Book review: Whose river is it, anyway?

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Last summer tensions heated up on the India-Pakistan border. Yet this dispute involved not Hindu or Islamic faith but rather equally fundamentalist beliefs about who had dominion over – and who could thus decide partition of – the Indus river.

The tragic and universal irony is that certain interests complained that too much of the transboundary current was being held back behind upstream dams, thus an act of “water terrorism;” within weeks the same groups accused dam operators of releasing too much too fast, thus causing “the most devastating floods in recent memory.”

That upstream vs. downstream predicament is hardly unique to the region. And whether you believe (as I do) that water volatility is climate-driven, the fatal dynamic – extreme drought followed by extreme deluge – keeps playing out with unnerving frequency in regions as diverse as Australia and China; Spain and California; southern Africa and Amazonia. In all these places people are becoming increasingly fanatic about what they have long considered to be ‘their’ river.

If I were to describe in two sentences the overarching value of Transboundary Water Management: Principles and Practice, it would be this: The editors and contributors defuse political fanaticism from the realm of international rivers, and seek to replace the hard wires with a far more stable and pragmatic set of soft codes. The utilitarian heart of these codes holds that the potential socio-ecological value of transboundary water is of primary value.

Don’t worry. They don’t foist on poor nations the affluent West’s ‘green’ fetish. To the contrary, as you read these chapters you come to appreciate how Transboundary Water Management (TWM) stands at the defining nexus of economic development, energy stability, fair trade, geopolitical relations, political democracy, national security and climate resilience. In short: fresh water flows that are transparently negotiated with care and collaboration and equity and efficiency are less a way of preserving some obscure but pretty bird or fish species than preventing local extinctions of Homo sapiens.

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