River basin management initiatives usually require an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approach to achieve relevant and wide ranging targets, due to the magnitude and nature of socioeconomic and environmental problems. Nonetheless, a large number of initiatives suffer from fragmentation and are multidisciplinary, at best, which often brings undesired and unexpected consequences. This scenario is complicated further by the gap that occurs between scientific advancements and their implementation into management practice, thus impairing the provision of social services and maintenance of ecosystem functions – particularly in developing countries. In this context, there have been significant efforts to decentralise river basin management in many countries. In Brazil, federal law no. 9433/1997 also prescribes social participation as a key element in the national water resources policy. Here it is argued that this comprises a transdisciplinary movement in itself, as it incorporates local knowledge, expectations and potential into the decision making process that aims to achieve sustainable and long lasting solutions to water management problems.

INTRODUCTION

Addressing complex and interlinked socioeconomic and environmental problems commonly involved in water resources and river basin management usually requires an inter- or trans- disciplinary approach, if wide ranging and sustainable solutions are to be achieved. In spite of that, it is not uncommon for strategies adopted to assess and attempt to solve such issues to be compartimentalised and disconnected (multidisciplinary, at best) (Tucci 2000), often with disastrous consequences – particularly to the less well-off (Abbott 2001). Furthermore, the delays between a technical or scientific development being reached and its implementation into management practice are usually long, especially if it depends on upgrading the institutional and legislative frameworks. This can be due to excessive bureaucracy and short term political interests, but also to the complexity of management systems, diversity of problems and realities and insufficiency or inneficacy of social participation measures in the decision making process (Giaretta et al. 2012).

In this context, there have been efforts to descentralise water resources management in Brazil. A key element of this initiative is the river basin committee, which involves the organised society and water resource users in decision making. This has the potential to speed up addressing local problems and to foster sustainable solutions, by incorporating – in addition to the formal technical and scientific knowledge – the realities, expectations and limitations of places and communities impacted by decision making. In such an empowerment scenario, local communities and users are co-responsible for their water resources and can develop shared management approaches.

An analysis is undertaken in this paper of the role of inter- and trans- disciplinary approaches in promoting shared management of river basins, in the context of river basin committees. The study is primarily aimed at supporting the transference of concepts and results between the several levels of water governance, and adding structure to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary water management approaches.

CONCEPTUAL BACKGROUND

Historically, scentific assessments of the environment have been undertaken in the realm of disciplines to allow for detailed and in-depth analises of its constitutive aspects, aiming to understand and resolve specific issues. Such a compartimentalisation practice has been responsible for scattering science into a variety of very small niches, which is not unlike ‘the Tower of Babel of languages’ (Domingues 2012). This scenario promotes an efficient search for specific answers, which are often of a reduced scope (as well as their practical impact) (Philippi Jr 2000) and scentific productivity (or rather, productivism). However, it pulverises knowledge and enhances the redundancy of products (Philippi Jr 2000). ‘The individual and social happiness promised by scientificism moves away from us, as a mirage’ (Nicolescu 1999), as scientificism becomes an end in itself.

Both of the complementary operations of analysis (distinction, division and relation) and synthesis (compilation and unification) are needed to progress; the biggest problem seems to be the significant mismatch occurring between the two (Domingues 2012). As the social preocupations and aspirations become more complex and interdependent, such a mismatch contributes to the gradual reduction of the benefit of disciplinary and multidisciplinary environmental research, whenever ‘benefit’ is measured as the socioenvironmental impact generated, relatively to the demand for solutions.

Domingues (2012) attributes the notions of multi-, inter- and trans- disciplinarity to an effect of delayed modernity, while ‘an attempt to aproximate disciplinary areas and promote, as possible, their fusion’. These are ways of organising and spreading knowledge, as ‘arrows from the same bow’ (Nicolescu 1999). In this context, the definitions adopted in this study were (Klein 1990):

  • ▸ Discipline: subject or knowledge field, also encompassing the method, system or doctrine.

  • ▸ Multidisciplinarity: overlapping disciplines; its nature is essencially summative, not integrative.

