We examine challenges and opportunities for developing ‘learning systems’ for integrated catchment managing (ICMg) drawing on our experiences in two contexts: UK and South Africa (SA). Our research question is: what is it that we would have to experience to claim that a catchment was a learning catchment? We suggest that any valid answer to this question will arise in social relations in context-determined ways. From this perspective ICMg is an emergent ‘performance’ of stakeholders engaged in mutual action, or social learning (SL), in which understandings and practices are transformed in situation improving ways. These questions are relevant given recent reviews suggesting that implementation of the European Water Framework Directive (WFD) is not nurturing adaptive management. Our European and SA experiences demonstrate that it is possible to invest in social learning as a governance mechanism for water managing, but key constraints exist. Our SA work based on (i) appreciating the situation, especially the history, and (ii) contextual appreciation and design of learning systems (as a result of (i)) is described in response to these constraints. We conclude that more attention on developing an effective praxis for ICMg is required.

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