Book Review:
New Water Book Puts People First

The history of civilization is, in many ways, a history of water and its availability.  Market-based schemes for dealing with the growing water shortage must, therefore, begin with people.  That’s what makes the new book Social Participation in Water Governance and Management such a worthwhile read, say Colm Fay and Gabriel Thoumi in this review.

The history of civilization is, in many ways, a history of water and its availability.   It’s fitting, therefore, that Social Participation in Water Governance and Management examines market-based solutions to water scarcity through the prism of society, say Colm Fay and Gabriel Thoumi.

23 April 2010 | Water has a deep-rooted significance in history, religion, culture and traditional practices across the globe and consequently the management and governance of water is not only a scientific and commercial challenge, but also an anthropological, sociological and political challenge.   The ecosystem services paradigm encourages us to view natural resources in terms of the services they provide, but this raises many questions about the opportunity cost of resource usage.   In many cases, this opportunity cost is a human one and as a result stakeholder engagement is crucial to the sustainable and equitable management of water resources in all parts of the world.

Social Participation in Water Governance and Management is, therefore, a timely publication and provides in-depth and well-researched case studies on social participation in a wide range of scenarios.

This first edition comprises a collection of case studies, each focused on an aspect of social participation in water governance, in addition to an introduction and comprehensive conclusion by the editors.   The cases are divided into five categories: Indigenous Water Governance, The Dynamics of Gender in Water Management, River Basin Governance, Implementation of Water Management and The Politics of Governance.  

Clear Examples

This book’s greatest strength is the quality of the cases.   Each one is expertly researched and, while a different author writes each case, they all approach their individual topics in a consistent way.   Each case provides an introduction to the situation and then a deep dive on the social issue being discussed.   Once the framework for discussion has been established, details of how participation with respect to each social issue has been leveraged to resolve water rights and usage disputes or challenges.   As a result, this feels less like a ‘water book about social participation issues’ and more like a ‘social participation book about water issues’, which we feel is exactly the balance that adds most value.  

An example that stands out in this respect is ‘Gender and Social Participation in a Rural Water Supply Organization in Rajasthan, India’ by Kate A. Berry, one of the editors.   This case discusses the role of the JBF organization and its operations in the rural Marwar region of western Rajasthan.   In order to fully appreciate the challenges that the organization faces when interacting with the local population, and within its own organization with respect to gender equity, one must understand the complex caste structure that dominates Indian social interactions and the traditional gender roles and culture within this specific part of Rajasthan as well as South Asia in general.   In addition, it is key to understand the objectives and challenges faced by NGOs when interacting with these societal norms, especially with respect to organizations that seek to change them.   The case expertly lays this groundwork before delving into the actual operations of the organization and its work in increasing access to sources of water in this, “the most densely populated, rural, arid zone in the world”.

While a lot of emphasis is placed on the creation of social participation in water governance, “Social Participation in French Water Management: Contributions to River Basin Governance and New Challenges” by Sophie Allain presents a case in which social participation itself is not the challenge.   As is the political culture, French environmental politics have historically been highly participatory with 25% of local water commissions comprised of users and NGOs by law.   An additional 25% is made up of state agencies with the remaining 50% being local elected officials.   The central point in this case is that participation is not an end in itself, but “must be considered as a tool likely to design and improve negotiation processes regarding the political regulation of water management”.   In the absence of effective relationships and an environment conducive to constructive negotiation that place appropriate weight on the views of all stakeholders, participatory institutions and structures alone do not ensure a positive impact and equitable solutions.

The editors, obviously, play a key role in the creation of a coherent collection of cases written by individual authors and in this instance Berry and Mollard have done a nice job of allowing the authors to express a wide range of opinions, while in their conclusion providing an analysis of some areas of dichotomy that inevitably emerge on related aspects of social participation, particularly the role of legislation.   The cases include top down, bottom up and hybrid approaches to social participation and the editors provide some interesting insights on the role of policy in these interactions and how this correlates to success of the initiative.   One suggestion is that a significant barrier to this success is the “gap between national speeches and local reality” and the tendency of the political elite to primarily operate to preserve their own legitimacy.  

Future editions will benefit from the editors providing a better framing of the subject matter in both the introduction and conclusion.   Rather than diving straight into the cases, a more useful opening would be a chapter describing the taxonomy of both water and social participation issues, and describing the pivotal role water has historically played in culture and tradition.  

In the book’s conclusion, the editors present a vision of the future politicization and democratization of water governance.   We would like to have seen more coverage of these ideas and an expansion on the governance and management framework that the editors envisage, especially with respect to the preceding cases and how these experiences can be used to shape future policy and methodology.

These omissions do not, however, significantly detract from a very well constructed and authored collection of cases that stand out for their depth of research and clarity.   This is a significant contribution to the field of social participation in natural resource management and provides some key insights for those interested not only in water governance, but ecosystem services in general, the economy of nature and the transformative potential of social participation in legislation and policy setting.    

Colm Fay is a dual MBA/MS student at the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise specializing in Environmental Policy and Planning, in particular market based approaches to conservation, land stewardship and poverty alleviation.

Gabriel Thoumi is a consultant at Forest Carbon Offsets, LLC and a lecturer at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan focusing in environmental markets and forest carbon.


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