Oct 8 2016

The Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus: Lessons from India for Development

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 Is there a water-energy-food security nexus? What can we learn about managing this nexus from India’s experience?

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Edited by M. Dinesh Kumar, Nitin Bassi, A. Narayanamoorthy and M. V. K. Sivamohan The Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus: Lessons from India for Development, Routledge, 2014, 246 pp.

The Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus unpacks the three critical components of development in India given concerns about climate change and sustainable resource management.

While collectively the authors cover issues related to water management, energy pricing and agriculture, each chapter generally focuses on one component of the energy-water-food security nexus. The “nexus” is knit together primarily in the introduction and the conclusion, with the exception of chapters 6 and 8, which examine the potential impact of metered and subsidized electricity on groundwater use and agriculture. In the final chapter, M. Dinesh Kumar introduces a new nexus, the “politics-bureaucracy-academics” nexus––the combined force behind historical policies of free power, free water access and subsidies that he views as ineffective and costly approaches to development. Ultimately the goal of this volume “is to trigger an informed debate on some of the most controversial and yet unresolved issues concerning water-energy-food security nexus in developing countries.”

Despite the varying degrees to which each chapter addresses water, energy, and food security as integrated concerns or as individual challenges, three common themes emerge from this volume. First, the water management challenges presented highlight the need to reframe existing planning models to encourage integrated approaches that consider, for example, basin-wide hydrological planning (chapter 2) and integrated hydrological and economic planning (chapter 3). Second, each chapter focuses on a specific state, handful of states, or a particular geographic region, indicating that natural resource management in India must account for differing social, political, ecological and climatic conditions, allowing for solutions and policy experiments at subnational levels. Third, evidence points to new opportunities for policy experimentation related to pricing of water and energy that may help manage consumption and allow for increased measuring, monitoring and testing of new resource management solutions.


May 30 2014

SUSTAINABILITY SCIENCE by Bert J. M. de Vries

Reviewed by Peder Hjorth, Lund University, Sweden

An important and well-documented book. A very helpful guide to sustainable development and sustainability science.

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Sustainability Science, by Bert J. M. de Vries, Cambridge University Press, 2013

This book provides one of the best explanations yet of the origins and meaning of sustainable development. Quoting Seneca (3 BC – 63 AD), de Vries writes: “The society of man is like a wall of stones, which would fall if the stones did not rest on another; in this way it is sustained.” The book puts the problems of sustainable development in context, providing case examples, discussing the trajectory the concept has taken to reach the current moment, and highlighting the thinking behind it.

The book clearly states that a scientific worldview by itself cannot give meaning to our lives; nor can it resolve the ethical questions surrounding sustainability. Sustainability science has a more limited scope than sustainable development. Essentially, it is the study of what science can and cannot know. Even if thermodynamics, system dynamics and complexity theory are designated essential components of sustainability science, and it is based on the premise that studies of real-world problems must not respect the confines of artificial nineteenth-century boundaries among scientific disciplines, sustainability science can only illuminate part of what we need to know. Current complexity and uncertainty require a realistic appreciation of the predictive and explanatory powers of science and models.

Questions regarding what we ought to do are outside the scope of sustainability science, although the book opens up a panorama of possible directions we might take, offering multiple options for reflection and discussion. The discussion of sustainable development should be required reading for all university students. The section on sustainability science is much more demanding and is only suitable for students at an advanced level with strong science background. An experienced teacher prepared to jump between traditional disciplines would do well to incorporate this book into his or her classes.

The author focuses on renewable and non-renewable resources as well as the essentials of earth, land, nature and agro-industrial systems. At the end of each chapter, there are relevant book references and websites. The best news is that book has been “field-tested” for seven years. I highly recommend it.


