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.”


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