  • ▸ Interdisciplinarity: involves the cooperation of disciplines, being based upon genuine workgroups; its nature is integrative.

  • ▸ Transdisciplinarity: significantly more ambitious in attempting to reach beyond the disciplines (trans = beyond and through); it involves a transgression of disciplinary barriers and a disobedience to the rules of different disciplines.

The scale of current environmental problems and the potential reach and seriousness of the consequences of their non-resolution demand a better worldview than the one that created such problems in the first place; one in which the disciplinary knowledges produced are integrated, interactions amongst them are scrutinised and our assessments are more relevant. This requires due consideration of the effects of positive feedback mechanisms and non-linearities, for instance, which are common features of complex systems (Liu et al. 2007). Inter- and trans- disciplinary research approaches can contribute in this sense, with the promise not of ending conflict and solving all problems, but attempting to do so as much as possible, with a better chance of success.

It should be noted that putting together multidisciplinary research teams is a necessary, but not sufficient condition to achieve the typically wide ranging objectives of inter- and trans- disciplinary approaches (Philippi Jr 2000). The extra benefits that can arise from the inter and trans approaches (relatively to what can be obtained with disciplinary or multidisciplinary ones) can be attributed to a ‘misterious interaction factor’, similar to that which allows a system to become always more than the mere sum of its parts (Nicolescu 1999). Interdisciplinary research involves conceptual and methodological aspects of each composing discipline, while also including integrative elements of the knowledge being generated or processed. For that to happen, it is necessary to establish a relationship of mutual trust and good communication amongst the disciplinary teams, which become involved in an interdependent relationship where the integrity of their work depends upon the development of a shared vision for the project, mutual learning and a satisfactory experience of collaboration (Pardyjak and Thompson 2013). It is noteworthy that these elements are all required for a successful activity of river basin committees, such as in building a shared management strategy for a river basin.

The transposition and unification of disciplinary concepts and results take place at the interfaces between disciplines, thus generating new knowledge and leading to answers to complex questions. Such integration can foster new relevant meaning where there would otherwise be a mere piling up of competencies and knowledges, as can happen in multidisciplinary approaches (Nicolescu 1999). In this sense, interdisciplinarity contributes to the above mentioned spread of disciplines. For instance, since the 20th century several new knowledge fields have appeared and been named after their parent disciplines, such as astrophysics, hydroinformatics and biogeochemistry. Such products of knowledge integration are the ‘jewels on the crown of interdisciplinarity’ (Domingues 2012).

The difference between the interdisciplinary and the transdisciplinary approaches is of scope and weight, with the first being more exercised and regulated than the second (Domingues 2012). There is some confusion between them, in a similar manner as some disciplines can be seen as transdisciplines, such as ecology (Callicott 2012). But transdisciplinarity, in being a movement towards transcending the disciplines, intends to be all encompassing and knowledge unifying (Domingues 2012). It attempts to do so by focusing on the dynamics generated by the simultaneous action of several Reality levels (Nicolescu 1999). Perhaps transdisciplinarity will become a way to humanise science, if the apparent dichotomies between the humanistic and scientific cultures can be mitigated. This may sound Utopian, especially if thought of as an end, but the incorporation of transdisciplinary values in teaching and research practices are necessary and already occur, to some extent. Research in environment, cities and health are typical examples of this (Domingues 2012).

Nonetheless, the challenges involved in dealing with such topics and in incorporating the transdisciplinary paradigm are enourmous and require ‘a new ethos and a kind of moral conversion’ (Domingues 2012), since we have become addicted to and contaminated by the status quo of our market culture, which promotes efficacy for its own sake (Nicolescu 1999). This requires significant advancements in education, taken in a broad sense. According to Nicolescu (1999), the paradigm change required by the transdisciplinary approach demands that one must first learn to learn, to do and to live according to its precepts. In other words, it requires an open mind, so that the elements (people, knowledge and resources) needed to address current complex socio-environmental problems can be effectively integrated.

