Mar 5 2019

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile Basin

Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

An impressively cohesive multidisciplinary overview of the opportunities and challenges associated with Africa’s largest dam.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile Basin

edited by Zeray Yihdego, Alistair Rieu-Clarke and Ana Elise Cascão, The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile Basin, Earthscan, 2018, 224 pp.

In 2011, Ethiopia announced plans to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile, one of the two main tributaries of the Nile River. Once complete, this hydroelectric dam will be the largest in Africa. The news was met with alarm from Sudan and Egypt, the two countries immediately downstream, which rely heavily on the Nile. Over the past seven years, the three countries (Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan) have been engaged in negotiations in an effort to meet their individual and collective interests while mitigating potential risks. As is the case with most transboundary problems, the issues are complex and without simple solutions. Rarely do you see this type of complexity adequately described.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile Basin, however, is unique in successfully presenting this kind of complexity from multidisciplinary lenses in a cohesive way. Each chapter is (co-)authored by scholars who are actively engaged in the Nile River Basin or in transboundary water management and are experts in their respective fields. Presumably by design, the arc of the book flows seamlessly from describing the historical legal context (Chapters 2, 3 and 4) into the current sociopolitical context (Chapters 5 and 6), before switching to a future-oriented view of the potential economic impacts of the dam (Chapters 7 and 8) and options for the filling and operation of the dam (Chapters 9 and 10).

Remarkably, despite switching from one disciplinary lens to another, the authors manage to maintain a fairly consistent set of messages. The introductory chapter outlines eight major themes of the book, but three are particularly important. First, the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the resulting engagement of the three Eastern Nile countries represents a significant shift in the hydro-politics of the Basin. One shortcoming of the book in this regard is that it nearly unequivocally supports the dam and the upstream countries in challenging the “status quo” of water use in the Nile Basin. This is problematic because the advocacy varies in strength from chapter to chapter, without ever being explicitly addressed or explained. The analysis may seem one-sided to anyone unfamiliar with Nile Basin dynamics, especially as described in the first half of the book.

Second, the book emphasizes the potential benefits that each country stands to gain from the operation of the GERD. These benefits are described from multidisciplinary lenses: e.g., more equitable water use throughout the basin (law); enhanced regional cooperation (politics); catalyst for regional economic growth (economics); and improved water management functions along the Blue Nile (hydrology). Relatedly, the third message of the book is the urgent need for continued cooperation. The GERD has been politicized, arguably by all three countries of the Eastern Nile (and by many others), and is often characterized as a source of conflict. This book challenges that framing by emphasizing the potential gains that can be realized through cooperation.

With a little more work, perhaps in the introduction, the editors could have contextualized the story a bit more. Also, in ending with a chapter on managing risks (rather than a proper conclusion), they missed a valuable opportunity to clearly enumerate the “implications for transboundary water cooperation” (as suggested in the book’s subtitle). Finally, they could have explained more explicitly why an interdisciplinary approach to analyzing such complex problems is so challenging, rare, invaluable and increasingly necessary.

This is an excellent book for anyone interested in Nile Basin developments because it presents the current challenges, potential opportunities and issues that need to be resolved before the GERD becomes operational.

Feb 1 2018

Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience

Reviewed by Jungwoo Chun, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Could it be that governance is more important than reliance on either greener technology or reductions in the scale of resource utilization in achieving urban sustainability and enhanced resilience?


by Jeroen van der Heijden, Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2014, 229 pp.

There is no doubt that cities could do less harm to the natural environment and use resources more efficiently. Employing “greener” technologies or simply using fewer resources are often cited as solutions––albeit partial––to the environmental challenges that cities face and, in some cases, cause. Van der Heijden suggests that getting governance right may be more important than introducing new technology or using fewer resources. Drawing from about 500 interviews and examining close to 70 real-life governance tools from around the world, this book offers a unique insight into how various governance tools can help cities achieve sustainability and resilience in the face of natural disasters.

