The geomorphology of wetlands in drylands: Resilience, non-resilience, or …?

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Over the last decade, much attention has focused on wetland resilience to disturbances such as extreme weather events, longer climate change, and human activities. Resilience can be defined in various ways, and has both physical and socioeconomic dimensions, but commonly is taken to mean the ability of a system to: i) withstand disturbance; ii) recover from disturbance; or iii) adapt and evolve in response to disturbance to a more desirable (e.g. stable) configuration. Most studies of wetland resilience have tended to focus on the more-or-less permanently-saturated humid region wetlands and it commonly assumed that findings can be readily transferred to wetlands in drylands. Given the natural climatic variability and overall strong moisture deficit characteristic of drylands, however, are such wetlands likely to be more resilient or less resilient? Focusing on wetlands in the South African drylands, existing geomorphological, sedimentological and geochronological datasets are used to provide the spatial (up to 50 km2) and temporal (late Quaternary) framework for an assessment of geomorphological resilience. Some wetlands have been highly resilient to environmental (especially climate) change but others have been non-resilient, with natural factors (e.g. local base level fall, drought) or human activities (e.g. channel excavation, floodplain drainage) having driven marked transformations in channel-floodplain structure and process connectivity. Key issues related to the assessment of wetland resilience include channel-floodplain dynamics in relation to geomorphological thresholds, wetland geomorphological ‘life cycles’, and the relative roles of natural and human activities. These issues raise challenges for the involvement of geomorphologists in the practical application of the resilience concept in wetland management. Particularly important is the need to consider how geomorphological resilience interfaces with other dimensions of resilience, especially ecological resilience and socioeconomic resilience, the latter commonly being defined in terms of ecosystem service delivery.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)33-48
Early online date10 Nov 2017
Publication statusPublished - 15 Mar 2018


  • dryland
  • environmental change
  • floodplain
  • resilience
  • resilient
  • wetland


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