Aug 21 2023

Ecojustice, Water, and Environmental Racism

Reviewed by Andre D. Turner, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How does a transformative approach to water governance consider the intersection of race, power and justice to address the systemic issues of environmental racism?

Ecojustice, Water, and Environmental Racism

Gonna Trouble the Water: Ecojustice, Water, and Environmental Racism, by Miguel De La Torre, The Pilgrim Press, 2021, 164 pp.

The issue of environmental racism poses a complex and multidimensional problem that has been routinely disregarded in the discourse about the tension between environmentalism and social equity. Environmental racism occurs when marginalized communities of colour are disproportionally impacted by environmental hazards, often as a result of wilfully discriminative regulatory systems designed to protect the financial benefits of those with privilege and power. Gonna Trouble the Water: Ecojustice, Water, and Environmental Racism, is a powerful collection of essays that examines the intersection of race, power and justice through the lens of water.

The collection of essays is organized into three sections that explore water as sacred, water as a human right and water as a weapon. The authors draw on personal narratives and case studies to illustrate the destructive impacts of neoliberal and anthropocentric worldviews of water as a commodity to be extracted and exploited. The chapter on conflicting worldviews revealed to me a profound understanding of power, privilege and wealth – illustrating that some view the idea of water as a pubic right as an ‘extreme solution’, famously proclaimed by Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, former CEO of Nestle (p. 18).

Thinking of water as a commodity creates an environmental problem as well as a social justice problem. It is rooted in racist white Eurocentric neoliberal economic worldviews reinforcing social and economic disparities for people of colour. As a result, water is privatized, excluding communities of colour from ‘a seat at the table’ or ‘a say in the decision that is made’ regarding its use (p. 74). The authors provide a detailed account of the legacy of racism and exploitation of water in the United States, demonstrating how policies and practices, such as redlining, racial zoning and environmental dumping, have shaped the distribution of environmental harms. The collection documents the history of water as a weapon of colonialism as well as the ways in which water scarcity and mismanagement are often used to perpetuate power imbalances and reinforce existing inequities.

The book concludes with a strong statement on the need to address environmental racism through a transformative approach to water governance that will challenge dominant power structures and create more equitable and just systems of water management, respecting water as a sacred resource.

Jul 5 2022

Balancing the Tides: Marine Practices in American Sāmoa

Reviewed by Thomas Moorman and Dr. Kelly Dunning, Auburn University of Forestry and Wildlife, Auburn University

The spread of colonial legacy through the lives of American Samoans, and all indegenous people interacting with the western form of governance.

Balancing the Tides: Marine Practices in American Sāmoa

Balancing the Tides: Marine Practices in American Sāmoa, by JoAnna Poblete, University of Hawai‘i Press, 2020, 214 pp

Poblete shows with great skill that there is much to be learned from the historical and ongoing relationships between the United States government and colonized American Samoa. Utilizing the framework of bioregionalism, she clearly demonstrates the relationship between the region’s ecology, contemporary political dynamics, culture, and colonial legacy, making a compelling case for a native rights-based, bioregional approach to contemporary management decisions involving American Samoa’s marine resources. Poblete’s extensive interviews demonstrate that Western management models can easily fall into conflict if vā fealoa’I, or the tradition of American Samoan “social respect”, which includes proper communication along deeply rooted cultural lines and values, is not followed or satisfied.

The first half of the book shows the colonially-rooted tension between the island’s native fishing rights, and socioeconomic reality relative to U.S. fisheries data-based management models, and wage policy. Shown through the tuna industry minimum wage discussions, and commercial vs. traditional fishing access disagreements, Poblete makes clear that U.S. management of industries and waters can easily conflict with native realities if vā fealoa’I is not followed. The second half highlights how U.S. grant reporting, fisheries management decisions, and goals of environmental preservation, require and use specific data at scale, but that the reality of traditional American Samoan fishing practices and culture and the difficulty of local data collection generate tension between traditional American Samoan ways of being, and U.S. Western knowledge-based decision-making. Poblete finds that when traditional customs are followed and respected, co-management approaches and initiatives such as Village Protected Marine Areas found greater success.

Poblete’s work explains/clarifies how colonial legacy spreads through the lives of American Samoans, and by extension all indigenous people interacting with Western forms of governance. Her exploration of this tension, be it discussion of federal minimum wage or the expansion of new protected zones carries globally important insights and lessons for anyone working in governance, especially where indigenous or native rights are concerned. She demonstrates that flexible, adaptive management which incorporates and respects traditional ecological knowledge and social cultures often leads to greater conservation and management success. Her work provides an excellent starting point for both colonial activists and governance managers to improve not only relations, but also global and socio ecological wellbeing.

Jul 5 2022

The Nile: History’s Greatest River

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma, independent scholar

The secrets of the great Nile River can be uncovered, by slowly uncovering the river’s heartbeat and following it upstream. The Nile emerges as a wellspring of knowledge, the history of human evolution, and development in the region through its flowing waters.

The Nile: History’s Greatest River

The Nile: History’s Greatest River, by Terje Tvedt, I.B Tauris, 2021, 400pp.

History written on water

If one doesn’t understand the past, misinterpretation of the present is inevitable. Apt in the context of river Nile that courses 6,800 kilometers across 11 countries, historical knowledge becomes critical to make sense of the hydropolitical transformation the region is currently going through. From Herodotus to Flaubert and from Alexander to Napoleon, the waterscape that cuts across the sprawling desert under a cloudless sky and a scorching sun, was as much an inexplicable wonder as an ideal subject of divine kindness. However, it was only during the nineteenth century that the Nile’s geography was systematically mapped.