Chapter 1 gives a sense of what urban sustainability and resilience mean to practitioners and academics, and explains how governance relates to each concept. Chapter 2 examines the most common approach to governance—direct regulatory intervention––and the tools it relies on, such as statutory regulation, direct subsidies and the application of economic instruments. Chapter 3 explores collaborative efforts by government, businesses and civil society to work together using tools such as networks, negotiated agreements and covenants. Chapter 4 focuses on voluntary programs and market-driven governance tools such as green leasing, private regulation and innovative financing. Chapter 5 discusses five governance trends and their contribution to achieving urban sustainability and resilience. It analyzes real-life examples, especially the prominent role that governments play in promoting the most innovative forms of governance. Chapter 6 concludes with suggestions regarding the choice of governance strategies for sustainability and resilience, building on the ideas explored in Chapters 2–5.

While not suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach to enhancing sustainability and resilience, Governance for Urban Sustainability and Resilience clearly shows that there are windows of opportunities for every city government to shift to more innovative governance tools. This book is particularly useful for those seeking a broad understanding of existing governance tools associated with efforts to enhance urban sustainability and resilience.


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.

Jan 11 2017

Consensus and Global Environmental Governance: Deliberative Democracy in Nature’s Regime

Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 An engaging argument for pursuing ecologically sustainable and democratically legitimate earth systems governance through democratic deliberation.

 Consensus and Global Environmental Governance


by Walter F. Baber and Robert V. Bartlett Consensus and Global Environmental Governance: Deliberative Democracy in Nature’s Regime, MIT Press, 2015, 272 pp

Consensus and Global Environmental Governance: Deliberative Democracy in Nature’s Regime is part of the MIT Press Earth System Governance book series. The series identifies normative discourses about global environmental governance. Following Deliberative Environmental Politics (2005) and Global Democracy and Sustainable Jurisprudence (2009), Baber and Bartlett’s third book examines the application of deliberative democratic theory to the practice of environmental politics. In Global Democracy and Sustainable Jurisprudence the authors argued that the democratic deficit and inefficacy of international environmental law can be addressed through a system of juristic democracy. In this system, environmental law backed by nation-states would be replaced by global common law derived from the rulings of numerous global citizen juries on hypothetical legal cases. Consensus and Global Environmental Governance highlights the practical difficulties and implications of using a deliberative approach to consensus-building.

Baber and Bartlett present convincing arguments regarding the merits of a more democratic process of global environmental policymaking in the first half of the book (Ch. 1–5). Chief among these are that a more democratic process would (i) ensure public support and stronger political will (something that has been missing from past negotiated climate agreements), (ii) lead to a much-needed shift in values and (iii) ensure more environmentally just outcomes. They point to several conditions that must be met for rules to be effective (Ch. 1) and advocate for deliberative techniques (such as juristic deliberation) to ensure “ecologically sustainable and democratically legitimate environmental governance” (Ch. 2). International law and negotiations, they argue, have been ineffective due to poor implementation and regulation marked by a democratic deficit (Ch. 3).

Baber and Bartlett anchor themselves squarely on the side of deliberative democracy in the broader academic debate. They address common criticisms: deliberation may (i) push conflict aside rather than resolve it; (ii) exacerbate existing inequalities and lead to unfair outcomes; (iii) discriminate against political perspectives held by minorities; (iv) be overly technical in nature, thereby inadvertently excluding historically disadvantaged groups; and (v) fail to affect policymaking, thereby further disenfranchising politically marginalized groups (Ch. 4). Like other deliberative democracy advocates, they respond to these complaints by emphasizing the importance of the design and implementation of the process of deliberation and by countering with a critique of the alternative (i.e., aggregative democracy).