As observed by Nicolescu (1999), quantum mechanics introduced discontinuity in physics and shook the classic (deterministic) worldview, by highlighting the role of relativity and limitations of the very pilars of determinism. For the classic thought, transdisciplinarity is an absurd for not having an object; for transdisciplinarity, classic thought is not absurd, but its field of application is deemed restricted’ (Nicolescu 1999). Seen through this prism, the disciplinary and transdisciplinary research approaches are not antagonic, but complementary (Nicolescu 1999). This new worldview can be incorporated into the scientific and management theories and models, as more effort is dedicated to the brave search for effective solutions to concrete socio-environmental problems.

INTER- AND TRANS- DISCIPLINARY RESEARCH APPROACHES IN WATER MANAGEMENT

In the context of water resources management, the focus on socio-environmental issues naturally leads to the introduction of an interdisciplinary character in research and action approaches. An analysis of the Brazilian water resources policy, which was created by federal law no. 9433/1997, suggests the need for an interdisciplinary approach in addressing the problem of water management. For instance, article no. 3 – which prescribes general directives for action – suggests that there is not a universal management model to be adopted, as management initiatives should take into account the diverse physical, biotic, demographic, economic, social and cultural conditions of different regions of the country (Brasil 1997). Thus, the focus is on obtaining sustainable solutions that integrate knowledge of such different fields.

Article no. 1 of the same Law deals with the fundamental aspects of the national water resources policy, and prescribes the participation of water users, organised civil society and the public sector in the decision making process. The prescription by law of such management descentralisation initiated a formal transference of decision making power to those directly affected by the consequences of their decisions and bearers of valuable local knowledge (both explicit and tacit). Such a social empowerment, if genuine, besides enabling the achievement of the national policy objectives, aims to prevent ‘the greatest crime of all, that is to deny people the opportunity of exercising their own deep knowledge and comprehension’ (Abbott 2007). The incorporation of social knowledge and comprehension in the decision making process is, in itself, a transdisciplinary movement, as they do not respect the formal disciplinary framework (even as they include elements of disciplinary knowledges and may be, at some point, translated into and integrated in disciplinary products).

The type of research required to enable such an inclusive arrangement must involve and enable the ‘reengineering of knowledge and power relationships … requiring the mobilisation of people and the dissemination of the right information in the right format, which is more critical than the provision of new technology’ (Abbott 2001). We are now, thus, in a context where genuine social empowerment has the potencial to inculcate the required values and knowledge in society for it to progress towards shared management – not only of water resources, but also of social relations and with the whole environment; in short, for it to enable management of the river basin as a geographical space (Viegas Filho 2004).

In this context, to achieve the goal of practicing effective and sustainable management of river basins one has to deal with social demands and territory use considering its potentials, for it to occur in a conscient and locally developed manner (Quarentei and Girardi 2011). One must try and involve non-governamental actors, not only before and after negotiations, as usual (Giaretta et al. 2012), but during the whole process. The challenge resides in how to approach the problem in a structured enough way to enable the application of the scientific method, but without losing track of the essence of and the capacity to represent interactions amongst the various dimensions involved. It is, thus, characterised a complex problem, with multiple interconnected and interdependent aspects (Liu et al. 2007) which, even as they can be distinguished, they are not really separable (Souza 2009). Clearly, this is not in the realm of disciplinarity or multidisciplinarity. On the contrary, one can note the demand for an interdisciplinary research approach in seeking sustainable water management solutions. In turn, river basin management, with the added complexity of the human dimension, is firmly in the realm of transdisciplinarity.

This conceptual framework has been applied to assess the progress of research and management actions undertaken in the context of fostering shared management of a small agricultural river basin in southeastern Brazil, as part of the so-called Sossego Project, as described by Rauen et al. (2014).

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

Fruitful discussion with Prof. Valdir Fernandes (UTFPR, Curitiba, Brazil) and interactions with colleagues at the Graduate Programme in Environmental Management (Universidade Positivo, Curitiba, Brazil) and LabGest (UFES, Vitoria, Brazil) provided motivation and ideas for this paper, and are gratefully acknowledged.

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