Feb 1 2018

Water Governance and Collective Action: Multi-scale Challenges

Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How, if at all, can local residents challenge the commodification of nature and reshape water governance to achieve fairer and more just outcomes? Sometimes this can be accomplished through collective action and by building strategic coalitions involving a range of actors at multiple scales.


edited by Diana Suhardiman, Alan Nicol and Everisto Mapedza, Water Governance and Collective Action: Multi-scale Challenges, Earthscan, 2017, 187 pp.

In Water Governance and Collective Action, editors Suhardiman, Nicol and Mapedza argue that globalization and the “dominant neoliberal development agenda” have led to a commodification of natural resources that allows local communities very little agency over the governance of their own resources. How can these weakened communities shape national and transnational water policy in ways that will achieve more sustainable and just outcomes? Sometimes, they suggest, this can be accomplished through collective action.

The authors argue that conventional approaches to identifying factors that lead to collective action (e.g., Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis Development framework) are a good start, but that power also needs to be taken into consideration. Their central argument relies on the Foucauldian understanding of power (i.e., that power is diffuse and constantly in flux), rather than the international relations understanding of hegemony (i.e., that one state “holds” power). While power differences (e.g., between a company siting a dam and the community that will be displaced if the dam is built) will invariably present obstacles to achieving equitable outcomes, the book suggests that local-level communities can sometimes “balance” the playing field through strategic alliances, or by connecting to actors at different scales (e.g., transnational NGOs with overlapping mandates, empathetic politicians, etc.)––in the language of negotiation, through “coalition building.”

The editors pose three questions that reflect the inherent difficulty of governing a resource that crosses multiple scales: “How is collective action shaped by existing power structures and relationships at different scales? What are the kinds of tools and approaches that various actors can take and adopt to achieve more deliberative processes for collective action? What are the anticipated outcomes for the development processes, the environment and the global resource base of achieving collective action across multiple scales?”

They attempt to address these questions by drawing on 13 case studies of collective action from around the world but, as is the case with most books written by multiple authors, there is very little consistency in how well each chapter or case study explicitly addresses these questions. The Introduction briefly summarizes how each case ties to the central argument, and the Conclusion briefly responds to the core questions. The cases themselves, though, move in different directions.

Of the discussions concerning the three questions, the second (i.e., that of tools and approaches to more deliberative processes) is the least developed. This positions the book as an extension of an academic debate rather than as a guide for local communities. That said, the overall argument that “less powerful actors” such as “NGOs, local government agencies and civil society groups” (p. 179) have an opportunity to shape how natural resources are used and governed through collective action achieved by developing strategic alliances with actors at different scales is compelling.  The same is true of the editors’ call to pay attention to “how development decisions are made, based on what rationale and representing whose interests” (p. 178) to identify ways of influencing policy and institutional change.

Water Governance and Collective Action repeatedly emphasizes the importance of achieving more sustainable and just outcomes in water governance, and carefully balances optimism about the potential for change through collective action with a recognition that the political arena may not always be conducive to change in the status quo. Its call to focus on institutions in analyzing water governance is a promising extension of the state-dominated focus of the “hydro-hegemony” debate because it explicitly recognizes the potential power of local actors and collective action. Arguably, the editors may have chosen only cases that support their argument, but the diversity of cases will nonetheless be of interest to scholars of water governance.


Feb 1 2018

Clouds: Nature and Culture

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

To be on cloud nine!


by Richard Hamblyn, Clouds: Nature and Culture, Reaktion Books, 2017, 240 pp.

From the realm of literature and arts to the domain of astronomy and science, clouds have emerged from a muddle of uncertainty into the world of scientific certainty in the context of climate change. Capturing their picturesque journey from “an ultimate art gallery above” in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson to the “center of digital life below” as propounded by Steve Jobs, Richard Hamblyn provides a multifaceted narrative about nature’s most versatile creation. Packed with colorful pictures, Clouds could easily be the most comprehensive and authoritative text on the subject to date.

Hamblyn, an English lecturer at the University of London, has attained undisputed mastery of the subject, having already published two other books on clouds–– The Cloud Book and Invention of Clouds. While the first captures everything to do with the origin and development of clouds, the second is a cultural excavation of our understanding of the science of clouds. In this third book, Hamblyn has brought clouds down to earth and unveiled some of their mystery. Throughout human history, attempts to understand clouds and their behavior has been a subject of delight and fascination, offering limitless opportunities for creative contemplation.

Clouds is a magnificent collection of these stories – from their wooly journey through art, literature, music and photography to their sinister manipulation for military use and anthropogenic modification. (Failed) American attempts at precipitating flash floods during the Vietnam War are part of the legend. Such secret military efforts have invoked widespread prompting by the international community to declare clouds as “a resource that belongs to no one.” Legal remedies for appropriating clouds through artificial seeding may be needed as competition over access to rainwater escalates.

Science is only beginning to understand the role that clouds play in shaping future conditions on earth––a warm atmosphere may reorganize the day-to-day behavior of clouds in ways that could either amplify or mitigate climate change. The trouble, warns Hamblyn, is that clouds have a habit of behaving in complex and surprising ways. The fact that our warming climate is producing ever more lightning strikes is one of many such surprises. Each 1 degree rise in temperature increases lightning activity by around 12 per cent. Will clouds turn out to be agents of global warming or will they end up saving the day by reflecting ever more sunlight back into space?

Clouds challenge human intelligence. Philosophers like Aristophanes have long professed that “from clouds come our intelligence, our dialectic and our reason; also, our speculative genius and all our argumentative talents.” Wondering if clouds were objects or phenomena or processes, Leonardo da Vinci described them as formless triggers of visual invention, their fleeting magnificence and endless variability providing food for thought for scientists and daydreamers alike. Our current predicament with clouds is taking us back in time to reimagine and reunderstand them. There may be clues in art and literature to help us make a fresh beginning!

Hamblyn contends that the law of unintended consequences needs to be kept in mind when embarking on geo-engineering projects aimed at tampering with the atmosphere and with clouds. Clouds are too sensitive not to be taken into account in such anthropogenic adventures, he cautions. In short, there is no way of knowing what will happen to our rapidly changing atmosphere.  Just as in centuries past, when clouds were employed as ready metaphors of doubt and uncertainty, it looks as if they will continue to be so for centuries to come.

The crucial issue is that life without clouds would not be physically possible. Far from just being a source of water, they have a larger role to play in keeping the earth hospitable for living beings. Clouds provides insights into the history and science of clouds, and offers guidance regarding the sensitive handling of the woolly product/process hovering between the sky and earth. Colorfully illustrated, this is the ultimate guide to the past, present and future of clouds.

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.

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.

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