The coupled socio-ecohydrological evolution of river systems: Towards an integrative perspective of river systems in the 21st century

Sci Total Environ. 2021 Aug 13;801:149619. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.149619. Online ahead of print.


River systems have undergone a massive transformation since the Anthropocene. The natural properties of river systems have been drastically altered and reshaped, limiting the use of management frameworks, their scientific knowledge base and their ability to provide adequate solutions for current problems and those of the future, such as climate change, biodiversity crisis and increased demands for water resources. To address these challenges, a socioecologically driven research agenda for river systems that complements current approaches is needed and proposed. The implementation of the concepts of social metabolism and the colonisation of natural systems into existing concepts can provide a new basis to analyse the coevolutionary coupling of social systems with ecological and hydrological (i.e., 'socio-ecohydrological') systems within rivers. To operationalize this research agenda, we highlight four initial core topics defined as research clusters (RCs) to address specific system properties in an integrative manner. The colonisation of natural systems by social systems is seen as a significant driver of the transformation processes in river systems. These transformation processes are influenced by connectivity (RC 1), which primarily addresses biophysical aspects and governance (RC 2), which focuses on the changes in social systems. The metabolism (RC 3) and vulnerability (RC 4) of the social and natural systems are significant aspects of the coupling of social systems and ecohydrological systems with investments, energy, resources, services and associated risks and impacts. This socio-ecohydrological research agenda complements other recent approaches, such as 'socio-ecological', 'socio-hydrological' or 'socio-geomorphological' systems, by focusing on the coupling of social systems with natural systems in rivers and thus, by viewing the socioeconomic features of river systems as being just as important as their natural characteristics. The proposed research agenda builds on interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity and requires the implementation of such programmes into the education of a new generation of river system scientists, managers and engineers who are aware of the transformation processes and the coupling between systems.

Keywords: Integrated river research; Interdisciplinary research; River management; Transdisciplinarity.