Knowing the Salween River (Middleton and Lamb, 2019)

Stew Motta


Middleton, C. and Lamb, V. 2019. Knowing the Salween River: Resource politics of a contested transboundary river. Springer Nature. ISBN 978-3-319-77440-4. 324p. Ebook Open Access/Soft cover 52 Euros.


Stew Motta

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands;

To cite this review: To cite this Review: Motta, S. 2021. Review of "Knowing the Salween River: Resource politics of a contested transboundary river ", Springer Nature, 2019, by Carl Middleton and Vanessa Lamb, Water Alternatives,



Knowing the Salween River: Resource Politics of a Contested Transboundary River is the first book of its type on the Salween River and represents a landmark contribution in understanding the diverse knowledge types and complex governance issues at play in that region. The authors tackle topics over a wide geography- from rangelands on the Tibetan Plateau, through Thailand's environmental law and negotiations, to multiple key sub-national perspectives from Myanmar's ethnic states. The volume is an earnest example of co-production research and has significant contributions from civil society actors, which the authors remind us have been the primary engine of knowledge generation on the Salween geography over the decades. This research approach is in line with leading hydropolitics scholars who have highlighted the inclusion of civil society as integral for water conflict transformation (Zeitoun et al., 2020).

The chapters in the book take on the complex issue of scale in transboundary hydropolitics. Scale is viewed not as a given, but as something that is produced as stated in p. 30: "scales of analysis and decision-making are both considered as part of the process of understanding governance and politics of the Salween, but […] these scales (of the nation, sub-nation, and local) are also produced and become subjects of action through these same processes".

The authors notably grapple with how scale is discursively produced. This endeavor begins immediately after the introduction in chapter 1, "Salween: What's in a name?" (Lamb), in Chapter 6 when they look at the production of scale in Myanmar/Burma (Götz), and again in Chapter 11 with Paiboon Hengsuwan's contribution entitled "Not only anti-dam".

Scale as a subject of action is paired with an analysis conducted at various scales of administration, maintaining both a broad political economy analysis relevant to the whole Mekong Region, while also keeping the reader firmly rooted in Salween communities and their struggles. Some of this grounded research is due to methodological choices such as the villager focused Thai Baan approaches. However, beyond methods, the ability to tackle Salween issues across scales speaks to the deep knowledge, expertise and decades of experience of the contributors to this book.

Since the book was published, the Salween region has become more violent after the recent putsch by the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) on February 1, 2021. Issues raised in the book around violent conflict, Internally Displaced Peoples, refugees, dam development and the contested nature of legitimacy in the Salween are as relevant now as ever before. This book brings attention to the historical legacy of armed conflicts and their interwoven nature with extractive development pathways in the Salween. The authors conclude with outlining five possible scenarios for the future ranging from the status quo of scenario 1 - "Unregulated Development and Fragmented Sovereignty" to scenario 5 - "Nu-Jiang Salween River as World Heritage".

While a World Heritage designation might sound ideal to some, these conservation efforts have entailed serious impacts on local livelihoods, and the complications of these strategies are covered in the Yunnan context in Chapter 4 of this book (Xiaogang et al.). In Myanmar, conservation is not a straightforward solution and has been also used as a tool for military expansion and efforts to territorialize disputed areas of control (Woods and Naimark, 2020; Woods 2019). Regardless of the five future scenarios a reader might subscribe to, what is clear is that if current extractive and violent development pathways are to change, there is –according to the authors- a need for increased inclusion of civil society and the voices of Salween communities.

Knowing the Salween River: Resource Politics of a Contested Transboundary River is a key contribution to understanding a contested landscape and is available open access for those working on a different vision for the Salween in the future.


Middleton, C. and Lamb, V., 2019. Knowing the Salween River: Resource politics of a contested transboundary river (p. 324). Springer Nature.

Woods, K.M., 2019. Green territoriality: Conservation as state territorialization in a resource frontier. Human Ecology, 47(2), pp.217-232.

Woods, K.M. and Naimark, J., 2020. Conservation as counterinsurgency: A case of ceasefire in a rebel forest in southeast Myanmar. Political Geography, 83, p.102251.

Zeitoun, M., Mirumachi, N., Warner, J., Kirkegaard, M. and Cascão, A. 2020. Analysis for water conflict transformation. Water International 45(4): 365-384.

Additional Info

  • Authors: Carl Middleton and Vanessa Lamb
  • Year of publication: 2019
  • Publisher: Springer
  • Reviewer: Stew Motta
  • Subject: Transboundary waters, Water politics, Dams, Water and community
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English