Book Review: Transboundary Water Management

Transboundary Water Management: Principles and Practice. Edited By Anton Earle, Anders Jägerskog and Joakim Öjendal. Published by Earthscan, pp 261, 2010. Order here.

Review by Alan Hall, GWP Senior Advisor

Transboundary Water Management: Principles and PracticeWith increased wealth, population, climate change and globalization it is inevitable that water security is rising higher on the political agenda in many parts of the world.

One issue that is becoming increasingly important is the effective water management of rivers and aquifers that cross state borders. It is no longer possible to take water management for granted or to consider water narrowly as a service or input for other sectoral uses, nor as just a technical issue. Transboundary water management (TWM) is not a new topic but there is now an increased urgency and this book is timely in providing insights for water professionals and others concerned with issues of water security.

Over the last decade there has been an expansion of press reports, books and academic papers that look at transboundary waters, indicating its growing importance.  The international dimension makes the problem particularly intractable, with valuable water remaining under-utilised because of the political complexities associated with their development and management. This blockage has to be resolved and this book contributes to understanding the challenges and finding solutions.

The book is targeted at researchers, students and water professionals, particularly for those with a technical background who wish to broaden their management skills. The book is also aimed at politicians who need to grasp the issues involved. Whilst it is probably too ambitious to target decision-makers or politicians, who require shorter more specific briefing, this book is a must read for their advisers.

The book includes a collection of essays written by twenty experts and as such captures a range of views on different aspects of the subject. Following an introductory chapter by the editors to set the scene, the book is organized in three parts covering: analytical approaches examining theories and politics of TWM; polity and practice that gives a more practical perspective; and finally, challenges and opportunities that include a set of short case studies that illustrate some of the ideas presented.

Much of the book has evolved from an international training programme, run by the Stockholm International Water Institute and Ramboll Natura, and supported by the Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency (Sida).  As such the book adds value to that programme by sharing its outcomes with a wider audience. The capacity building focus is evident throughout the book and it will be of benefit to students and training institutes that wish to address this issue. The authors are almost all academics, mainly from European and American universities, and the book perhaps places too much importance on ‘researchers’ in solving TWM problems (even referring to financing institutions as part of the research community).

The writers steer a commendably sober course through the conflict-cooperation debate and avoid the rhetoric of ‘water wars’. The book stresses the need for nations to cooperate effectively over the management of shared waters by managing power asymmetries, sharing benefits, the importance of international agreements and international water law.  They examine the nature of cooperation, which can have many meanings. Often ‘cooperation’ means stagnation or inaction, thus being a brake on development, for example, international financing institutions will not fund infrastructure in shared basins unless all riparian states agree.  

Whilst historically there has been less conflict than some writers have suggested, the past is no predictor of the future and as demand intensifies disputes are likely to increase. The chapter on International law concepts demonstrates the practical difficulties of reconciling territorial sovereignty and the generally accepted principles of international water law and stresses the importance of appropriate interstate machinery. The chapter on transnational agreements also calls for more flexibility in order to adapt to climate change and environmental challenges. Solutions to TWM will probably lie in the hands of diplomats rather than lawyers or water experts and this book is useful for international relations experts who need to translate ideas into peace building strategies.

If there is one criticism, as with most publications on TWM, this volume fails to stress the importance of national level water resources management as a precursor to finding transboundary solutions. Each riparian state has to put in place national policies and good water governance, and build local capacity. If there is weak national level water management or unequal levels of knowledge among riparian states it is more difficult to negotiate satisfactory and balanced solutions as sovereignty remains the starting point for TWM.  However, this book is complemented by another recent Earthscan publication: Integrated Water Resources Management in Practice (Lenton and Muller, 2009), which uses practical case studies to illustrate how better water management, using the integrated approach, can avoid fragmentation and contribute to more sustainable development. Applying IWRM principles is equally important for TWM. The publishers are to be congratulated for building a library of works that seek to find solutions in improving water management to achieve sustainable social, economic and environmental development.

This book makes an important contribution to strengthening institutional capacity and examining solutions to the transboundary water challenges that we face.  It is available in paperback and is good value for mid career water managers as well as for advanced students and researchers.

Posted: 2010-09-28

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