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.


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).


Parse error: syntax error, unexpected 'endif' (T_ENDIF) in /home/anthempr/public_html/anthemenviroexperts.com/wp-content/themes/elegant-grunge/footer.php on line 14