Jul 31 2017

Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

Global water governance is based on the hidden philosophy of “normal water”––a finding with important ethical and ecological implications for water management in the Anthropocene. 

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by Jeremy J. Schmidt Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity, New York University Press, 2017, 308 pp.

Is water governance guided by a comprehensive philosophy? Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, geographer Jeremy J. Schmidt answers this question in the affirmative: water governance is based on a hidden philosophy which conceptualizes water as a “resource” to be managed in support of liberal ways of life. Rooted in a particular confluence of early American geology and anthropology, this view of water has attained global dominance through strategies of international development. It has become accepted to the extent that its ethnocentric and utilitarian foundations now seem all but forgotten within the global water governance mainstream. Thinking about water as a resource is commonplace today. Schmidt seeks to challenge this complacency by opening our eyes to the fact that what appears to be “normal” is in fact a normative choice.

The bulk of the book traces the origins and subsequent globalization of the philosophy of “normal water.” Schmidt provides insights into the roots and evolution of the “narrative of abundance, scarcity, and security,” while also discussing the implications of this narrative for water management in the Anthropocene. While the accounts of the thinking of protagonists such as John Wesley Powell, William John McGee, David Lilienthal and Gilbert White are illustrative and engaging, frequent philosophical excursions render the book somewhat impenetrable for readers unfamiliar with the philosophical works of Hannah Arendt, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Søren Kierkegaard and several others.

If the book is meant to showcase the results of an interdisciplinary intellectual exercise, its purpose has been achieved. However, Schmidt seeks to go further, spelling out the applied implications of his work. What, specifically, are the problems with viewing water as a resource (a very fundamental question)? What are the mechanisms by which alternate place-based approaches to water are being oppressed or marginalized by “normal water?” Beyond recommendations addressed to social scientists (e.g., disrupt the colonial project of water management within academia, relativize existing “stopping rules”), what are possible action avenues for practitioners committed to promoting water justice and equity in the field? Addressing these questions more explicitly and extensively could enhance the transformative impact of the book and make its important message accessible to a wider audience.


Jul 31 2017

Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

This review was first published in Current Science, July 10, 2017.

While the United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels, in spite of both population and economic growth, the health of its rivers continues to remain a concern.



by Sean W. Fleming, Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways,  Princeton University Press, 2017, 216 pp.

Its global prevalence notwithstanding, the state of water in nature reflects our inadequate understanding of its intricate flow dynamics. Despite its abundance, access to water eludes millions of people, and the stress on the ecosystems involved continues to grow. More than one billion people lack access to clean water, and in the near future, the global demand for water will be twice what it is now. With no substitute for this life-nurturing fluid, it is more important than ever that we ask the right questions so we can get past the current muddle.

All rivers are alike in the broadest sense, but they have different meandering curves, diverse aquatic fauna and distinct morphological features. Unraveling this distinctiveness and the (unknown) variables that contribute to it are the challenges that confront hydrologists. Existing watershed models are insufficient. Indeed, many of the best modelers don’t rate their results too highly. Part of the problem, in the words of Belgian Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine, rests on our innate desire to simplify complexity. Unfortunately, reducing elaborate systems into simpler subsystems doesn’t necessarily help: we end up learning more about less. Such an approach is particularly unhelpful when we are trying to understand river hydrology. The uncertainty involved is a function of a great many environmental and social factors that shape stream flow and underlying aquifers.

Sean Fleming’s Where the River Flows calls for a paradigm shift. He favors a radical departure from the usual disciplinary thinking; indeed, since rivers are a reflection of the profound interrelationships between landscapes, ecosystems and societies, no disciplinary perspective can adequately address their complex dynamics. He believes that fractal mathematics along with chaos and information theory can be used to generate new insights into the overall patterns of river systems. As anthropogenic impacts on the natural environment (like climate change) accelerate, there is a need for both finer detailed forecasts (e.g., will my farm get rain next week?) and big picture understanding (e.g., will the river topple its banks this coming season?). New insights in both dimensions are critical to understanding the common but differentiated patterns that each river generates in its unique geomorphological setting.