Having established himself as an acknowledged water historian, Terje Tvedt has condensed 7,000 years of history as one of the greatest rivers in an immensely readable volume that is insightful, engaging and reflective. The Nile can be considered as a historical travelog that begins in Egypt, at the mouth of the great river, and moves upstream along its banks tracing the source of its twin streams – the Blue Nile from the Ethiopian highlands, and the While Nile from Lake Victoria – before the two merge at Al-Mogran in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. The author illustrates that it is only ‘by following the river up from place to place, as slowly and systematically as the river’s own heartbeat, that its secrets can be uncovered, and its role and significance for society’s development can be understood’. The Nile emerges as a wellspring of knowledge, the history of human evolution, and development in the region through its flowing waters.

Written in a nonfiction story telling style, the narrative has been built on the characters and events in history – from Caesar to Cleopatra, to Churchill and Mussolini, and to Abiy Ahmed and Donald Trump – who sought the control and use of the Nile. In the course of its checkered history, the river has remained a perpetual object of political intrigues and power struggles. The colonial march of subjugation of the natives upstream of the river contributed to shifting the goalpost of contention along the river – from the Aswan Dam in Egypt, to the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia. Over the years, each country sharing the river course has sought to emulate Egypt’s model of development at an ecological cost to its free-flowing waters. Will the river be allowed to ‘live’ remains a compelling question that only emerging geopolitics will foretell.

The Nile qualifies as a fascinating read. It is a travelog enriched with ancient and colonial history that has transformed the region in which most governments in the river basin have drawn plans to control, tame and harness the river. One wonders if the finite natural resource can satisfy everybody’s needs at the same time? Tvedt, a professor of geography at the University of Bergen, is an unrivaled communicator who has kept the interests of a wider readership in mind, while unfolding the biography of a river which is a lifeline for over half a billion people. Without getting hold of the history of the region, understanding its present predicaments may remain evasive/difficult to find.

The contribution of the Nile to the origin and growth of civilization is unparalleled, it nourished the earliest humans who wandered from Africa and populated the earth. No one would disagree that the river has played a crucial role in the histories of the countries through which it flows, even if its importance is somewhat exaggerated in determining the political outcomes. Presenting a multidimensional and pluralistic perspective on the historical water course, Tvedt wonders if piquing the interests of member countries will cause hydrological anarchy, or whether the impending threats will propel the governments to collaborate (for Nile hydro solidarity).

The Nile is an ambitious undertaking, vast in scope and expanse. It is a highly recommended workbook for all those who are interested in how rivers shape history, politics and culture.

Jan 6 2021

Complexity of Transboundary Water Conflicts: Enabling Conditions for Negotiating Contingent Resolutions

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How can our understanding of the complexity of water disputes enable us to sustainably manage our dwindling water resources? Why does a unified theory of water conflicts, although attractive among academics, remains elusive?

Complexity of Transboundary Water Conflicts

Complexity of Transboundary Water Conflicts: Enabling Conditions for Negotiating Contingent Resolutions, edited by Enamul Choudhury and Shafiqul Islam, Anthem Press, 2018, 292 pp.

Water is a critical input for economic development and the functioning of the natural environment. Due to the changing climate, increasing demand, unsustainable use of water resources, and political relationships between groups of people, states and countries are being adversely affected—and in some cases even driven—by disputes over shared water resources.   Water-related conflicts are occurring at all geographical scales. There are local disputes among groups fighting for access in the face of increasing demand and supply gaps resulting from poor physical and institutional infrastructure, state-level conflicts within national jurisdiction laying competing claims over shared water resources, and international conflicts, often involving transboundary water disputes. Gleick (2009) shows that the number of violent conflicts over water resources increased from at least 19 in 1900 to at least 61 in 2007.

Enamul Choudhury and Shafiqul Islam provide an interesting perspective on transboundary water disputes. They argue that in transboundary disputes, causal relations are not clear. In such conflicts, uncertainty, non-linearity, and bidirectional feedbacks occur all the time that makes system dynamics highly complex and continuously evolving. The book is in three parts. The first part deals with the theoretical framework, especially the underlying elements of complexity theory. Using examples of the Indus and the Jordan, they identify three enabling conditions—interest identification, interdependence recognition, and conflict-resolution mechanisms. The second part underscores the complexity of some of the ongoing water conflicts around the world that includes the Danube, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Nile, and Colorado rivers. Finally, the third part is mostly a reflection on several cases in different river basins on the roles and interactions of complexity, enabling conditions, and contingency in varying contexts.

There are practical takeaways from this work. The authors make a case that while developing a general theory of water conflicts remains highly attractive among academics, regardless of the number of conflicts we study, a unified theory would be elusive. It is because each case is continuously evolving and has a set of unique characteristics—what they call “enabling conditions.” Such contextual uniqueness of conflicts makes the pursuit of one single theory of water conflicts extremely difficult. The authors make it amply clear that despite the importance of situational and contextual factors, conflicts are often (unfortunately) reduced to questions about respective shares of a fixed resource (water), which inevitably ends up as a multi-variate optimization problem.

Overall, the book is a wonderful addition to the foundational textbook, Water Diplomacy, on water dispute by Professors Islam and Susskind (2012). Their conceptualization that water is a flexible resource has radically changed the way academics and practitioners think of managing water resources. This book further advances our understanding of the complexity of water disputes to be able to sustainably manage our dwindling water resources. 


Gleick PH. Water Conflict Chronology. The World’s Water, 2008–2009: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources. Washington, DC: Island Press; 2009:151–196.

Susskind, L. & Shafiqul Islam. (2012). Water Diplomacy: A Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks. New York: RFF Press.

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.