Studying African Floodplains as Coupled Systems

December 6, 2016

Mark Moritz

The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.

— Gregory Bateson

The quote from Gregory Bateson, from the documentary Ecology of Mind (2011) that Nora Bateson made about her father, captures one of the key themes in his work: the way we perceive and conceive of the world is poor match for how the world really works (Bateson 1972, [1979] 2002). The mismatch between our theoretical models and the world we are studying is a key problem in scientific research. I tell students that “theory world” and the “world out there” are two very different worlds and that theoretical models are simply thinking tools that allow us to get a better handle on the world. Some of these thinking tools are better for some problems than for others, and most problems require multiple tools to get the job done.

In the past few years, I have been using the thinking tool of coupled systems to study the world of the Logone floodplain in Cameroon. The framework of coupled human and natural systems (CHANS) (Liu et al. 2007) has been tightly linked with the Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) program at the National Science Foundation, which has been in existence for 15 years (Baerwald et al. 2016). The core idea of the coupled systems approach is that human and natural systems are linked, processes in one system affect the other system, impacts occur in both directions, and, as a result, systems are highly dynamic.

The Logone floodplain, where I have been studying mobile pastoralists for the past 20 or so years, is an excellent example of a coupled human and natural system in that dynamic feedbacks occur between different human and natural systems. The most important driver is the annual flood that directly impacts fish populations and vegetation, which in turn affect the livelihoods of fishers and pastoralists. But the floodplain is also an anthropogenic landscape that has been modified by fishers, farmers, and herders who have made it a highly productive landscape for humans and animals. While flooding is the main driver in this coupled system, humans are continuously changing the flooding patterns with dams, dikes, and canals.

The canals and their impact on the floodplain are what prompted me to pursue a CNH grant in 2010. Fishers in the Logone floodplain have used canals for centuries. The canals connect depressions with the rivers in the floodplain (see figure 1). When the annual floods recede, fish swim with the water from the depression through the canals to the rivers, where they are caught in fishers’ nets at the end of the canals. The canals are highly efficient ways to catch fish in our study area, and their number has increased from a few hundred in the 1970s to more than 1,200 in 2015. However, in the early 2000s, floodplain residents started to complain that fish canals were negatively impacting the fish populations, directly through catches and indirectly by changing the hydraulic landscape of the floodplain and thus the habitat of fish. At that time, I was working with mobile pastoralists, and they too noted the impact of canals, particularly that the floodplain dried much quicker than before and that there was much less regrowth of grasses after they set fire to pastures.


Figure 1: (a) Map of the floodplain showing locations of the thousands of fish canals; (b) illustrations of how fishers use natural flooding patterns to fish by digging canals that link depressions to the rivers—when the floods recede, fish swim with the flow of the water through the canals into the fishing nets; and (c) fish canals in the dry season (top), canals when the floods reach their peak (middle), and when the floods recede and fish swim into the nets (bottom). Photographs by Association Camerounaise pour l’Education Environnementale (ACEEN) and figures by Sarah Laborde.

The CNH program was a good fit for a study of the canals’ impact on the floodplain because they were at the intersection of human and natural systems. As we made the argument that it was critical to study the Logone floodplain as a coupled system in our proposals, we framed our study in terms of the analytical framework of the CNH program: (1) focus on analyses of dynamic processes within and couplings between human and natural systems; (2) an interdisciplinary team with experts for human and natural systems; and (3) a quantitative, integrative model of the coupled systems. Since then (our second, revised submission was funded in 2011), I have been thinking of the floodplain—and the world in general—as a coupled system that can be modeled quantitatively. In my presentation at the 2016 American Anthropological Association (AAA) meeting, I noted—only partly as a joke—that the solicitation of the CNH program is my conceptual framework.

In our ongoing study of the role of canals in the coupled systems of the floodplain, the big question is whether the cumulative effect of the thousands of canals is equivalent to that of large-scale dams. In the last decades, a number of natural experiments have resulted in multiple regime shifts. First, the construction of the Maga Dam and levees along the Logone River in 1979 dramatically reduced flooding downstream with severe consequences for the human and natural systems of the floodplain, which forced hundreds of herders and fishers to move elsewhere. Second, the reflooding efforts of the Waza Logone Project (IUCN) in the 1990s led to a rebounding of the system (Scholte 2005). The question we are exploring is whether the exponential growth of fish canals in the floodplain is leading to another regime shift pushing the system to a state with lower productivity (Fernandez et al. 2016; Laborde et al. 2016).

