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

peace building

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).


Sep 11 2014


Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma, Independent Reviewer

An authoritative exposé of the political economy of river management in the United States

River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America’s Rivers, Colombia University Press, 2012

Dictatorships are loathed the world over for the fatalities they cause. But rarely have democracies been reprimanded for the living rivers they destroy. Isn’t it a fact that the United States of America has led the world in inflicting grievous damage on its rivers?

It indeed is! In its two centuries of experience in manhandling rivers, the US Army Corps of Engineer has dammed, diverted and dried up nearly all the country’s rivers. It apparently never occurred to this elite force that moving water could also be a resource. Pouring concrete to impound or divert flows has prevailed as a water development strategy known as ‘water hubris’ guiding river management. As a result, some 3.3 million small and big dams have converted free-flowing rivers into a series of interconnected reservoirs in the US. Yet none of these projects have lived up to the promise of being self-sustaining. Annual maintenance expenditures alone have caused the initial cost–benefit calculus to go haywire.

Dam building and river engineering generate sufficient political capital to sustain themselves while water projects have become instruments of power, prestige and political gamesmanship. To get a sense of how water hubris has been nurtured, Daniel McCool, Professor of Political Science at the University of Utah, provides bio-sketches of two leading agencies: the US Army Corps of Engineers and the US Bureau of Reclamation. Through their relentless pursuit to “curb the sinful rivers,” these two agencies have turned water hubris into a moral right, almost in religious terms, to conquer rivers. No wonder, then, that calls for new water projects are almost always accompanied by dire projections of impending “water crises.” The actual crisis is that the real requirements of water management are lost in the din.

The collapse of the Teton Dam on World Environment Day in 1976 may have been the tipping point. From a 27 km long reservoir, 80 billion gallons of water swept through the 305-feet-high earth-filled dam killing about a dozen people in Rexburg, Idaho. Ironically, the disintegration of the Machhu Dam in Gujarat in 1979, which killed as many as 25,000, hasn’t had any impact on the prevailing water hubris in India.

It has been officially acknowledged that there are 15,237 dams in the US with high hazard potential. As many as 890 of these dams have been dismantled due to public outrage. Water hubris appears to be giving way to a new water ethic in the US. Inspiring accounts of citizen triumphs against the institutionalized annihilation of rivers are worth emulating.

McCool confirms that not only has the status quo been challenged, but that some rivers are returning to their free-flowing condition. River instigators are working their way through a maze of institutional obstacles. River restoration is now something of a cottage industry. Indeed, there are as many as 2,500 non-profit groups in the US partnering with the agencies that originally built the dams now working to restore rivers to their pristine status.

River Republic is an authoritative exposé of the political economy of river management in the United States. McCool stresses that the great challenge for this generation is to figure out a way to reverse the downward corkscrew of our rivers before we reach a point where there is nothing left to save.

Personal anecdotes and insightful analysis make it an important book. River Republic offers essential lessons for entrenched water bureaucracy.


Sep 9 2014


Reviewed by Kelly Heber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Extremely useful for anyone focused on climate science and climate policy development

Managing Ocean Environments In A Changing Climate: Sustainability and Economic Perspectives, Elsevier, 2013

Managing Ocean Environments in a Changing Climate provides a state-of-the-science examination of several high profile threats to the ocean environment. These include acidification, warming, hypoxia, sea level rise, pollution, and over extraction of resources (the primary focus is fisheries). Where this book differs from others with similar aims is that it does not to discuss each of these global stressors in isolation, rather, it speaks to their relationships to each other, including their synergies, amplifications, and feedbacks across scales. Given such a complex scope, it cannot achieve everything it sets out to do. Some of the more successful chapters include a very practical section on Policy Recommendations, as well as its concluding chapter on Multiple Stressors. At times the discussion of the relationships among the stressors felt a bit vague; however, this does not detract from the overall effectiveness of the volume.

