An Earth system law perspective on governing social-hydrological systems in the Anthropocene

Journal Article


The global hydrological cycle is characterized by complex interdependencies and self-regulatin feedbacks that keep water in an ever-evolving state of flux at local, regional, and global levels. Increasingly, the scale of human impacts in the Anthropocene is altering the dynamics of this cycle, which presents additional challenges for water governance. “Earth system law” provides an important approach for addressing gaps in governance that arise from the mismatch between the global hydrological cycle and dispersed regulatory architecture across institutions and geographic regions. In this article, we articulate the potential for Earth system law to account for core hydrological problems that complicate water governance, including delay, redistribution, intertwinements, permanence, and scale. Through merging concepts from Earth system law with existing policy and legal principles, we frame an approach for addressing hydrological problems in the Anthropocene and strengthening institutional fit between established governance systems and the global hydrological cycle. We discuss how such an approach can be applied, and the challenges and implications for governing water as a cycle and complex social-hydrological system, both in research and practice.

Citation: Ahlström, H., J. Hileman, L. Wang-Erlandsson, M.M. García, M.L. Moore, K. Jonas, A. Pranindita, J.J. Kuiper, I. Fetzer, F. Jaramillo and U. Svedin 2021. An Earth system law perspective on governing social-hydrological systems in the Anthropocene. Earth System Governance 10:100120

Keywords: Earth system governance, Earth system law, Global hydrologic cycleInstitutional fit, Social-hydrological system