in: Sustainability Science, first published 07.04.2022
In Azraq in Eastern Jordan, farmers, domestic users, and a wetland ecosystem compete for and overexploit limited groundwater resources. Current studies explain parts of the problem, but do not take a comprehensive social–ecological systems perspective and tend to miss underlying hidden factors. To explain decision-making in this complex social–ecological system, we combine the concept of networks of action situations (NAS) with the political economy concept of the social contract. While the NAS allows a systematic exploration of the system, the concept of the social contract allows a deeper understanding of how informal institutions and power influence the system. Besides a comprehensive literature review, we draw on social network mapping and 67 semi-structured interviews with relevant stakeholders. We find that the main conflict arises between a heterogeneous group of farmers, who use groundwater for irrigation agriculture supported by a strong political lobby, and the water authorities, which rely on the aquifer for domestic water supply at national level. The original wetland with its diverse ecosystem services has largely disappeared and its remainder is maintained artificially. Our analysis reveals that a diversity of action situations, including water, agricultural, environmental, energy, and land governance, but also the monarchy’s underlying social contract and the informal concept of wasta, influence outcomes on the ground. We show that no panacea exists, but that systems thinking may help identify a range of intervention points, some more sensitive than others, that could support a social–ecological transformation towards sustainability.