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Book Review: Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis by Brahma Chellaney

Paolo Volpato - 19th February 2014
Book Review: Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis by Brahm

Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis by Brahma Chellaney. New York: Rowman & Littlefield 2013. 424 pp, £24.95 hardcover 978-1-4422-2139-0, ebook 978-1-4422-2140-6

It is hard to find something more important for human existence than water. Readers will find in this book an in-depth overview of the topic, which will raise some alarm-bells. Those who might be drawn to the book by its somewhat misleading title will be disappointed, as this is not a specialist work on (actual or possible) shooting wars caused by a run to water basins, but a book with a much broader range. The author, Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, writes about every possible aspect of the problems and challenges related to water in the 21st Century. The basic argument delineated by Chellaney is that water plays an important, growing, and often overlooked role in most of the major issues currently affecting international relations.

Issues like the sharing of international basins, or the building of dams by upriver states, exacerbate tensions between neighbours. Water shortages and the pollution of rivers and basins contribute to the general degradation in the quality of life in poor regions, and increasingly in the rich Western world. Moreover, water compounds most of the crises that we are familiar with: many forms of energy, for instance, require great amounts of water to be produced; the general rise of food prices that we have witnessed in the past few years is directly linked to water issues.

A point particularly stressed by the author is the lack of international treaties regulating the sharing of transnational water resources. The handful of treaties that do exist are often outdated (no water-sharing treaty has yet been signed in this century) or lacking in details on the harnessing and managing of the common resources.

The author provides many examples to illustrate this vicious cycle between water scarcity and international crises. A region which is constantly in the news is what the author calls ‘the arc of Islam’ (pp.219-225). The issues affecting it are extremely complicated, but a common thread encompassing almost all the countries in this region is water scarcity. Chellaney points out the cases in which water scarcity facilitates the triggering of other crises. Most recently, this happened during the Arab Spring, which was caused in part by rising food prices - a problem directly related to the worsening regional freshwater crisis. Water in this region is extracted at an unsustainable rate, to meet the needs of a growing population, and this will make water shortages even more severe in the future.

Another region which receives an in-depth analysis by Chellaney is that formed by China and its surrounding areas. The security threat perceived by China's neighbours is one of the most studied issues affecting international relations today. However, the book manages to provide an illuminating and novel point of view by noting that China is the ‘world's undisputed dam-building leader’ (p.xxiii) - having embarked on numerous projects to re-engineer cross-border outflows, thereby compounding the lack of trust between her and her neighbours.

The final chapter is more policy-oriented, and puts forward some proposed innovations to help defuse future crises over water shortages. The main call made by the author regards the need to regulate the process of water-sharing between countries; it is in particular imperative to abandon the doctrine of prior appropriation, which causes a race between neighbours to exploit shared water resources.

Chellaney's prose is not very engaging. Sometimes the structure of his paragraphs within a chapter is not easy to follow, especially given the lack of introductory and conclusive sections (there is a short general introduction to the book, however). One ultimately has the feeling that the book could have greatly benefited from stricter editing, making it more concise and focused. There are some interesting graphs and tables, but a denser presence of visual aids would have been welcome in such a data-driven book. The glossary at the end is very useful, as general readers will not be familiar with the technical terms used in the book. An annotated bibliography would have been useful to readers wishing to pursue further study on some particular issues, although the 50 pages of notes – a testimony to the author's in-depth research – will help with this regard.

In conclusion, general readers who might be interested in the topic will probably find it hard to deal with a deluge of facts and figures, delivered in a sometimes convoluted prose. However, this book is essential reading for specialists and for those wishing to familiarize themselves with the politics of water resources. Looking at the world from this perspective will help readers to gain a new insight into many troubling issues now and in the future.


Paolo Volpato is a freelance writer and translator. He holds an MA in History of International Relations from the LSE and an MA in International Relations from Università Roma Tre.