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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May/June 2012:In This Issue

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REINING IN THE RIO GRANDE: PEOPLE, LAND AND WATER Fred Phillips, G. Emlen Hall, and Mary E. Black, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011.

BOTTLED & SOLD: THE STORY BEHIND OUR OBSESSION WITH BOTTLED WATER Peter H. Gleick, Washington, DC: Covelo/London: Island Press, 2011.

WATER DIPLOMACY: A NEGOTIATED APPROACH TO MANAGING COMPLEX WATER NETWORKS Shafiqul Islam, Lawrence Susskind and Associates, New York/Abingdon: RFF Press, 2012.

Water mirrors the physical and social forces at work in the world, and the present state of oceans and rivers reveals accumulated environmental insults and efforts to correct them. Collectively, these three recent books demonstrate that the reflective capacity of water extends further, and that water resources research parallels the flexible, eclectic approaches that characterize contemporary environmental scholarship where methods are tailored to fit problems. While on their faces these books would seem to have little in common except water, the ways in which they are alike and different show the capacity of water resources researchers to adapt approaches and methods to fit a variety of themes and contexts.

All three books transcend disciplinary boundaries and treat water problems from multiple physical, social, and political perspectives. A hydrologist, a legal scholar, and an anthropology specialist combine their expertise in their highly engaging treatment of the past, present, and uncertain future of the Rio Grande. The book Bottled and Sold moves easily from the physical to social aspects of the growing problem of bottled water. While Water Diplomacy emphasizes social science, the complexity theory embraced by the work recognizes the competition, interconnection, and feedback among natural and societal processes and the political domain. Another common characteristic is that the intended audiences of the books need not have any previous knowledge about water resources, although their contents are also instructive to specialists. The three books are also similar in their overall high quality and commitment to innovation and change in the substance and process of water resources decisions.

Each book adopts a different framework and mode of reasoning that is appropriate to the various foci they examine. Each has a different analytical purpose and the kinds of insights they offer are distinct. Table 1 summarizes the differences among the three books.

Table: Approaches to Analysis of Water Resources






Phillips et al.

River Basin

Historical/institutional analysis

Historical precedence

How and why present conditions emerged



Policy Analysis


Preferred solution

Islam et al.


Negotiation and diplomacy


Conflict management

In Reining in the Rio Grande, authors Phillips, Hall, and Black explain the present condition of the Rio Grande River Basin, which is not at all good, although better than it was when local community welfare and environmental values were ignored for a time. Embracing a historical and institutional methodology, the book traces the evolution of laws and physical structures that channeled the benefits of water development to some and costs to others. Generously seasoned with text boxes, pictures, and narratives of outsized challenges, such as droughts, floods, and threatened species, as well as personalities, such as legendary state engineer Steve Reynolds, the book is appealing to water specialists and general readers alike. Intricate negotiations of the Rio Grande Compact and its complicated implementation involving the invention of an “offset” scheme in which groundwater pumping affecting the river was mitigated by retiring surface water rights are explained in simple but accurate terms, and the large number of references facilitate access to more detail. The persistence and resurgence of Native American water rights and “acequia” or Hispanic community water systems are given prominent billing and emphasize the importance of equity and fairness in river-basin management.

Bottled & Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water by Peter Gleick sets a goal where “the world moves toward sustainably managed freshwater resources where every person on the planet has safe and reliable drinking water, ecosystems and communities all have their basic water needs satisfied, and water is used efficiently and carefully” (page 177). Through policy analysis that considers the putative benefits of convenience, purity, and taste of bottled water; the real costs of energy to manufacture and transport bottles; the added costs to collect and dispose of used bottles; and the uncertain and inadequate regulations to protect bottled water quality, Gleick concludes that improving public water supply systems is the preferred pathway to the future he envisions. While the author himself relies on rational means–ends analysis, he readily recognizes the power of framing tap water as unwholesome, socially constructing bottled water as fashionable, and storytelling where bottled water is the hero of weight-loss narratives. Further, analysis alone is recognized as insufficient to change either regulatory policy or consumer demand. Political mobilization against bottled water and the greening of some corporate brands, both of which the book documents, are processes taking place and to which this book clearly intends to contribute.

The perspective of Water Diplomacy rejects, at least implicitly, the concept of a preferred solution. For Islam and his co-authors, complex water problems are constantly changing, any solution is interim, and the same solution is likely to have different outcomes in different settings. They argue that water is best managed as a flexible and shifting network, rather than as a system with multiple interactions and feedbacks among natural, societal, and political domains. Further, the book's authors are not interested in the history of how we got where we are in many water problems because various versions of history depend upon the narratives of particular interests. Instead, they see water as fundamentally contentious and focus on processes to reduce water conflict. The proposed water diplomacy process is rooted in complexity theory and nonzero negotiations and seeks to bridge scientific objectivity and contextual understanding. Mutual-gains and value-added alternatives emerge out of discursive interaction and face-to-face encounters for joint fact-finding, searches for interlocking trades, and possible contingent commitments.

Water Diplomacy is of particular use to students, teachers, and potential water conflict negotiators. It contains excerpts and critical commentary of many standard and often provocative water resources readings related to the chapter themes. Further, it offers a role-playing simulation designed to instruct how to apply water diplomacy in resolving difficult transboundary water disputes.

Collectively, these three recent water resources books illustrate that convergence on some common analytical framework not only is unnecessary but also may be detrimental to advances in scholarship. Each exhibits not only an application of a different approach, but also improvements and innovations.

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