Unfortunately, a counter narrative persists, making it harder to get a better sense of river hydrology. Damming, diversion and contamination pose formidable challenges, beyond the normal ecological complexity, to figuring out how to sustain healthy stream flows for human welfare and ecosystem survival. Be it the Mississippi, Ganges or Yangtze, river degradation has thrown off balance the delicate equilibrium between ever-increasing human populations and their relentless aspiration to stay adequately watered. The United States may have leveled off its water use to 1970 levels in spite of both population and economic growth, but the health of its rivers continues to remain alarming. While every drop of water pumped from the Colorado river is used at least 17 times, which may sound like good news, the net impact of all that pumping on the Gulf of California has grossly disrupted the hydrological cycle. River water hasn’t reached the delta since 1960.

Fleming calls for an entirely new way of viewing the natural environment, suggesting that we need to process vast and complex information to reconceptualize and understand the dynamics of the natural environment. But can reams of hard data and new quantitative modeling techniques give us a better sense of river systems that are not only dynamic but also living entities? As the need for more accurate, precise and consistent forecasts move center stage in our dealings with the rivers, somehow cultural perspectives must also be included. It is not clear how we can convert human observations into actionable information.


Apr 10 2017

Negotiating for Water Resources: Bridging Transboundary River Basins

Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 A three-level analysis across three transboundary river basins concludes that, contrary to the realist perspective, powerful riparians are no less likely to cooperate when they are the upstream country.

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by Andrea Haefner Negotiating for Water Resources: Bridging Transboundary River Basins, Earthscan, 2016, 212 pp

Negotiating for Water Resources contributes to a long and ongoing debate about the drivers of transboundary water cooperation and conflict. Andrea Haefner asks, “To what extent do power symmetries prevent or inhibit cooperation between riparian states over water resources?” More specifically, she challenges the assumption that an upstream country is less likely to cooperate when it is the basin hegemon, arguing that issue linkage and institutions matter as much as, if not more than, differences in riparians’ material power.

The book begins with a concise review of hydropolitical (i.e., study of interstate transboundary water cooperation and conflict) and international relations literature to define hegemony in a river basin (chapter 2). The next three chapters are detailed analyses of three levels of interactions––regional networks, river basin organizations and project-specific decisions––across three river basins (Mekong, Danube and La Plata).

While impressive, the three-level, three-basin case-study approach is, perhaps, overly ambitious. In an effort to prove the point that regional networks, river basin organizations, and issue linkage affect transboundary water outcomes, the three case study chapters go into great detail about the specifics of each river basin to the detriment of argument development.

For example, the book’s overall argument that cooperation is possible even in basins in which there are asymmetric power relations is irrefutable. However, as Zeitoun and his colleagues at the London School of Economics argue, not all “cooperation’ is created equal and, in some cases, cooperation may exist because of (not despite) asymmetric power relations. At times, the book seems to hint at this, but never explicitly addresses it. For example, in the case of the Danube, Haefner writes that it is possible that the river basin organization “will face challenges when the previously less dominant states become more advanced and will demand to influence the agenda” (110) but later concludes that cooperation is working well in the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River. This, along with descriptions of China (the basin hegemon) remaining unaccountable to the Mekong River Commission and of Brazil and Argentina (the more powerful riparians) preventing the transformation of the La Plata River basin organization into an international organization with legal authority (a proposal favored by the ‘weaker’ riparians) (132), could easily be developed into a deeper discussion of how cooperation among riparians should be evaluated.

Throughout the case studies, the book hints at really interesting findings (e.g., these three river basin organizations were not effective in addressing conflicts that would arise, suggesting that they were not designed with effective conflict resolution mechanisms in mind), but does not give them sufficient attention. This is, at times, frustrating because the author provides rich comparative analyses of three relatively under-studied river basins, but buries the insights in descriptions of the context.

The final chapter provides a summary of the findings––many of which are valuable contributions to the existing literature on transboundary water management. The most salient findings are related to the characteristics of river basin organizations (e.g., level of riparian inclusion, institutional design, funding and opportunity for public participation) that make them more (or less) effective. Overall, this book is a concise primer on three major river basins in the world, an effective demonstration of a case study approach and an excellent resource for anyone interested in hydropolitics.

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?



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.

