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.       


Jun 1 2020

Limits to Climate Change Adaptation

Reviewed by Michael Raleigh and Dr. Kelly Dunning, Conservation Governance Lab, Auburn School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences

What are the biophysical, sociocultural, and economic limits that are emerging or have emerged in areas most vulnerable to climate change?

Limits to Climate Change Adaptation


Limits to Climate Change Adaptation, edited by Walter Leal Filho and Johanna Nalau, Springer International Publishing, 2018, 410 pp

Research on climate change adaptation has grown over the past decade as global responses have shifted from avoidance seeking to risk management. Discussions of adaptation inherently involve limits or points at which objectives cannot be met due to increasing risk from a changing climate. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report defined limits as biophysical, sociocultural, and economic. The editors note the IPCC’s call for further research into types of limits and have responded by examining limits on a regional scale. The purpose of their book is to explore limits that are emerging or have emerged in areas most vulnerable to climate change.

The book is divided into four sections, each focusing on a specific region: Asia, Africa, Australia, North America, and Europe, and the Pacific region of small island states. The regional focus makes it easier for researchers to find material relevant to their own work. Chapters of particular interest include an interdisciplinary analysis of limits to adaptation within Zimbabwe (6) and perceived limits within the pastoral communities in the Sahel (7).

A novel conceptualization of psychological limits takes the definition beyond environmental and into the realm of socially constructed risks (12), and analysis within small island developing states brings awareness to the interdisciplinary nature of limits (15). The last section is particularly crucial and emphasizes current, ongoing limits to adaptation within highly vulnerable Pacific island-states and atolls. Each chapter succeeds in broadening the IPCC’s definition and recognizes the complex factors comprising limits to adaptation. The broadly regional organization of the book suggests that limits can be defined on large scales; however, there are strong cultural differences between countries within each defined region that undoubtedly impact limits. The organization of the book would have benefited from a narrowing of scope (i.e., Southeast Asia, Central Africa) to prevent overgeneralization. Organization aside, the book far exceeds the IPCC’s call for a broader definition of limits. Filho and Nalau have presented a guidepost illuminating limits to adaptation in the most vulnerable parts of our world. The book is at its best when it makes regional climate adaptation science almost visceral. The imagery of the loss of cattle in pastoralist communities in a rainstorm brings the regional focus to a very human scale, evoking an earnest emotional response in the reader and conveying the seriousness of the climate crisis.

Jul 23 2019

Environmental Governance through Partnerships: A Discourse Theoretical Study

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Do transnational partnerships for sustainability live up to their hype?

Environmental Governance through Partnerships


Environmental Governance through Partnerships: A Discourse Theoretical Study, by Ayşem Mert, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015, 263 pp

While transnational partnerships are now the norm in global politics and governance, contemporary scholarship often takes partnerships for granted, failing to question the mechanics that underpin them or the degree to which they are shaped by complex organizational dynamics. Having studied the underlying mechanics of partnerships within and outside the United Nations system, Ayşem Mert takes a step back from the contemporary discourse on transnational partnerships and explores why they work and how they have come to be.

This book is interesting because it explores some of the fundamental puzzles at the heart of transnational partnerships, searching for their historical meaning. By analyzing historical discourses, Mert skillfully ties key observations about their origins to the structure and function of current sustainable development partnerships. Issues such as the accountability of partners to each other and the requirements of true participation are examples of these puzzles.

First, Mert sets the stage (in Chapters 2–4), outlining the study’s theoretical grounds and scope. Next, to unpack partnerships and extract their meaningful lessons (for environmental governance in particular), she compares partnerships with privatization (Chapter 5) as they relate to sustainable development (Chapter 6) and in light of the participation of non-state actors (Chapter 7). For example, Mert considers the limited legal liabilities of partners working to advance environmental governance.

While she is critical of the discourse of participation in partnerships, alluding to the inauthenticity of many community involvement efforts or the fantasies of those who imagine that meaningful participation in the UN system is possible, the connection between partnerships and the success of sustainable development efforts is less obvious. Specifically, the concept of sustainable development has evolved repeatedly, but the nature and importance of partnerships in achieving sustainable development is not well understood.

Environmental Governance through Partnerships is less about explaining how existing sustainable development partnerships in the global system are working and more about trying to understand what they could accomplish. Mert concludes by outlining the most important building blocks of desirable partnerships.

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.

Negociating for water_SendInBlue


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.

Apr 10 2017

American Environmental Policy: The Failures of Compliance, Abatement and Mitigation

Reviewed by Elise Harrington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Maybe the focus of US environmental policy on compliance, abatement and mitigation has been a mistake. 

American Environment_SendInBlue


by Daniel Press American Environmental Policy: The Failures of Compliance, Abatement and MitigationEdward Elgar Publishing, 2015, 224 pp

In American Environmental Policy Daniel Press, professor of environmental studies at University of California, Santa Cruz, contests the “widespread acclaim” for US environmental regulation, challenging policymakers and policy analysts to “re-think our objectives for environmental regulation.” Focusing on policy tools and outcomes, Press asks a set of basic, but fundamental, questions: has American environmental policy performed as well as policy in comparable countries? Were the most appropriate policy instruments used and were they implemented correctly? Has environmental regulation transformed patterns of production and consumption?

Press substantiates his argument with previous literature, personal experience as a member of California’s Central Coast Regional Water Quality Board (chapter 4) and descriptive data on US Toxic Release Inventory (chapter 2), emissions factors (chapter 2), SOx emissions (chapter 3), critical load exceedances (chapter 3), paper recovery rates, and related paper shipping and transport statistics (chapter 5). Each chapter illustrates the complexity of implementing environmental policies and opportunities for policy reform. Key areas of improvement include policies that focus more on environmental and public health outcomes, collecting high-quality information and providing incentives for continual improvement.

Press’s critique identifies the failures of the “compliance-abatement-mitigation” approach to environmental policy that dominates US regulatory design. Press claims that this approach does not radically challenge accepted modes of land-use, energy production, manufacturing, construction or transportation, but rather emphasizes pollutant containment and reductions primarily from serious offenders. Thus, US environmental policy tends to “focus on compliance and technology rather than performance” and does not account for growth in the number of polluting sources for end-of-pipe regulations, fails to link policy outputs to outcomes, and provides insufficient incentives to transform manufacturing and industrial processes. Examining successes and failures across the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, Press abstracts lessons learned from successful examples such as the Acid Rain Program’s real-time emissions monitoring, local experimentation with low impact development and effective marketing for recovered paper manufacturing.

Press recognizes that politics play an important role in environmental policymaking (chapter 6), but aside from citing successful examples of local and state “extended producer responsibility” rules he does not discuss how to overcome resistance to change the status quo, what he terms “political or ideological obstruction.” References to political polarization suggest that future work on regulatory design and policy tools must be linked to studies of environmental politics in order to propose “effective, parsimonious, precautionary and participatory environmental regulations.” Following Press’s discussion of regulatory failure and reform in US environmental policy, readers are positioned to further study the role of technology and information in environmental regulatory design.