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  • Water in International Affairs: Heightened Attention to Equity and Rights
  • Andrea K. Gerlak (bio)
Norman, Emma S., Christina Cook, and Alice Cohen, eds. 2015. Negotiating Water Governance: Why the Politics of Scale Matter. Surrey, UK: Ashgate Press.
Piper, Karen. 2015. The Price of Thirst: Global Inequality and the Coming Chaos. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Pietz, David A. 2015. The Yellow River: The Problem of Water in Modern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Tilt, Bryan. 2015. Dams and Development in China: The Moral Economy of Water and Power. New York: Columbia University Press.

Water continues to loom large in global environmental politics. Any casual observer of international affairs recently cannot help but see growing attention to water access issues. In Brazil, we have observed businesses forced to close and protesters in the streets of São Paulo, one of the world’s largest cities, as the result of drought conditions and perceived government failure to respond appropriately (Watts 2015; Wheeland 2015). There are concerns about what the water shortages will mean for a country where more than 75% of its power comes from hydroelectric sources. Water rationing may serve to exacerbate the divide between rich and poor there.

Drought conditions and development projects in China have also attracted international attention (Chen 2015; Kaiman 2014). In the summer of 2015, the South-North Water Diversion Project, a controversial megaproject designed to replumb central and northern drainage systems by diverting water from the Yangtze River to the North China Plain to satisfy growing agricultural, urban, and industrial demand, began sending emergency water supplies to urban areas affected by drought. This action has raised equity concerns from [End Page 99] farmers on the city outskirts who argue that they are left to fend for themselves as aquifers run dry.

In the American Midwest, tensions still run high in Detroit as protesters respond to efforts by the city’s Water Department to force tens of thousands of delinquent customers to pay up or face a cutoff in service (Chapman 2014; Ferretti 2015). These protests are connected to a larger fight over controversial reforms to privatize some key municipal services in the wake of the city’s bankruptcy. Some critics are invoking a human right to water and argue that the rate hikes for residents are disproportionately high while corporations receive tax breaks and special treatment.

These news stories illustrate the importance of access to water, and the human rights and equity issues implicit in water access. The four new books reviewed in this essay speak to these very issues. The first book, Negotiating Water Governance: Why the Politics of Scale Matter, edited by Emma S. Norman, Christina Cook, and Alice Cohen, aims to link the concept of scale to water governance. For the editors, watersheds serve as a way to conceptually bridge scalar research and water governance scholarship. Although geographers (such as Sally Marston and Erik Swyngedouw)1 have been debating scale for several decades, international relations scholars have been much less engaged in this scholarship (for an exception, see Oran Young’s work [1994, 2002] on scalar mismatch).

In one of the early chapters of the book, Alice Cohen sets the tone by challenging the well-established notion that watersheds are the most appropriate or best scale at which to govern water. She argues that watersheds have been “discursively and materially constructed simultaneously as spatial, ecological, and social scales” (Norman et al. 2015, 27). For Cohen, the watershed-focused approach is insufficient and inappropriately privileges the natural scale.

The case studies that follow allow us to observe broader shifts in environmental governance and the various consequences of the use of scale in governance. In one particularly poignant chapter, Afton Clarke-Sather outlines how irrigation efforts in semi-arid northwest China help to consolidate state power and privilege engineers and scientific knowledge. In another interesting chapter, Jessica Budds explores how rescaling allows new institutions to be captured to provide access to water for mining activities in the southern Peruvian Andes. These cases, along with a variety of others with diverse geographies, demonstrate how scale can be manipulated to reinforce particular hierarchies or relationships in water governance.

In The Price of Thirst: Global...


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pp. 99-105
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