Sep 1 2020

Water Futures of India: Status of Science and Technology

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

What are the water futures of India in the hands of an archaic water sector, predominantly under government control, and afflicted by a business-as-usual approach?

Water Futures of India

Water Futures of India, edited by P. P. Majumdar and V. M. Tiwari, IISc Press, Bengaluru, 481 pp.

Cape Town achieved Day Zero not too long ago, sending alarm bells across the world to set in order its water management system. Despite being clear that improved water management requires better coordination between demand and supply while keeping a close tab on the source, water scarcity continues to haunt human habitations like never before.  With the depth of groundwater having slumped 93.7% during the last decade, and with most water bodies exploited due to unrestricted and uncontrolled development, Bengaluru continues to be in the race for such a dubious distinction after Cape Town to achieve its own Day Zero. 

Water Futures of India, initiated by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), and supported by two projects at the Inter-Disciplinary Centre for Water Research (ICWaR), includes chapters written by eminent scientists and engineers engaged in water research and practice bringing to light the status of water science and technology dealing with the current water crisis. From water trapped in deep aquifers to that locked in glaciers, and from surface water to that in the atmosphere, the science and technology of understanding water in its different forms and settings has grown in leaps and bounds. Seemingly, science is now able to account for each drop of water as it moves through the different consumptive systems. Paradoxically, however, the more is known about the universal solvent and its source and flow dynamics, the less is known at the systems’ command to resurrect the elixir of life to its pristine glory.  

Covering subjects ranging from groundwater hydraulics, glacier hydrology, desalinization technologies, sediment dynamics, and isotope hydrology, the authors suggest several new tools and techniques to address geophysical complexities within the limited experimental domains. The comprehensive list of scientific challenges raised in the opening chapter, however, remain mostly unaddressed. The book broadly acknowledges gaps in connecting cutting-edge science to policy and practice, but none of the contributions break free from the confines that public-funded science and technology has come to be identified with.
Water Futures in India raises questions about the directions and relevance of public-funded research on a subject as critical as water. Why it remains at a distance from addressing societal problems? Why scientific research does not influence policy? Why communicating science with other stakeholders remains limited? While technological developments are urgently needed to improve efficiency of water use across sectors, it needs to be underpinned by a strong policy response to ensure its effectiveness.    

Part of the problem lies in the water sector being archaic, predominantly under government control, and afflicted by a business-as-usual approach. Consequently, it lacks progressive vision and suffers from a weak adoption of innovative techniques. Given the fact that there is no formal science policy interface that encourages applied research with the aim of adopting science to improve sector performance, much of the high-end research is restricted to only research journals. 

Water Futures of India falls short. It is an assortment of randomly selected papers which does not measure up to the expectations one ought to have of such a book. Given the fact that not all science produced in the country is applicable on the ground, the book could have been better designed to position the contents against a futuristic framework. Nonetheless, it is an ambitious undertaking with a limited shelf life.       


Jul 17 2018

The Shale Dilemma: A Global Perspective on Fracking and Shale Development

Reviewed by Priyanka de Souza, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How and why have individual countries with shale resources chosen different paths to shale development, and what can we learn from these divergent paths?


edited by Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, The Shale Dilemma: A Global Perspective on Fracking and Shale Development, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018, 472 pp. 

The explosive rise of the shale industry in the United States since the early 2000s has sparked widespread consideration of shale as an energy source by other countries. Although much can be learned from the United States experience, the benefits and costs of shale production are still subject to large uncertainties (i.e., their likely environmental and health impacts) in every country. These uncertainties have prompted highly politicized debates about whether to proceed with shale production, and if so, how.

The Shale Dilemma, edited by Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, arrives at an opportune moment. It provides a framework that puts these debates in context and makes clear why different countries have chosen the shale development path they have. It applies this framework to the development of shale in the United States and seven other countries: the United Kingdom, Poland, France, Germany, China, Argentina and South Africa.

Decisions about shale development reflect the national characteristics in each country––China and Argentina are small producers of shale; Poland and the UK have undertaken some shale exploration; France has enacted a ban on high-volume hydraulic fracturing; Germany has imposed a moratorium on shale production; and South Africa is assessing permit applications for shale exploration. By comparing such vastly different countries, the authors are able to make a range of cross-cutting observations about the factors that influence the path of shale development. They also offer recommendations for how such pathways can be improved.

The Shale Dilemma begins with the claim that the overall framing of the “shale puzzle” in the public discourse in each country is determined by national energy priorities, including goals for energy security. The authors argue that decision-making processes in each country determine how regulatory trade-offs are made regarding the allocation of spatialized costs and benefits.

Over two chapters the book then talks about the mixed fortunes of shale development in the United States, capturing its recent experience of a downturn in shale production and laying bare important considerations that other countries just starting to think about shale development may want to consider. These chapters are followed by individual chapters on the development of shale in the other seven countries. They use a common structure to aid in their comparative analysis.

