BOOK REVIEWS - Environmental

April 2008: Reviews for the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management:

Blue Gold: The Battle Against Corporate Theft of the World's Water, by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke. Earthscan Publications Ltd, London, 2002. ISBN 1-85383-937-X; xviii+278pp; hardback; price £
This book deals with a phenomenon which seems to be little-considered outside the water industry or specialist economic literature: the increasing marketisation and privatisation of water and sewerage services and the growth of private corporate involvement. The authors, both from Canadian NGOs, present an account of these processes, from perspectives which might be described as "anti-capitalist" (or, more accurately, "anti-globalisation"). For those who see the privatisation of the commons as an essential component in the solution to world environmental problems, this can be dismissed as yet another example of Seattle-style populism swimming against a rational tide. For others, this is a warning, that corporatisation may favour the powerful and may contribute to damage to the environment.

The book is divided into three Parts. The first, "The Crisis", runs through some fairly general concerns about  the future of water, and points to the general domination of the needs of the rich over the poor, and of urban and industrial demands over those of agriculture. The second, "The Politics", is the central part of the book, getting more to the heart of analysis, discussing the forms of privatisation and the global economic context in which this has tended to emerge as an imperative. It is suggested that a general cartel of "global water lords" is being formed, exacerbating existing inequalities in provision and threats to the environment.

Part III, "The Way Forward", is perhaps the weaker part of the book. It discusses some of the opposition to privatisation and the successful resistance in Cochabamba in Bolivia and Grenoble in France, and citizens movements such as those against dams. It suggests, as one alternative model, the kind of popular ownership and direction which has succeeded Bechtel in Cochabamba. Much of the rest is based on ten principles whivch seek to reclaim water as part of the commons; laudable though these might, the proposaition that these would best be defended and promoted by NGOs, in face of the power of states and transnationals, is somewhat weak. What is really required is a political economy of water resources which could analyse the interaction between transnational companies, sttaes and the environment, to determine the potential and impact of market-dominated solutions to gloabal water problems. This book makes a start in this general direction, but is stronger on rhetoric than on analysis.          


Water: A Source of Conflict or Cooperation?, edited by Velma I Grover. Science Publishers, Enfield, New Hampshire, 2007. ISBN 879-1-57808-511-8; xi+360pp; hardback; price $64-40

The Canadian editor of this collection of essays, a CIWEM member, has edited similar collections on climate change, water and waste management. Contributions include four studies from Africa, but none from Europe. Many contributors are from universities, from varied disciplines, including an economist and professor of law in China. Overall, this volume presents much useful data and case studies, and should provoke much thought.
Since the late twentieth century, figures from within bodies ranging from the World Bank to the CIA have warned that wars night be provoked over water resources, in some of the 262 international river basins. Velma Grover’s opening essay acknowledges that water resources can be implicated in conflicts over control and use, but stresses that the last war fought expressly about water was 4,500 years ago, in southern Iraq. Statistics suggest that since the 1940s international co-operation has predominated, with violent conflicts limited if notable on a local scale or between different users. Many international agreements over water have reduced potential conflict, often with inter-state compensation, side-payments, or co-operation over non-water issues. Water shortages tend to be relative and localised, with evidence that while shared rivers are more closely correlated to conflict, other territorial factors, notably nationalism, have prevailed over water use.
After the introduction, much of the book comprises case studies. Whilst all are interesting, there is some repetition of points, with only one comparative study, between US and South Korean examples. What emerges is the need to consider the effectiveness of institutional arrangements in securing co-operation and solutions. Greater emphasis could have been placed upon political analysis, which would explain how varied power over resources provokes conflicts and deteremines their resolution. This would develop one understated theme in these studies, that although violent conflicts over water resources are rare, co-operation is not always based on consensus, but forced through relations of power.

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