Latin American Research Review 40.3 (2005) 443-456
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Going with the Flow:
The State of Contemporary Studies Ofwater Management in Latin America
The study of irrigation and water management has moved steadily into the foreground during recent decades and now holds a singular place in the field of international development in Latin America and other parts of the world. The recognition that irrigation is much more than a technical problem, and that the main challenges are social, political, and moral, has allowed scholars to shift the focus of analysis and correct the shortcomings that arose from viewing it solely in technological and agronomic terms. Misconceived policies such as centralized administration by the State are being cast aside, having had the opposite of their intended effect, as are the inappropriate models that have shaped existing water laws and dominated such conventional approaches to resource management, which were heavily influenced by Garrett Hardin's theory of the "tragedy of the commons." After enjoying a brief heyday among policymakers, the most fashionable of the new approaches, turning decisions about water allocation over to 'the market'—Hardin's other proposed solution—has been challenged so fiercely by the public in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru [End Page 443] that its main proponent and the most powerful player in the globalization game, the World Bank, is now said to be on the verge of becoming a "privatization agnostic." All of this comes at a time when governments throughout Latin America are searching for a way to foster effective local management of the resource, within a decentralized watershed-based model, in order to get out of the "business" themselves—an about-face that is partly due to the resounding failure of state control but also reflects their forced abandonment of the social sector under programs of structural adjustment. Each of the four volumes under review here embraces the challenge of such a unique historical moment, examining the results of case studies of successful "self-management" at the local level and trying to draw conclusions that help to move the discourse about theory and practice onto new ground. This is especially timely given the impending water crisis that threatens most of the world, particularly the "developing" countries, and the growing awareness that the resource most vital for human life is scarce, is becoming scarcer every day, and is increasingly likely to promote conflict.
The books must be viewed against the background of some relatively new insights into irrigation that inform them, especially the well-demonstrated ability of local people in a great many communities throughout the world—in Mexico, the Andes, Spain, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Bali, the Philippines—to work out sustainable ways of managing the resource on their own. Indeed, in the literature on the water commons there now seem to be almost as many cases of success, an achievement that Hardin thought to be impossible, as of failure. Yet there seems to be little agreement on whether all of these successful examples have anything basic in common, such as rules and design principles that could help to reshape policy and perhaps modify existing laws so as to strengthen people's capacity for local self-management. There is dispute regarding the small-scale, autonomous, often "indigenous" peasant communities where such ability has been most clearly documented, and as...