Managing Water across Boundaries


  • Lori Bradford,

    1. Global Institute for Water Security, University of Saskatchewan, National Hydrology Research Centre, 11 Innovation Boulevard, Saskatoon SK S7N 3H5, Canada
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  • Graham E. H. Strickert

    1. Global Institute for Water Security, University of Saskatchewan, National Hydrology Research Centre, 11 Innovation Boulevard, Saskatoon SK S7N 3H5, Canada
    Search for more papers by this author

A World of Rivers . Wohl, E. 2010 . The University of Chicago Press , Chicago , IL . 368 pp. $40 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-2269-0478-8 .
Sustainability Science for Watershed Landscapes . Roumasset, J., K. M. Burnett and A. M. Balisacan , editors . 2010 . Institute of Southeast Asian Studies , Singapore , Republic of Singapore . 346 pp. $30 (hardcover). ISBN 978-981-4279-60-4 .
Transboundary Water Management Principles and Practice . Earle, A., A. Jagerskog, and J. Öjendal . 2010 . Earthscan , Washington , D.C. 261 pp. $68 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-8497-1138-8 .

Sustainable use of the world's water resources is key for survival of our species and many others. Unsurprisingly, sustainable water management has emerged as the most complex problem of our generation and the next. Water used to be viewed as a limitless resource, but we now know that irresponsible use of water has social, environmental, economic, and spiritual effects. In turn, these effects have resulted in less available water, less clean water, and less tolerance for iniquitous upstream and transboundary water use. The biggest factors contributing to water crises worldwide lie in the social realm, and practitioners need solutions derived from human-use management and knowledge advancement. Three books, among many others, offer a balanced set of tools, techniques, and case studies from which students and practitioners can begin to gain a deeper understanding of how water can be shared fairly across landscapes. A World of Rivers gives an encyclopedic look at the state of 10 rivers. Sustainability Science for Watershed Landscapes takes one through the calculations and cautionary tales of watershed management. Transboundary Water Management (TWM) describes the political complexities and possibilities of development and management of multistakeholder water management. Taken together, these books explain the environmental, economic, and social dimensions of transboundary water management for those striving to quench the world's thirst.

A World of Rivers, by Ellen Wohl, is an admirable compilation. Each chapter is written as a chiasmus: starting with the climatic, topographic, historic, and biological particulars of the rivers and then detailing the effects on each river of human use. The book awakens a sense of urgency to improve stewardship. There are interesting parts in each chapter, and a surprising amount and variety of information can be gleaned from this work. We found ourselves laughing at, for example, the description of the Sudd (in the chapter on the Nile) as “[l]ike other great wetlands of the world, the Sudd is rich with life, but perhaps only the most dedicated naturalists can appreciate this life. The mosquitoes alone include fifty species” (p. 88). At times the information was shocking: we wonder why the ongoing plight of the inhabitants of the Ob River basin as detailed in chapter 3 is not front-page news. But we also often found ourselves fighting the tide to get through pages and pages of facts written in an ominous staccato tone to reach the revelation each chapter title foreshadows.

Luckily, the interludes on the travels of a water droplet on a worldwide trip through the water cycle provide a calming legato foil to the factual chapters and work to unite the descriptions of the rivers and their plights within the global system. These interludes also allow readers to choose their own adventure; that is, one can begin reading at any interlude and branch ones’ way through the 10 rivers in any order to reach the same conclusions. Maps and photographs are used throughout the volume, but more figures and tables may have reduced the repetitive phrases and allowed for quicker comparisons among rivers.

Ellen Wohl chronicles the major dilemma of each river in enough depth to pique students’ and researchers’ interest in reading more about each river and provides a taste of the spectrum of river issues across a global system. It does, however, take a few reads to appreciate the scope of the work.

