Articles | Volume 18, issue 3
Review article
07 Mar 2014
Review article |  | 07 Mar 2014

Acting, predicting and intervening in a socio-hydrological world

S. N. Lane

Abstract. This paper asks a simple question: if humans and their actions co-evolve with hydrological systems (Sivapalan et al., 2012), what is the role of hydrological scientists, who are also humans, within this system? To put it more directly, as traditionally there is a supposed separation of scientists and society, can we maintain this separation as socio-hydrologists studying a socio-hydrological world? This paper argues that we cannot, using four linked sections. The first section draws directly upon the concern of science-technology studies to make a case to the (socio-hydrological) community that we need to be sensitive to constructivist accounts of science in general and socio-hydrology in particular. I review three positions taken by such accounts and apply them to hydrological science, supported with specific examples: (a) the ways in which scientific activities frame socio-hydrological research, such that at least some of the knowledge that we obtain is constructed by precisely what we do; (b) the need to attend to how socio-hydrological knowledge is used in decision-making, as evidence suggests that hydrological knowledge does not flow simply from science into policy; and (c) the observation that those who do not normally label themselves as socio-hydrologists may actually have a profound knowledge of socio-hydrology. The second section provides an empirical basis for considering these three issues by detailing the history of the practice of roughness parameterisation, using parameters like Manning's n, in hydrological and hydraulic models for flood inundation mapping. This history sustains the third section that is a more general consideration of one type of socio-hydrological practice: predictive modelling. I show that as part of a socio-hydrological analysis, hydrological prediction needs to be thought through much more carefully: not only because hydrological prediction exists to help inform decisions that are made about water management; but also because those predictions contain assumptions, the predictions are only correct in so far as those assumptions hold, and for those assumptions to hold, the socio-hydrological system (i.e. the world) has to be shaped so as to include them. Here, I add to the "normal" view that ideally our models should represent the world around us, to argue that for our models (and hence our predictions) to be valid, we have to make the world look like our models. Decisions over how the world is modelled may transform the world as much as they represent the world. Thus, socio-hydrological modelling has to become a socially accountable process such that the world is transformed, through the implications of modelling, in a fair and just manner. This leads into the final section of the paper where I consider how socio-hydrological research may be made more socially accountable, in a way that is both sensitive to the constructivist critique (Sect. 1), but which retains the contribution that hydrologists might make to socio-hydrological studies. This includes (1) working with conflict and controversy in hydrological science, rather than trying to eliminate them; (2) using hydrological events to avoid becoming locked into our own frames of explanation and prediction; (3) being empirical and experimental but in a socio-hydrological sense; and (4) co-producing socio-hydrological predictions. I will show how this might be done through a project that specifically developed predictive models for making interventions in river catchments to increase high river flow attenuation. Therein, I found myself becoming detached from my normal disciplinary networks and attached to the co-production of a predictive hydrological model with communities normally excluded from the practice of hydrological science.