The CNH framework is highly appropriate for our research question. We assembled an interdisciplinary team of US and Cameroonian scholars that studies the hydroclimate of the watershed, hydraulics of the floodplain, dynamics of the fish population, and socioeconomic decision-making of fishers. We are developing models for each of these systems and building an integrative, quantitative model that couples all the systems: hydroclimatic, hydraulic, fish populations, and fishers. The integrated model forces us to specify not only how processes in one system affect processes in another system but also how much. This is critical for study of regime shifts in coupled systems. Otherwise, it is nearly impossible to tell whether a regime shift is linear, nonlinear, or critical (Scheffer 2009). This is important because it may be relatively easy to reverse a linear or nonlinear regime shift but very difficult to reverse a critical transition. If our integrated model indicates that the exponential increase in canals is leading to critical transition in fish populations, stakeholders may be convinced that collective action is needed to avoid a potential catastrophe.

In the middle of our study, the floodplain changed dramatically, again, because of the construction of levees by Chad and Cameroon along the Logone River, which resulted in extreme flooding events. This made it very difficult for us to study and model the impact of fish canals. (That was on top of not being able to travel to the field because of insecurity caused by Boko Haram.) However, “every disadvantage has its advantage” (Johan Cruyff). As we started to study the ways floodplain residents were adapting to changes in flooding and fish dynamics, we became less fixated on the canals and started seeing canals within the larger context of innovations and adaptations that fishers have pursued in the last decades. Using the analytical framework of coupled human and natural systems (CHANS) and an Iterative Recursive Abductive (IRA) approach (Agar 2006), we are able to adapt and leverage our studies and models to examine new research problems in the floodplain. It also allowed us to develop a new proposal for the CNH program to examine the impact of extreme hydroclimatic events on the resilience of the floodplain and its residents.

I think the way we conceptualize the floodplain as a coupled system matches well the world we are studying (Moritz et al. 2016). However, there is a problem. Because we are using a coupled systems approach to study a dynamic system, that is, a system that is constantly changing, we have entered a never-ending, spiraling fish hole. Of course, this problem is not limited to the study of coupled systems; most studies generate more questions than answers. The intellectual challenge of the coupled systems approach is that there are no boundaries: no disciplinary boundaries and no spatial or temporal boundaries. In our project, we examine the role of climate change, marriage patterns, and fish behavior, so, as we come to understand one part of the system, new question emerge. I fear that someday we may be studying microbiomes in the floodplain. It keeps us busy, but the goal of understanding the floodplain seems forever out of reach. Or, in the words of Gregory Bateson, “learning never stops” (2011).

Mark Moritz
is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Ohio State University, and he is involved in multiple interdisciplinary research projects that use a coupled systems approach.


Agar, Michael. 2006. “An Ethnography by Any Other Name …” Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research 7(4).

Baerwald, Thomas J., Penelope L. Firth, and Sarah L. Ruth. 2016. “The Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems Program at the U.S. National Science Foundation: Lessons Learned in Interdisciplinary Funding Program Development and Management.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 19: 123–133.

Bateson, Gregory. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bateson, Gregory. (1979) 2002. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Bateson, Nora. 2011. An Ecology of Mind. Documentary, 60 min. Bullfrog Films.

Fernández, Alfonso, et al. 2016. “Testing the Skill of Numerical Hydraulic Modeling to Simulate Spatiotemporal Flooding Patterns in the Logone Floodplain, Cameroon.” Journal of Hydrology 539: 265–280.

Laborde, Sarah, et al. 2016. “Social-Ecological Feedbacks Lead to Unsustainable Lock-in in an Inland Fishery.” Global Environmental Change 41: 13–25.

Liu, Jianguo, et al. 2007. “Complexity of Coupled Human and Natural Systems.” Science 317(5844): 1513–1516.

Moritz, Mark, et al. 2016. “Studying the Logone Floodplain, Cameroon as a Coupled Human and Natural System.” African Journal of Aquatic Sciences 41(1): 99–108.

Scheffer, Marten. 2009. Critical Transitions in Nature and Society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Scholte, Paul. 2005. “Floodplain Rehabilitation and the Future of Conservation and Development: Adaptive Management of Success in Waza-Logone, Cameroon.” PhD diss., Centre for Environmental Studies, Leiden University.

Cite as: 
Moritz, Mark. 2016. “Studying African Floodplains as Coupled Systems.” EnviroSociety, 6 December.

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