This book is written for a diverse audience, including academics, policy makers, and NGO personnel. The book’s concise and well-written literature reviews of the most up-to-date science in the field are very helpful, and they do converse with one another in the later chapters. The authors also use scenarios to be intentionally consistent with the IPCC Assessment Report 5. The use of scenarios, or storylines of possible future development and resource requirements, help to make the book accessible to the wider audience it is seeking to reach. The scenarios generate a narrative feel that makes for more interesting reading as compared to a technical document like the IPCC report it is meant to accompany. The focus on the relationships among six key stressors also helps to achieve consistency with the research aims of the IPCC Assessment Report 5. Thus, this volume is extremely useful for anyone focused on climate science and climate policy development. It is a timely read in the run up to COP 19 in Lima.

Jul 4 2014


Reviewed by Frans Evers, Dutch OECD National Contact Point, Netherlands

Combining land use and water management objectives is the key to sustainable development

Water – its Control and Combination: Multifunctionality and Flood Defences, by Monica Altamirano, Rik Jonker, and Jurgen van der Heijden, Osborne/Deltares, June 2013 (Google the title for free download of the recent English version)

A road on a dyke with sheep on the slope beside it. Can this age-old combination inspire the development of modern flood defenses? Think of dykes producing renewable energy, or serving as nurseries for new plantlife. A good reason to make combinations like these is their sustainability. Three Dutch experts present and analyse a collection of almost thirty examples, mostly from the Netherlands. Although meant as a factual report, this book puts forward a message deserving extra thought.

An area is set aside for water storage to prevent flooding of a nearby city. This area is also a place for nature conservation, water treatment, open city and recreation. Developing and using the same land for multiple purposes saves space, time and money. Yet, however interesting, this isn’t what makes these combination special.

Authorities are used to optimizing each function separately; for instance, creating a basin for water storage as wide and deep as possible at the lowest possible cost. Combining functions sharing can bring the cost down, but what is special is how multiple functionalities can optimize one another. Water storage helps nature, and nature helps water treatment. Such combinations enhance spatial quality, resulting in a better place for recreation. Revenues from recreation can be devoted to nature conservation.

Using one function to optimize others provides a unique economic force that has always been there, but has yet to be fully explored. The authors prove with almost thirty examples that such an approach contributes to sustainable development. This is an inspiring book for water managers who want to go beyond traditional solutions.

Mar 4 2014


Reviewed by Michal Russo, Tufts University

White suggests that planners have a crucial role to play in avoiding or overcoming hydrological disasters in the city.


Water and the City: Risk, Resilience and Planning for a Sustainable Future, by Iain White, Routledge, 2010, 224 pp.

In his brief yet surprisingly comprehensive book White deconstructs risk and resilience from the perspective of spatial planning for water in cities. Central to his argument is a conviction, which he draws from Gilbert White, that hydrological disasters in cities are not ‘acts of god’ or natural events. Rather, they are the result of manufactured risks created by patterns of urbanization. In fact, he goes so far as to say that ‘the historical development of many cities may appear to have almost been designed to maximize the risk of flooding and water scarcity’ (p. 175). The silver lining – since the way we design and plan cities has accentuated flood impacts and water scarcity challenges – is that planning could just as well offer a way out of this situation.

White provides much needed clarity regarding ways of handling risk and enhancing resilience. He emphasizes mitigation and adaptation as the goals of intervention. Mitigation takes a longer view. Hazards might be minimized to support a return to equilibrium. Adaptation entails building capacity to respond to changing conditions in the short run by reducing exposure and vulnerability.

My challenge to White concerns the role he assigns to planners in deciding how to lay out cities to reduce risks. He recognizes the surprisingly stationary nature of the problem (citing philosophers and planners from centuries ago who depict challenges reminiscent of those we face at present). This suggests that we run the risk of returning to old blueprints for new solutions. ‘Risk’, he writes, ‘may not be removed but instead transferred spatially and deferred temporally’ (p. 182). Thus, the challenge of choosing the right intervention strategy requires making decisions in the face of substantial uncertainty and picking winners and losers. Are planners up to these tasks? It might make more sense for planners to take the lead in organizing collaborative efforts to manage collective risks.

