Irrigation ditch in Tanzania: By digging canals, called fanja juu, a farmer can lead run-off water from surrounding areas onto his field, thereby improving the harvest. New knowledge about regime shifts can help promote more resilient food production systems. Photo: R. Kautsky/Azote

From clear to turbid and back again

Centre researchers discuss how to revert regime shifts in aquatic systems.

- It is possible to turn highly degraded aquatic systems back into productive ones through small, but combined improvements in institutional collaboration and agricultural technologies.

This was shown during a centre workshop at the 2010 World Water Week in Stockholm.

The workshop, entitled "Resilience, uncertainty and tipping points" discussed the increasing evidence that ecosystems can pass thresholds and go through regime shifts where sudden and large changes in their functions take place. An example of such a regime shift is lakes that suddenly switch from clear to turbid water.

When these changes occur, many of the ecosystem services which humans derive from these systems, such as fisheries and places for recreation, can be lost. Furthermore, it is often difficult, costly and impossible to reverse these changes once a certain threshold has been crossed.

Turning back from the brink
- Although we know regime shifts happen and have significant consequences, we have limited knowledge of how common they are, which regions are particularly vulnerable and how to build resilience to avoid undesirable shifts, said centre researcher and workshop keynote speaker Oonsie Biggs.

Her talk, entitled "Tipping over the edge: understanding and managing regime shifts in social-ecological systems" focused on how to make the theory of regime shifts more operational.

Biggs, who has conducted extensive research on how to deal with regime shifts, also examined in detail how these regime shifts can be predicted, and what strategies must be adopted when faced with the risk of regime shifts.

The other keynote speaker, Dr. Alan Vidal from the Challenge Program on Water and Food, presented several "transformative management" cases where seemingly irreversible regime shifts have been successfully reversed for more resilient food production.

One of the examples showcased was a collaboration between farmers and scientists in Uganda where a combination of institutional collaborations and agricultural technologies helped re-green previously dry areas.

— This workshop provided a great opportunity to share and discuss our ideas about regime shifts in ecosystems with practitioners from around the world, says centre researcher Line Gordon, one of the rapporteurs at the workshop.

Time to identify undesirable thresholds
Johan Rockström, Centre director and chairman of the workshop, concluded that current research, policy-making and water management faces a number of new challenges.

- Even though there remains much uncertainty around the exact location of tipping points, it is important we start to identify thresholds beyond which we think the risks are unacceptable, Rockström said.

- In this context, resilience thinking can provide an interesting new perspective in order to improve management and avoid regime shifts, he concluded.

See video seminar with Professor Terry Hughes,  Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, on gilded traps, phase-shifts and fisheries.

Professor Hughes developed the concept of gilded traps, to capture the dynamics of linked social-ecological systems with two alternative, stable configurations:

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Centre participants

Related info

Line Gordon's research center around interactions among freshwater resources, ecosystem services and food production, with a focus on how resilience thinking can enable better management of these resources.
Executive director Johan Rockström has over twelve years of research and development work in developing countries, with more than 40 scientific publications in areas of water resource management, agricultural development, environmental management, systems research and resilience research.
Oonsie Biggs´ research focuses on regime shifts — large, abrupt, long-lasting changes in the dynamics of coupled social-ecological systems that can have dramatic impacts on human economies and societies.


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Stockholm Resilience Centre
Stockholm University, Kräftriket 2B
Phone: +46 8 674 70 70

Organisation number: 202100-3062
VAT No: SE202100306201