Oct 8 2016

Water and the Law: Towards Sustainability. The IUCN Academy of Environmental Law Series

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 An edited collection examining the interlinkages between law and sustainable water management

Water and the law


Edited by Michael Kidd, Loretta Feris, Tumai Murombo and Alejandro Iza Water and the Law: Towards Sustainability. The IUCN Academy of Environmental Law Series, Edward Elgar, 2014, 416 pp.

Water resources are increasingly threatened in many parts of the world due to mismanagement, overuse and climate change. To help address the global water crisis, Water and the Law explores the multifaceted connections between legal instruments and sustainable water management. The fifteen chapters of this edited volume are partly the result of a colloquium held in South Africa in 2011 by the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law. They are framed around two central questions: How can law contribute to the sustainability of water itself? And how can legal regulation of water contribute to the sustainability of human life and biodiversity?

To analyze these questions, the book proceeds in three parts. The first focuses on international and transboundary water law. It discusses the evolution of transboundary water cooperation within the international system of state sovereignty, and reviews a number of global and regional instruments for the governance of surface water and groundwater, such as the UN Watercourses Convention, the UNECE Water Convention, the SADC Revised Protocol on Shared Watercourses, and the International Law Commission’s draft articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers. The book’s emphasis lies in the second part, which focuses on domestic water governance and integrated water resources management in various national jurisdictions, including Australia, Brazil, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and South Africa. Two final chapters in the third part examine the right of access to water, highlighting issues such as the heterogeneity of the right in developed versus developing countries, water pricing and social justice, and indigenous struggles for water rights.

As stated in the book’s introduction, some of the chapters are reprints of previously published material. Lengthy reiterations of legal documents in several chapters could also be shortened for the benefit of originality and analytical focus. Furthermore, the book’s overall purpose could be even more ambitious, going beyond raising “most of the important questions” and providing “food for thought and further investigation” (p. 9). Nevertheless, the book displays much strength, including the attention devoted to climate change, and the illustration of complex concepts and regimes by means of case studies (for example, from the Nile and the Murray-Darling basins). Taken together, this edited collection thus provides an important resource for better understanding and harnessing the potential of law in achieving sustainable water resources management.

Oct 8 2016

Governing Transboundary Waters: Canada, the United States, and Indigenous Communities

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 A call for rescaling transboundary water governance to acknowledge and enhance the power of Indigenous peoples 

Governing Transboundary Waters

By Emma S. Norman  Governing Transboundary Waters: Canada, the United States, and Indigenous Communities. Routledge, 2015, 220 pp.

Governing Transboundary Waters starts from a fundamental problem in water governance: the recognition that political-administrative and hydrological boundaries do not always overlap. In this sense, the book addresses a familiar question: how are we to govern water resources that span political borders when our institutions and frameworks are bound within fixed jurisdictions and nation-state frameworks? What makes this book stand out in this debate is its commitment to questioning and expanding notions of territoriality and sovereignty. Rather than limiting her analysis to municipal, regional, federal or nation-state jurisdictions, Norman brings a “third”––and often ignored––“sovereign” into the picture. That is, Indigenous peoples. Focusing on the Canada–US borderland, she applies a postcolonial perspective grounded in political ecology to unmask the power dynamics at work in transboundary water governance.

The first part of the book examines the rescaling of transboundary water governance mechanisms in response to demands for more ecological protection and public participation. In the North American context, first and foremost among these mechanisms is the International Joint Commission (IJC), an organization rooted in principles of national sovereignty. Through its International Watersheds Initiative (IWI), the IJC has tried to embrace greater participation by nonstate actors and Indigenous peoples. Despite these efforts, the IJC remains firmly in the hands of nation-states, and consequently, the IWI seems to reinforce, rather than transcend, established borders.

The second part provides a contrasting, and more hopeful, perspective. Based on five “parables of change,” Norman shows how Indigenous peoples along the Canada–US border have engaged in innovative, counterhegemonic strategies to reclaim and enhance environmental protection and water governance in their communities. As the examples of the Coast Salish Gathering or the Great Lakes “water walkers” demonstrate, these initiatives have not only promoted more effective governance, but also contributed to the strengthening of Indigenous self-determination, decolonialization, cultural revitalization and empowerment.