Mar 4 2014

A JOURNEY IN THE FUTURE OF WATER, by Terje Tvedt (translation by Richard Daly)

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma, Development Analyst and Columnist, New Delhi, India

Water binds together the past and the future and helps explain our evolution as a species.


A Journey in the Future of Water, by Terje Tvedt (translation by Richard Daly), I. B. Tauris, 2013, 262 pp.

Marked by huge amounts of waste and competing demands, the supply of water is presumed to be the precursor to a probable third world war.  Situations with respect to water sharing come perilously close to what Mark Twain once said: ‘Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.’ It seems the universal fluid that will shape humanity’s future could be soaked with blood.

Not deterred by threatening changes in the global climate that may accelerate glacial melting and transform water flows in major river basins, Terje Tvedt portrays an optimistic picture of humanity’s water future after traveling through some of the most amazing locations across five continents. With a professional background in geography, history and political science, the author offers multiple perspectives for the reader to choose from. While Tvedt is forthright in saying that ‘howsoever grandiose attempts to manage water may be, water does not allow itself to be completely controlled’, he is equally candid in concluding that ‘qualified technological optimism is the only optimism that endures.’

He organizes his immensely readable narrative on water into three distinct sections: the impact of ‘water blindness’ across countries; the implications of ‘water control’ in contested river basins; and the power of science and technology to usher in a bright ‘water future’. Tvedt avoids taking an ideological position as to whether the glass is half full or half empty, instead leaving it to the reader to make an objective assessment of impending water crises. However the world responds to these imminent crises, water fundamentally binds together the past and the future and points to the continuity of our evolution as a species.

A Journey in the Future of Water suggests that the new age of uncertainty will have a dramatic impact on water landscapes. Not only are water conflicts likely to escalate, but control over water will be in the hands of those possessing technological and economic power. The temptation to use this power in despotic ways is unlikely to disappear. So, we need binding international laws and regulations backed by resource-endowed international institutions to ensure that human and ecological rights to water are met.

Although this book was originally published in Norwegian in 2007, the English translation by Richard Daly is refreshingly original. More than a travelogue, it is an authoritative treatise on water that makes for compelling reading. It is one book that I intend to keep close at hand. I will use it as a ready reckoner of exotic places should an opportunity arise for me to undertake such interesting travels. If I sound envious of Terje Tvedt, so be it. He has helped me to learn a great deal about water issues.


Jan 30 2014

WATER SECURITY: PRINCIPLES, PERSPECTIVES AND PRACTICES, Edited by Bruce Lankford, Karen Bakker, Mark Zeitoun and Declan Conway

Reviewed by Lawrence Susskind, MIT

Experts present an overview of the latest research, policies, and various perspectives on water security.


Water Security: Principles, Perspectives and Practices, Edited by Bruce Lankford, Karen Bakker, Mark Zeitoun and Declan Conway, Routledge, 2013, 376 pp.

Water security requires much more than just an adequate supply of clean fresh water. Relationships with neighboring countries who use shared water resources also matter. So, too, do national policies regarding water conservation, agriculture and food production, flood protection, energy, climate adaptation, patterns of urbanization and investments in infrastructure and water quality improvement technology. To ensure water security, each country must find a way to monitor all these interactions and develop strategies to reconcile the many conflicts involved.

Lankford, Bakker, Zeitoun and Conway have put together the best collection on the subject of water security I’ve ever read. They explain why economic instruments (especially pricing) and international law (particularly “rights frameworks”) are relevant but not decisive, with regard to a country’s water security. Water sharing arrangements, or “water co-security” as the editors call it, are even more important. Thus, “winning” the water wars with adjacent users of transboundary waters (by wresting control) will not guarantee water security. Only helping to ensure mutual sufficiency and equity can accomplish that.

The transition from water co-insecurity to water co-security requires political intervention (or what the editors call “water security governance”), along with investments in new technology and internal harmonization of sectoral policies in each country. These transitions will obviously play out differently in each region (in the face of varying supplies of blue, green and virtual water), but once you read this book the underlying dynamics will be clear.

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