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.       


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.

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.


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.

Jul 17 2018

Water: Abundance, Scarcity and Security in the Age of Humanity

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma



by Jeremy J. Schmidt, Water: Abundance, Scarcity and Security in the Age of HumanitySAGE, 2018, 307 pp.

Cape Town may be the first waterless city, but the fact that humans are drawing more than their fair share of water should make us shudder as things are likely to become worse before they get any better. From surplus to scarcity, human interference with global water systems has created an issue of security, requiring new ways of managing water in the age of the Anthropocene. With the idea of water stability thrown into a tailspin, there is an urgent need to define “safe operating space” for humans to work within planetary boundaries for sustaining life and life forms.

By altering planetary systems, humans have attained the status of a geological force, causing all the ways in which water management connects to geography, culture and economics to lose their relevance. Far from inducing equitable access to water across sectors, the global impact of the American approach to water management has triggered a brazen water grab not only within the local hydrological contexts, but also in regional and national contexts. Unless this prevailing approach is questioned, argues Jeremy Schmidt, inequalities, including those that exist on a geological scale, cannot be addressed.

While it should be apparent that dividing humans from nature will not help us understand our impact on natural processes, a failed attempt to reject the society/nature dualism in the past had led to an oppressive logic and enhanced the prospects of meeting certain ends rather than others. The book asks: how do conflicts over water, such as those over the right to water, gain prominence?

The trouble with a single planetary story about water, especially one tied to a techno-centric philosophy of water management, is that while it does not deny that alternatives exist, it simply posits that we can get by without them. Schmidt presents three philosophical perspectives to counter this view: first, water resources should be managed without privileging a particular cultural understanding; second, we should acknowledge that social relations take shape around different water use practices; and third, we should appreciate and acknowledge the intrinsic importance of different symbolic ends that others attach to water. These three concerns—over subjects, social relations and symbolic goods––could be critical entry points for initiating a new discourse on water management. We need this because the paradigm of “making things public” is inadequate; it fails to see that water problems are the outcome of a failed nineteenth-century solution tied to society/nature dualism. Although this argument may seem troublesome to those excited about emerging social entrepreneurship around water, Schmidt is asking us to consider the questions that arise for modernity as the result of water management practices instead of thinking about water management as the product of modernity.

Relying on volumes of historical sources, the book attempts to bridge engineering solutions and the social ideas that informed them. As we are now part of an “unfolding water drama,” the challenge for global water governance is that it has not separated itself sufficiently from the philosophy that gave rise to the problems it seeks to solve.

 Schmidt does not offer a solution, but rather questions the prevailing philosophy of water, the end result of which is that water, once abundant, is now scarce.  If water continues to be managed as it is at present, the majority of our rivers will only be carrying treated waste water.

Water offers refreshing new historical and philosophical insights to help rethink the prevailing (global) philosophy of water management.