Each case study has been written by a researcher with experience in the energy industry in their country. However, by trying to apply a common comparative framework, some of the overall conclusions in the last chapter are necessarily presented in broad brush strokes. Recommendations such as the desirability of more public participation are offered without much detail regarding the best way of doing this. Nevertheless, the comparison of differing regulatory practices, as well as how enforcement is carried out in each context, is very useful in highlighting specific actions that might be taken to mitigate the costs of development.

The comparative framework is heavily centered on the experiences of the United States. The history of land use disputes in the Karoo region in South Africa as well as the historic use of land by indigenous communities in Argentina are important factors that could also feed into the development of shale in these countries. A specific comparison between these two paths of development with an in-depth piece on the modes of resistance used in these two areas would have been very illuminating.

The Shale Dilemma, in a nutshell, is a fascinating and illuminating read about the state of the global shale industry, as well as a timely reminder of the importance of continuing to focus on strengthening regulations to mitigate costs and making the process of shale development more inclusive.

Mar 27 2015


Reviewed by Michal Russo, Tufts University

Legitimization of knowledge production occupies the central story of landscape planning in Berlin.

9780262018593_0 copyGreening Berlin: The Co-Production of Science, Politics and Urban Nature, by Jens Lachmund, MIT Press, 2013

Lachmund’s Greening Berlin offers a rich and historically-exceptional case study to aid scholars in understanding the meaning of “co-producing knowledge,” “boundary objects” and “alternative framing.” Lachmund’s writing can be a bit dense with academic jargon, but the narrative has importance far beyond the field of urban ecology. In the concluding chapter, Lachmund says that “to resolve environmental conflicts what is needed is not just a proliferation of more knowledge,” but “public reflection on how we know what we know.” Such knowledge, he adds, is “not self-evident, but is shaped and negotiated in situated regimes of nature” (236). This legitimization of knowledge production occupies the central story of nearly a century of landscape planning in Berlin. Dates, names, and events comprise the behind-the-scenes story of why certain policies and actions were chosen over others.

Lachmund describes the many tensions that arose in protecting Berlin’s natural areas, echoing Hajer’s sentiment that “public environmental discourses should be seen as assemblages of heterogeneous voices and motives whose intrinsic ambivalence persists under the umbrella of seemingly coherent story lines” (224). These differences result in “compensatory conflicts,” or differences in priorities and tradeoffs across impacts and their interpretations (when assessing ecological knowledge). Lachmund’s protagonists struggle to determine what should count as nature, its value and its function.

Lachmund explains that the conditions surrounding knowledge production in Berlin differed considerably from academic fieldwork. The very practices of observation were reshaped to accommodate issues of evaluation, operationalization, and standardization of institutional and political structures. Far from neutral technical input, ecological knowledge used to resolve compensatory conflicts was up for re-interpretation by interested parties. Lachmund asserts that the city’s ecological surveys took the form of boundary objects, reshaping both the scientific method for assessing ecology in the city as well as how environmental issues were framed and engaged with by citizens. Ultimately, he attributes the success of the program to the “co-production of an urban nature regime which exceeded the formal boundaries of science” through a “mutually constitutive interaction of knowledge generation and politics of species preservation.”

Jul 4 2014


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

Replacing costly minerals with cheaper ones is the key to sustainable mining


Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet, by Ugo Bardi, Chelsea Green Publishers, 2014

The Club of Rome shot to fame with publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972. This report on the future of mankind not only triggered a hot debate, but degenerated in all-out smear campaign. By the time its critics had had their say, the public perception of the report was that it offered nothing more than a series of wrongheaded predictions made by a group of deluded scientists. So much so, subsequent reports by this global think tank have not merited much attention.

Extracted is the latest report from this elite club. Had The Limits to Growth attained popularity, the title of this report could easily have been The Limits to Extraction. Digging out the history of mining, from prehistoric times to the modern age, the report suggests that mankind has extracted most of the cheap mineral resources available while plundering of the earth’s ecosystems and displacing millions of people. Mining is one of the largest global industries, but the gradual depletion of low-cost minerals, including fossil fuels, is fast becoming a major limitation to economic growth. Since high-grade ores are extracted first, it will become much more expensive to produce mineral commodities in future. Given the growing demand for precious metals and rare earths, however, a resource war is likely to emerge among countries that hold quasi-monopolies over certain mineral deposits.

The political economy of mining makes it an important growth engine for most countries. China has 97 per cent of all active rare earths, including exclusive deposits of molybdenum. South Africa holds 82 per cent of global platinum. China leads countries like Chile, Australia and Argentina in global copper output. Tibet has become the new mining focus for China. Under a new regime, India intends to go full throttle into mineral extraction.

Extracted is written by a team of experts, headed by Italian scientist Ugo Bardi. The report says that deposits of many high-grade ores are running low: copper, zinc, nickel, gold, silver and others are expected to reach their productive peak within less than two decades. Not only will this affect our lifestyles, but it may cause agriculture production to decline as well. By the time the world wakes up to the full impact of mining (including oil and gas), the lasting impacts may be impossible to reverse.

The solution, says Bardi, is to replace costly minerals with cheaper ones; recycle as much as possible, and generate energy through renewable energy sources such as sun, wind and water. He and his colleagues believe that mining machines and drilling rigs will disappear without a corresponding decline in the demand for minerals.

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.