, institutional, political, and power conditions. We advance a robust methodological approach for the integrated analysis of those conditions in SES traps. Our advancement consists of a novel combination of the networks of action situations approach with an agency-based polycentric power typology and the concept of discursive power. We test the approach by building on previous research on the Doñana estuary–delta SES (Guadalquivir estuary), which is characterized by a rigidity trap in the context of ecosystem and water governance. Specifically, we focus on a recent hydraulic megaproject involving deep dredging in the Guadalquivir estuary, finally canceled due to its broad negative socioeconomic and environmental repercussions. According to our analysis, certain governance, institutional, and informational mechanisms currently prevent further SES degradation in Doñana. However, key governance actors are caught in a lasting coordination failure prone to mutual defection strategies owing to power dynamics and discursive-institutional inertia. Although seemingly stable due to counteractive mechanisms among actors, this situation is at continuous risk of being unbalanced by powerful actors promoting large SES interventions such as deep dredging. Such interventions bear the systemic risk of strong suppression of SES functions, and a regime shift to a lock-in trap. This overall undesirable situation might be escaped through transformative policy designs that take into account meso-level mechanisms, such as discursive power and its role in non-decision-making, pragmatic inaction, and inefficient investment and infrastructure.