How path dependency manifests in flood risk management: observations from four decades in the Ennstal and Aist catchments in Austria

Publikation aus Life
Internationale Klimapolitik und Ökonomik

Sebastian Seebauer, Thomas Thaler, Susanne Hanger-Kopp, Thomas Schinko

Regional Environmental Change 23:31, 1/2023


Path dependency occurs when a contingent event predetermines what further steps can be taken and self-reinforcing mechanisms lock-in any further development on a sub-optimal trajectory. Path dependency is a prominent concept in the adaptation pathways literature, but insufficiently defined and operationalised. The present paper empirically tracks all constitutive elements of path dependency for four decades of flood risk management (FRM) in two alpine mountain regions in Austria, the Ennstal and Aist river catchments, using a mixed-methods approach. FRM governance has a critical role whether decisions lead to path dependency. Lock-in manifests not just in technical structures, but also in inertia of incumbent actor coalitions and management paradigms. Sub-optimality is hard to assess for lack of clearly defined protection targets; however, it appears in the ways that structural measures are implemented—too little, too late or with negative impacts on nature conservation. Past floods do not qualify as contingent events, as they have not fundamentally changed FRM practice. By contrast, technological and institutional shifts over longer periods, such as digital hazard maps and EU directives, have gradually reoriented FRM strategies. Institution-based self-reinforcing mechanisms are more prevalent than technology-based self-reinforcing mechanisms. Established actor coalitions combined with institutional density illustrate how those in charge uphold a path to defend their position, power and resources. Our recommendations for how to overcome path dependency in FRM governance are: encourage niche experiments, link FRM more closely with climate change adaptation, revise the national policy framework towards polycentric governance approaches and improve professional training.

Keywords: Spatial planning, Risk management, Water management, Natural hazards, Flood protection, Transformation