HESS Opinions: A conceptual framework for assessing socio-hydrological resilience under change

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


  • Timothy Karpouzoglou
  • Art Dewulf
  • Wouter Buytaert

External organisations

  • Wageningen University and Research Centre
  • Imperial College London


Despite growing interest in resilience, there is still significant scope for increasing its conceptual clarity and practical relevance in socio-hydrological contexts: Specifically, questions of how socio-hydrological systems respond to and cope with perturbations and how these connect to resilience remain unanswered. In this opinion paper, we propose a novel conceptual framework for understanding and assessing resilience in coupled socio-hydrological contexts, and encourage debate on the inter-connections between socio-hydrology and resilience. Taking a systems perspective, we argue that resilience is a set of systematic properties with three dimensions: Absorptive, adaptive, and transformative, and contend that socio-hydrological systems can be viewed as various forms of human-water couplings, reflecting different aspects of these interactions. We propose a framework consisting of two parts. The first part addresses the identity of socio-hydrological resilience, answering questions such as "resilience of what in relation to what". We identify three existing framings of resilience for different types of human-water systems and subsystems, which have been used in different fields: (1) the water subsystem, highlighting hydrological resilience to anthropogenic hazards; (2) the human subsystem, foregrounding social resilience to hydrological hazards; and (3) the coupled human-water system, exhibiting socio-hydrological resilience. We argue that these three system types and resiliences afford new insights into the clarification and evaluation of different water management challenges. The first two types address hydrological and social states, while the third type emphasises the feedbacks and interactions between human and water components within complex systems subject to internal or external disturbances. In the second part, we focus on resilience management and develop the notion of the "resilience canvas", a novel heuristic device to identify possible pathways and to facilitate the design of bespoke strategies for enhancing resilience in the socio-hydrological context. The resilience canvas is constructed by combining absorptive and adaptive capacities as two axes. At the corners of the resulting two-dimensional space are four quadrants which we conceptualise as representing resilient, vulnerable, susceptible, and resistant system states. To address projected change-induced uncertainties, we recommend that efforts now be focused on shifting socio-hydrological systems from resistant towards resilient status. In sum, the novel framework proposed here clarifies the ambiguity inherent in socio-hydrological resilience, and provides a viable basis for further theoretical and practical development.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3655-3670
Number of pages16
JournalHydrology and Earth System Sciences
Issue number7
Early online date19 Oct 2016
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jul 2017


  • water, adaptive management, socio-hydrological system, pathway, resilience