In closing, Norman calls for “creating governance mechanisms commensurate to a scale that makes sense both ecologically and culturally.” She also presents a set of principles that would characterize “a good upstream neighbor.” Compared to the foregoing analysis, the simplicity of these principles is surprising, making them seem somewhat out of place at the end of this theoretically elaborate volume. Overall, however, Norman’s work brings us one big step closer to “refram[ing] the dominant narrative related to transboundary water governance.”

Jun 13 2016


Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

The Last Drop is a wake-up call to liberate water from the predominant notion that ‘whoever controls water controls society’.

The Last Drop

Mike Gonzalez and Marianella Yanes, The Last Drop, Pluto Press, 2016

Focusing on the trade and politics of water, the professor-journalist duo of Mike Gonzalez and Marianella Yanes laments the growing insanity of identifying bottled water as a social drink – consumed by elegant people in elegant bars. It is no surprise that some nine billion bottles of water are sold annually across the world. The massive expansion of the private water industry, including the bottled water industry, is an outcome of the commitment of neoliberalism to the privatization of all public goods and services.

Though outwardly it may seem to be the only way to address the issue of access and quality, the reality however is that big corporations with turnover exceeding US$40 billion annually have contributed literally nothing to the resolution of the water problem. This isn’t surprising when one learns that 34 per cent of water and sewerage privatizations have failed across the world, with as many as 180 cities having re-municipalized their water operations.

Citing actual cases of predatory privatization, from Mexico to India and from Laos to Bolivia, the authors contend that capitalism is anything but blind to ecology. It transforms nature into commodities, homogenizing it into products that can be traded for profit. Calling for a new world water order, the book seeks collective engagement of all small movements in a big picture change in favor of water peace, as opposed to the widely publicized prediction of possible ‘water wars’. Simply put, the struggle over water is not only about water, but also about land and more extensively about democracy and rights.

Examining corporate control over water and the ensuing struggle for water resources worldwide, Gonzalez and Yanes join the activists in calling for action to save water from overt and covert privatization. The Last Drop is a grim reminder and a wake-up call to liberate water from the predominant notion that ‘whoever controls water controls society’. Exposing the complex arguments surrounding water, the book makes a technical and scientific case for pushing back market fundamentalism in favor of equity and social justice.

Oct 12 2015


Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor

Nineteen case studies providing insights into the inherent complexity of water management

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Water and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding, edited by Erika Weinthal, Jessica Troell, and Mikiyasu Nakayama, Earthscan, 2013

Editors Erika Weinthal, Jessica Troell and Mikiyasu Nakayama present 19 case studies from 28 conflict-affected countries highlighting the importance of water in post-conflict peacebuilding. The book is one in a collection of seven that examines the relationship between natural resources and different aspects of peacebuilding. This behemoth of a project seeks to address a perceived gap in the literature, asking ‘How can natural resources support post-conflict peacebuilding?’ and ‘What are the potential risks to long-term peace in the absence of effectively addressing natural resources?

The book is divided into five parts: (i) Basic services and human security; (ii) Livelihoods; (iii) Peace processes, cooperation, and confidence building; (iv) Legal frameworks; and (v) Lessons learned. Each section begins with a concise introduction summarizing the dominant message and themes in the case studies that follow. The case studies can be taken as stand-alone pieces, read in relation to one of the broad themes, or combined with other case studies of the same country. A focus on Afghanistan, for example, might lead one to read about restoring water services in Kabul (Piner and Reed), community water management (Burt and Keiru), water resource management (McCarthy and Mustafa), or water scarcity and security (Dehgan, Palmer-Moloney and Mirzaee) in the Afghan context. The case studies vary in length and detail, but all relate to water as either a potential source of conflict or cooperation. Each case study includes a fairly extensive list of references, making it a helpful starting point for additional reading and research.

The final section of the book is a well-written synthesis of the lessons related to water management in post-conflict settings and is organized along a ‘timeline of peacemaking’ – starting from post-conflict humanitarian interventions in water and sanitation to longer term peacemaking through regional efforts to cooperatively manage water resources. This book will be useful for practitioners, academics and policymakers in international relations, natural resource management, security, and peacebuilding. It also provides very helpful and generalizable insights into the inherent complexity of water management.


