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Water, Place, & Equity

by John M. Whiteley, Helen Ingram & Richard Warren Perry, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008
318 pp., illus. 7 b/w. Paper, $25.00
ISBN: 978-0-262-73191-1.

Reviewed by Zainub Verjee
Mississauga/ON/Canada/ L5R 3K4/


Water, Place, & Equity
grew out of the 2004 National Academy of Sciences’ conference, Challenges of a Transboundary World, honoring Helen Ingram, professor emerita at University of California, Irvine whose life long work has been on water politics and water equity.

The book states “water will dominate world natural resource politics by the end of the twenty-first century much as oil dominated the late twentieth century” (p.1). State, society, and individual require new ways of thinking of global water resource allocation and management given the rising population, the continuing threat of climate change and current practices policy and governance. The central question it poses: “What are the respective - and possibly divergent roles   - of markets and political institutions in contributing to, and overcoming, inequities in the allocation, distribution, and governance of water?” (p.302).

The main thrust of the argument is that the efficiency and market approaches should be balanced with fair consideration of multiple values of water, including broader ethical, moral, and community values, and placing equity as a condition for a fair and just society. Both fairness in process and fairness in distribution is a theme that is explored throughout the book. The editors conclude that a normative approach is needed to get beyond the utilitarian and policies based on rational self-interest. Acknowledging that achieving equity is a challenging prospect, the editors suggest that further research is required regarding the implementation of equity practices.

Connecting place and water, eight substantive case studies examine water issues in specific regions and point to the complexities of what equity might involve. Ranging from abundant urban areas to poor rural areas in the Americas, the book examines how social groups and communities lack the political or legal power to influence water decisions that may be detrimental to their way of life. Thus, it highlights that context and place are important in water resource decision-making and that success may not be portable.

The studies range in scope and analysis covering topics of transborder and shared river conflicts between the USA and Mexico, ethical issues in storm water policy in Southern California, the inequities arising from imposed neoliberal policies and privatization imposed on Latin America and South America with cases in Mexico and Bolivia. For instance, one case study explores the transboundary rivers of the Pacific Northwest regions of the USA and Canada, comparing the approaches to hydropower development and fisheries management. Due to differences, environmental policies between the two countries have seen very different outcomes. As a result, in Canada there has been a return of salmon to the Fraser River. On the other hand, the Columbia River has lost much of its fish resource.

It is pertinent to note that the drive for wealth derived from mega hydropower damming continue to take precedence over issues of changing fish migration patterns, harm to the local fisheries, and, hence, food security as is evident of the current decision being made to go ahead with Xayaburi Damn in Laos on the Mekong River.

This volume is a timely contribution to the environmental issues and policy concerning water resources, place, and equity. As a policy maker working with equity issues, I find this book is a valuable resource for academics, policy makers, and anyone interested in the environment and, in particular, water issues. 

Last Updated 4 June 2011

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