Jul 30 2013

THE WTO AND THE ENVIRONMENT: DEVELOPMENT OF COMPETENCE BEYOND TRADE by James K. R. Watson

Review by Janet Martinez, Stanford University

This book reviews the development and influence of the WTO dispute resolution system (DSU), while also assessing the WTO’s environmental competency and the judicial issues that impede progress

The WTO and the Environment: Development of Competence Beyond Trade by James K. R. Watson, Routledge, 2013, 236 pp.

Since it was created in 1995 to manage international trade, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has wrestled with issues of environmental protection. Watson’s volume provides a thoughtful overview of the WTO’s legal and administrative efforts to deal with trade disputes in general, and trade-and-environmental matters in particular. The author finds a growing competence within the WTO, but still procedural and substantive barriers impede progress. The reforms he proposes address both concerns.

The WTO’s Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU) spells out a way of handling disputes through a process that has become increasingly judicial, but is widely viewed as strong, reliable, and effective.  Its trade-expert panelists, along with an Appellate Body review, render decisions that function as “informal precedents.” Watson calls on the WTO to supplement its panelists with lawyer and scientific experts skilled in environmental matters; empower its Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE) to participate in DSU cases in an advisory role; and offer access to “third parties” (i.e., other interested stakeholders) in environmental cases, in the same way that the NAFTA Commission on Environmental Cooperation does.

Watson traces the ways in which environmental concerns have been incorporated into WTO agreements, and sees momentum in favor of making explicit what has been implicit regarding the relationship between the WTO and multilateral environmental agreements, like the Basel Convention on Transboundary Waste, CITES, and the Montréal Protocol. That is, trade agreements affect environmental quality and environmental treaties can have an impact on international trade.

Given his focus on dispute system design, Watson points out the need to intervene in the WTO’s policy making efforts—writing the rule book at the Doha negotiations—as well as in the way DSU’s legal enforcement is handled. I doubt that WTO members will be willing to address environmental concerns apart from parallel demands to accommodate labor and human rights concerns as well. Nevertheless, Watson notes that if the WTO were to enact some kind of trade and environment ground rules, the CTE could transition from a political body to a much stronger implementing committee.


May 23 2013

THE BANANA TREE AT THE GATE: A HISTORY OF MARGINAL PEOPLES AND GLOBAL MARKETS IN BORNEO by Michael R. Dove

Reviewed by Kelly Heber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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The Banana Tree at the Gate: A History of Marginal Peoples and Global Markets in Borneo by Michael R. Dove, Yale University Press, 2011, 352 pp.

The title of Michael Dove’s The Banana Tree at the Gate references a proverb local to Borneo, where if you leave something of value exposed, outsiders will exploit it or take the fruit for themselves. Though this book details the centuries of unequal terms of trade between the marginalized Kantu Dayak peoples of Indonesian Borneo and the rest of the world, Dove does it in a way that highlights the resilience of the people as opposed to their victimhood. His account of the adaptability of indigenous people in Indonesia matches my own experiences living with the Iban in Malaysian Borneo, where traditional longhouses were dotted with satellites.

Dove uses political ecology to inform his account of smallhold Indonesian pepper farmers, detailing the inherent structural exploitation that arises from a long history of forced competition with large scale plantations in liberalized markets. Despite the difficulties that arise from marginalization, the Kantu Dayak carry on their traditional smallholder farming structure through hundreds of years of inequality inherent in globalized markets, spanning from the colonial Dutch regime to the present neoliberal capitalist economy.

Woven throughout Dove’s historical account of pepper and rubber cultivation is the Hikayat Banjar, a historical volume that details the lives and legends of Borneo’s kings, but also includes kingly advice on the management of Borneo’s natural resources. Most surprising were the warnings issued by kings in the volume over the ruin that exploitative colonial trade will assuredly bring the smallholders of Borneo. Dove does not cast the pepper farmers as victims of global trade’s steady march towards neoliberalism, however. This provides an exciting contrast to other political ecology publications that leave a gaping, poststructural vacuum after establishing a history of marginalization.



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