May 8 2015


Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Providing a helpful review of the Nile Basin in relation to the political economy of transboundary water resource management


Governing the Nile River Basin: The Search for a New Legal Regime, by Mwangi Kimenyi and John Mukin Mbaku, Brookings Institution, 2015

Governing the Nile River Basin: The Search for a New Legal Regime is a clear and timely primer for anyone interested in hydropolitics in the Nile Basin and, more specifically, in understanding the significance of the recently signed Declaration of Principles on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam or Tanzania’s recent ratification of the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). The book’s eleven chapters provide a helpful desk review of the Nile Basin in relation to the political economy of transboundary water resource management including chapters on hydrology (Ch. 2), 1929 and 1959 Nile Agreements (Ch. 4), and recommendations for a future legal framework (Ch. 11).

Although the book clearly introduces the obstacles to cooperation in transboundary water management in the Nile Basin; at times, it adopts a less than objective tone when describing Egypt’s role in the Basin. While Egypt’s power in the Basin is indisputable, and most of the book’s more critical references to Egypt’s control in the Basin are references to other authors’ works, the ‘Egyptian perspective’ is not as well developed as the upstream perspective. That said, the authors do recognize Egypt’s near-complete dependence on the Nile and emphasize that any future basin-wide legal framework must recognize this as well.

The authors aptly point out that the ‘question in the Nile River basin today is not whether to change the status quo but how to do so.’ In the final chapter, they highlight several components of a process they believe will lead to the development of an effective basin-wide legal instrument. These include (i) recognition of Egypt’s dependence on the Nile; (ii) an inclusive and participatory process; (iii) ownership of the process by the Nile Basin states; (iv) basin-wide consultation to ensure the buy-in of all stakeholders (not just government representatives and technocrats); (v) adequate support (e.g. lodging, translators, etc.) for participants engaged in the process; and (vi) flexibility in the design of the legal instrument to account for uncertainty related to climate change.

It is not entirely clear, however, how their recommendations are different from the CFA drafting and negotiation process. In other words, by the end of the book, although the authors clearly illustrate the limited efficacy of the CFA as a basin-wide legal framework in the absence of Egypt and Sudan’s support, they do not present a very clear or strong case for why their recommendations would lead to a different outcome. Given the very recent developments in the Nile Basin (which occurred after the book was published), it would be interesting to hear the authors’ perspectives on how, if at all, the momentum for cooperation catalyzed by recent events could be used to renew the Basin states’ commitment to the CFA process. After ten years of negotiation, it would be a shame to abandon the CFA altogether.


Dec 5 2014


Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

We should be looking for transformative approaches to water negotiations

Water as a Catalyst For Peace: Transboundary Water Management and Conflict Resolution, by Ahmed Abukhater, Earthscan, 2013

The central argument of Water as a Catalyst For Peace is that water negotiations can be used to promote cooperation if equity is ensured. Abukhater uses nine cases of bilateral water treaties from around the world to make the point that three types of equity (process, outcome, and perceived) require attention. He explores the commonalities and differences in each case, emphasizing the dispute histories and the treaty outcomes (in terms of types of equity achieved).

Of his nine cases, two are developed in greater depth. The 1994 Israel-Jordan Water Treaty (Chapter 4) is offered as an example of a “low” (or modest) outcome where low outcome and perceived equity were achieved. The 1986 Lesotho-South Africa Highlands Water Project Treaty (Chapter 5) is an example of a “high” outcome in which high outcome and perceived equity were achieved. The author is paradoxically critical of both treaties, arguing that both processes should have been more inclusive and transparent while, at the same time, recognizing the inherent complexities of hydro-diplomacy when substantial power differentials are at work.

He uses his cross-case analysis (Chapter 6) to develop what he calls a ‘transformative approach to conflict resolution’, highlighting the importance of the rules of engagement (international law), the mechanisms of engagement (equitable water sharing criteria), and third-party mediation. His comparative analysis also provides a useful, albeit hidden, summary of process equity parameters. These include, among others, involvement of all stakeholders, trust-building, an incrementalist approach; facilitation, mediation and other uses of third parties; socio-economic considerations; language of equity; joint fact finding; prioritization of uses and users; and monitoring arrangements.

This is a well-written and useful book for anyone interested in transboundary water management, conflict resolution or bilateral management of natural resources. It skillfully demonstrates the potential to use ‘low’ politics (i.e. hydro-diplomacy) as an entry point into ‘high’ politics (e.g., international relations).


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