Conceptualizing horizontal cooperation in regional socio-ecological systems through actor networks and collective action: the case of Berg River catchment

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This research investigates the role of horizontal cooperation in the adaptive management of regional socio-ecological systems (SESs). Horizontal cooperation refers to the collaborative, non-hierarchical interactions of actors across sectors, modes of governance and spatial scales. It can allow diverse actors to deal with the complexity and uncertainties that characterize SESs and to co-produce public benefits. The research question is, When does horizontal cooperation contribute to adaptive management in complex governance arrangements? The Berg River catchment in South Africa serves as a case study to analyze such complex systems. The empirical focus is on the operational level which is responsible for maintaining key functions of the water resources in the SES. A formal social network analysis is employed to describe and analyze the management of the Berg River catchment. The analysis focuses on (i) cohesion and (ii) heterogeneity, which are two network characteristics that affect learning and collective action in actor networks. Horizontal cooperation is further investigated by examining selected collective action initiatives with the help of Ostrom’s eight design principles (1990). Constraints affecting collective action and the capacity to self-organize are identified, and the robustness of the governance arrangements arising from horizontal cooperation is evaluated. The study finds that the behavior of actors towards each other and the SES is influenced by incentives provided by informal network structures, market mechanisms and bureaucratic hierarchies. Hence, modes of governance intersect at the operational level and consequently influence the nature of horizontal cooperation. While the quality of the management of the SES is largely determined by the patterns of interactions among the actors that manage the SES, these interactions are influenced by other institutional and organizational structures in which they are embedded. Unexpectedly, market mode incentives stimulate collective action in the Berg catchment and accentuate the need for addressing degrading water quality. Informal relations and emerging inter-organizational platforms matter for learning and for providing opportunities for collective action. Yet, the incentives (or lack thereof) created through hierarchical steering of the South African water governance system by the national government department are often counterproductive. That is, so far the self-organizing efforts at sub-catchment level could not be transformed into functioning governance arrangements because of constraints imposed by the hierarchical mode. The study confirms that self-organization and collective action that arise from horizontal cooperation are important for the adaptive management of regional SESs.

Includes bibliographical references.