Sep 1 2020

Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflict, Cooperation, and Institution-Building in Shared River Basins

Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

How and why does water conflict and cooperation play out at the subnational scale?

 

Subnational Hydropolitics

 

Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflict, Cooperation and Institution Building in Shared River Basins, by Scott M. Moore, Oxford University Press, 2018, 270 pp.

How and why does water conflict and cooperation play out at the subnational scale? While the scholarly consensus places riparian geography (upstream vs. downstream) or scarcity as the primary drivers of water conflict, Moore’s book sets out to build a new theory for subnational hydropolitics.  Drawing on comparative case studies from the United States, India, China, and France, Moore focuses on a combination of ideational and institutional factors: decentralization, sectional identity, and political opportunity structures.

Moore argues that water conflicts emerge when subnational politicians in decentralized political systems connect water issues to existing ethnic, linguistic, or geographic identities. This occurs within political opportunity structures where officials can gain political advantage from competing with shared jurisdictions over water. For promoting cooperation, Moore finds that third-party actors have the potential to play a large role as a bridge between sectional and elite politics.  Through building alliances with national governments and advocating for interjurisdictional institutions, environmental organizations support collaborative, participatory and adaptive management of water resources, ultimately leading to durable cooperation that exists beyond a political tenure.  

The first part of the book presents three theoretical chapters that provide the conceptual framework across the three primary factors that influence cooperation and conflict.  The second part provides detailed historical comparative case studies. The U.S. cases explore the Delaware River Basin and the Colorado River Basin as examples of cooperation and conflict, respectively.  In India, the Damodar Valley Corporation is presented as a case of cooperation and the Krishna River Basin as a case of conflict.  These are followed by the case of the Yellow River Conservancy Commission in China and river basin agencies in France to test the theory built through the U.S. and India cases. 

While much work has focused on international water conflict, Moore makes strong claims for why local water politics deserve our attention and efforts.  The final chapter provides useful recommendations for policymakers including the need for national leadership and areas for further research.  This book is an engaging examination of comparative water politics that will appeal to students, scholars, and practitioners.


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 23 2019

Loving Water across Religions: Contributions to an Integral Water Ethic

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma

Can religious views about water lead to a shared water ethic?

Loving Water across Religions

 

Loving Water across Religions: Contributions to an Integral Water Ethic,  by Elizabeth McAnally, Orbis Books, 2019, 192 pp

Exploiting the very source of life for economic gains has reduced our individual and collective relationship with water. With the intrinsic value of water being ignored in its sheer assessment as a resource worthy of appropriation, an uncertain and scary water future threatens humanity like never before. Drawing insights from her passion for understanding water and reflections from her study of religious worldviews, Elizabeth McAnally advocates the need for reinventing our relationship with water by developing an integral water ethic. There is much to learn from religious practices in developing an integral approach to understating and preserving this mysterious liquid.

Nothing less than cultivating an “I-Thou” relationship with water can help circumvent global water crises, stresses McAnally. Integrating her personal experiences with practices in Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, the author constructs an integral ethic that brings the study of religion into dialogue with natural and social sciences with the aim of transforming the current objective assessment of water to include a more subjective perspective on this finite living entity. “Seeing the physical world as a manifestation of the divine has the potential to lead religions to a more respectful relationship with the world.” While there is an inherent value in what is being said, how should religions that have already lost out to science reconcile? Were it not so, water reality would be aligned with our religious penchant. Need it be said that despite each religious practice including compassion, respect and reverence for nature, the material world in contrast is a manifestation of indifference, scorn and contempt toward it?

Seized of the contrasting realities, McAnally argues for the need to integrate knowledge from as many different perspectives as possible to address the complexity and urgency of the impending water crises. The world may have gone as far as it can in managing water as objectively as possible, but there is still time to make a fresh start by imagining it through an integral lens. Loving Water across Religions is a clarion call for developing a deep love for water by acknowledging that it has interiority, an intrinsic value over and above its instrumental value.

While invoking love and service as crucial components of an integral water ethic, McAnally observes that the revered Yamuna, among India’s most sacred rivers, remains one of its worst polluted rivers. This should not minimize the importance, though, of listening to water as a source of inspiration, provided individual love and compassion for water gets converted into collective efforts to preserve our rivers. Although it is a work in progress, McAnally is hopeful that by combining our individual efforts and beliefs we can resolve the water crises that we face.


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.


Jul 17 2018

Virtuous Waters: Mineral Springs, Bathing, and Infrastructure in Mexico

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Renewed engagement with the virtues of waters can promote more sustainable hydro-social relationships.

VirtuousWaters

by Casey Walsh, Virtuous Waters: Mineral Springs, Bathing, and Infrastructure in Mexico, University of California Press, 2018, 226 pp.

In Virtuous Waters, anthropologist Casey Walsh explores the social and cultural history of bathing and hot springs in Mexico. The book traces everyday water cultures surrounding these springs from AD 1500 to the twenty-first century. Originally used for steam baths by the indigenous peoples of Mexico, spring waters came to support a variety of therapeutic, religious, leisurely and sexual activities over the centuries, with uses and practices shifting according to scientific and moral understandings of medicine, public health and social order. Adopting a political ecology perspective, Walsh’s ethnographic narrative is attentive to questions of power and access in day-to-day interactions with spring waters. Stories about exclusion and dispossession due to race, class and gender figure prominently throughout the book, including in a chapter that chronicles attempts at water commodification for commercial bottling and spa tourism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book’s political ecology lens further allows the author to raise fundamental questions about the ontology of water. Adding to the work of scholars like Jamie Linton and Jeremy Schmidt, Walsh offers a detailed account of the homogeneity vs. heterogeneity of water and water cultures in Mexico. Water is commonly conceptualized today as a “single, uniform, inert element that can be managed by a unified infrastructure” (p. 6). Walsh argues that this modern view of water has never fully eradicated traditional understandings of multiple waters, each with its own mineral composition and virtuous effects on the human body. As Walsh’s archival work reveals, the characteristics and benefits of specific waters have long drawn the attention of scientific researchers along with practitioners of “hydropathy,” and continue to be revered by the visitors of bath houses and religious sites.

For Walsh, a renewed engagement with the heterogeneity of waters can facilitate more sustainable uses of the element moving forward. Immersion in hot springs offers the opportunity to engage with waters and with fellow bathers, thereby strengthening environmental awareness and community ties. As the book’s concluding chapter makes clear, the danger remains that the virtues of waters will be exploited for exclusionary profit-seeking activities. At the same time, these virtues hold out the prospect for more sustainable relationships between humans and waters in the future.