Although many works on watershed management are emerging, it is difficult to find one that gives equal attention to social and technical approaches to sustainability of water resources. Sustainability Science for Watershed Landscapes enriches the basic economic, participatory, and hydrological models of watersheds with chapters on transdisciplinary research, cyberinfrastructure, and four well-thought-out case studies that consider species other than Homo sapiens part of the landscape. From the outset, this book challenges understanding of watershed management. It does so through the variety of paradigms presented and through the depth of the concisely offered information. The first chapter provides a succinct history of sustainable development, an outline of the goals of sustainability science, examples of key economic principles of resource management, and exploration of dramatic dichotomies in sustainability science (e.g., strong and weak sustainability, positive and negative sustainability, unfettered growth, and unfounded preservationism). All of this is expertly woven together with touches of analogy, literary allusion, metaphor, and clear examples. Chapter 1 is engaging, and chapters 3 and 5 are also fascinating. In chapter 3, the authors discuss consilience and transdisciplinarity, but its flood of figures is distracting. In chapter 5, the authors describe the InteleSense-based system (a globally integrated monitoring system) and how “[c]yberinfrastructure may thus be globally applied to understand and monitor all [known and measureable] facets of human-environment systems…and tear down boundaries between science and policy” (p. 137).

This book presents too wide a range of social and technological approaches to the management of watershed landscapes. The short section on participatory approaches does not offer any advances or give an example of the level of participatory research and decision making needed (Rowe & Frewer 2000; Macintosh 2006; von Korff et al. 2012). Given the inclusion of cyberinfrastructure systems in Sustainability Science for Watershed Landscapes, the absence of a mention of electronic tools for public participation in resource management planning is glaring. Despite this, the case studies are ideal illustrations of sustainability science connecting the micro- and macrolevel topics explored in the bulk of the work. For example, plants, pigs, people, and land-use patterns and their effects on local, regional, and more extensive domains are used aptly to promote prototypes of landscape-scale sustainability that are linked skillfully in the “Synthesis” chapter, which is filled with thoughtful discussion. What differentiates this book from Heathcote (2009) and Brooks et al. (2003) is the boldness with which the authors introduce advanced concepts and techniques that match the courage with which they explore unusual examples of watershed management issues.

TWM presents the foundations of the field through five transdisciplinary themes (improving TWM; connecting research, politics, and practice; changing the status quo; the spectrum of cooperation; and the limits of current TWM knowledge) within three sections. In “Analytical Approaches,” one learns about the economically invisible and politically silent virtual trade in water and why research on and policy for international TWM is next to impossible. We liked the theoretical frame in the third chapter. This chapter introduces and explores hydrohegemony among the four pillars of power (which is the social-science lens used to frame the analysis) and discusses tangible and intangible aspects of inequity; researchers and students will delight in the debate it inspires. The fourth chapter takes a break from the extensive jargon used in the previous chapters and examines a potential solution to the tragedy of the commons. We were expecting mention of a few more approaches to human overuse in this part of the text, and it would have been nice if the authors had included newer methods (e.g., water footprints) to complement the benefit-sharing example.

Practitioners looking for stepwise descriptions of models will find the final two parts of the book pertinent. “Polity and Practice” describes customs in TWM across a spectrum of fields: law, governance, hydrology, and business management. Chapter 8 comprehensively explores environmental flows, an accessible and well-supported model for water-resource development. Chapter 9 covers the human dimensions of resolving water conflicts, and the section therein entitled Good Practice gives detailed explanations on overcoming wicked problems. The 10th chapter also concentrates on building collective interest for watershed management, in this case, best practice for transboundary business models, but without real examples the chapter is too prescriptive. By the end of “Polity and Practice,” one learns that the Golden Rule assumes too much and that systems of management that can be monitored are emerging. Chapters 12 and 13 provide working examples of water-management systems. The authors of these chapters recognize that water problems are international and intergenerational and describe the education of new water managers. The case studies have been expertly honed to demonstrate the increased capacity to solve problems that emerge when TWM deliberations and proceedings are accessible by researchers and practitioners.

The editors do not purport that the content of the volume can be applied to solve TWM problems; instead, the authors teach readers to be proactive. The editors stress in the final chapter that international norms of politics and practice associated with TWM are only just emerging. Missing extensions of this theme are the insights gained from examining how international norms came about for other resources and how the case of water contributes to international treaty building in general. Nonetheless, it is important to have texts such as this one that focus on the foundations necessary for understanding real-world problems. By the end of the text most readers will have a solid understanding of the state of TWM research and practice.

von Korff et al. (2012) pose three questions for water-management practitioners and researchers: Why should one use participatory approaches to water management? How does one implement participatory approaches? And, Can participatory approaches be adaptive in nature? These books can help readers answer these questions because they report on the current state of major rivers (the why), present tools for building sustainability into the watershed-management agenda (the how), and reiterate that managing interpersonal and intergroup dynamics requires contextual, transdisciplinary approaches.