The obvious challenge of a deliberative approach to international policymaking is that it becomes unwieldy. Baber and Bartlett propose a system of juristic deliberation in which citizen juries from around the world would be convened to adjudicate hypothetical environmental disputes. When transnational consensus is reached on a specific issue, the results of the deliberation would then be made available to “international tribunals for citation as a general principle of law in support of their resolution of specific environmental disputes” (p. 168). In this way, they argue, we would gain more insight into shared global values and identify similar approaches to disputes across cultures. In theory, this should enable policymakers to develop a new system of environmental policies built on normative consensus.

The authors use research on trial juries to support their call for citizen juries (Ch. 6), continue to develop their vision of juristic democracy in the second half of the book (Ch. 7–9) and conclude with a defense against charges that consensus may not be possible or desirable (Ch. 10). The book includes an example case (Appendix B) of a hypothetical water-warming dispute between three countries (Arroya, Panterra and Meerland). Baber and Bartlett describe the results of testing this case with twelve citizen panels from the United States, Germany, Russia, Sweden and the United Kingdom (Appendix A).

Their overarching argument is that democratic deliberation can be used at every step of global environmental governance and policymaking to build and identify normative, political and social consensus. Juristic deliberation can be used to spot “widely supported normative principles and general propositions of law” (i.e., normative consensus), whereas classic deliberative techniques (e.g., deliberative polling, consensus conferences, planning cells, etc.) can only be used to engage the public in choosing among alternative policy paradigms (i.e., identify political consensus). In the final step, policies are implemented through stakeholder partnerships to help ensure social consensus.

Although Baber and Bartlett argue persuasively that deliberative democracy has the potential to increase the political legitimacy of environmental governance and lead to more ecologically sustainable policies, the real challenge lies in convincing nation-states that the costs (including the political costs) associated with such deep engagement with the public will be offset in the long run.

Oct 8 2016

Water and the Law: Towards Sustainability. The IUCN Academy of Environmental Law Series

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 An edited collection examining the interlinkages between law and sustainable water management

Water and the law


Edited by Michael Kidd, Loretta Feris, Tumai Murombo and Alejandro Iza Water and the Law: Towards Sustainability. The IUCN Academy of Environmental Law Series, Edward Elgar, 2014, 416 pp.

Water resources are increasingly threatened in many parts of the world due to mismanagement, overuse and climate change. To help address the global water crisis, Water and the Law explores the multifaceted connections between legal instruments and sustainable water management. The fifteen chapters of this edited volume are partly the result of a colloquium held in South Africa in 2011 by the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law. They are framed around two central questions: How can law contribute to the sustainability of water itself? And how can legal regulation of water contribute to the sustainability of human life and biodiversity?

To analyze these questions, the book proceeds in three parts. The first focuses on international and transboundary water law. It discusses the evolution of transboundary water cooperation within the international system of state sovereignty, and reviews a number of global and regional instruments for the governance of surface water and groundwater, such as the UN Watercourses Convention, the UNECE Water Convention, the SADC Revised Protocol on Shared Watercourses, and the International Law Commission’s draft articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers. The book’s emphasis lies in the second part, which focuses on domestic water governance and integrated water resources management in various national jurisdictions, including Australia, Brazil, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and South Africa. Two final chapters in the third part examine the right of access to water, highlighting issues such as the heterogeneity of the right in developed versus developing countries, water pricing and social justice, and indigenous struggles for water rights.

As stated in the book’s introduction, some of the chapters are reprints of previously published material. Lengthy reiterations of legal documents in several chapters could also be shortened for the benefit of originality and analytical focus. Furthermore, the book’s overall purpose could be even more ambitious, going beyond raising “most of the important questions” and providing “food for thought and further investigation” (p. 9). Nevertheless, the book displays much strength, including the attention devoted to climate change, and the illustration of complex concepts and regimes by means of case studies (for example, from the Nile and the Murray-Darling basins). Taken together, this edited collection thus provides an important resource for better understanding and harnessing the potential of law in achieving sustainable water resources management.