Narain, V. and Roth, D. (Eds). 2022. Water security, conflict and cooperation in peri-urban South Asia: Flows across boundaries. Springer. ISBN 978303079034-9 (hardcover). E-book open access, 180p., (soft cover) €42.19.
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To cite this Review: Dhar, P. (2022). Water security, conflict and cooperation in peri-urban South Asia: Flows across boundaries, Springer 2022, edited by Vishal Narain and Dik Roth, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/285-narain
This edited volume brings together a rich collection of cases that share a focus on peri-urban spaces in South Asia. The volume calls into question the treatment of peri-urban areas as ‘blank spaces’ at the margins of urban areas. It makes a case for seeing the peri-urban as an analytical category that brings to light some of the contestations and tensions involved in the material production of the urban.
The volume draws on the urban political ecology literature (Boelens et al., 2016; Swyngedouw and Kaika, 2014) while attempting to avoid its ‘methodological cityism’ (Angelo and Wachsmuth, 2014), and extends a critique of the ecological modernization paradigm. Here, the framing of ‘water security’ is used to critically investigate the structural exclusions and vulnerabilities experienced in peri-urban spaces. Further, it highlights that the conflict/cooperation framing in the context of water security is neither a binary nor does it play out in predictable ways in relation to sustainability or social justice considerations.
Some themes appear across the cases in the volume. First, the explicit and implicit prioritization of urbanization – possibly on account of the ‘alliance of power and money’. Urbanization processes acutely affect the environmental quality and livelihoods in peri-urban areas. The actors in these areas negotiate these changes in different ways. In some cases, they adapt practices to leverage these changes – like the sewage-based agriculture illustrated through the cases of Kolkata and Gurugram (Chapters 2 and 6). In other cases, the adaptations are more individualized (like relying on groundwater as illustrated in Chapter 3 and 5). Overall, however, policy responses (or the lack of it) as well as the adaptation strategies of actors in these spaces seem to exacerbate inequalities and vulnerabilities.
Second, infrastructure plays an important role in structuring social relations. This is evident from the cases that specifically focus on contestations around water infrastructures – including canal systems, sewage treatment plants and sluice gates (Chapters 3, 6 and 7). However, the role of infrastructure (or its absence) is evident in the other cases as well such as in chapter 4 and 5 that discuss the lack of municipal water supply services in peri-urban areas. The cases in the volume bring to light the splinters and fractures around infrastructure, especially in the intersections of gender and economic vulnerability.
Third, the importance of foregrounding the transitional nature of these spaces, and social relationships in these spaces. The ‘peri-urban’ is not only spatially and temporally transient, inhabitants themselves may identify as transient occupiers of these spaces (Chapters 4 and 5). Community-level arrangements, where present, are precarious in ‘anticipation of urbanization’ as shown in Chapters 3 and 7. This provides a key insight into the participation-orientation of actors inhabiting peri-urban areas.
In highlighting these complexities, the volume makes an important contribution to the literature on the governance of peri-urban spaces. Static and rigidly defined governance institutions not only fail to address the social and ecological vulnerabilities in peri-urban areas, but also exacerbate them. The dominant frames of policy engagement – through exercising voting preferences, or participating in formal planning processes – may not be applicable in many situations. By emphasizing the agency and voice of inhabitants of peri-urban areas, the contributions in this volume bring out the nuances of the contestations and/or the adaptation strategies of situated actors.
The volume is a useful resource for interdisciplinary researchers investigating the tensions of urbanization and water governance in the global south. It presents exciting approaches of researching the socio-natures produced by urbanization. The cases – from Bangladesh (Gazipur and Khulna), India (Bengaluru, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Gurugram), Nepal (Kathmandu valley) – use different scales and units of analysis. They are investigated primarily through qualitative methods –interviews and participant observations (Chapters 2 and 6), ethnographic research (Chapter 5), participatory ethnography (Chapter 4) and action research (Chapter 7). The application of the Approach for Participatory Institutional Analysis, drawing on Community Operational Research (Johnson, 2012), is also explored in the volume (Chapter 8) although in an exploratory way. Some of the cases bring different scholarships in conversation with each other – for instance, urbanization and climate variability (Chapter 6), or the intersection of gender and water access (Chapter 4 and 5).
Some aspects could have been elucidated better. The volume argues for “political-administrative recognition of the specifically peri-urban dimensions of urbanization” – and active science-policy interaction. However, it may be inferred from the cases that the exclusion of these dimensions is not incidental oversight, but a part of the logic of the urbanization processes. Moreover, it remains unresolved as to how the right to the peri-urban … in a socially, politically and environmentally meaningful way” (Chapter 9) can be realized while the perceptions, aspirations and flows of power favour the neglect of the peri-urban. Contextualizing the findings from the cases in view of other experiences of conflicts and cooperation in peri-urban areas in the global south would have been of further interest.
Angelo, H. and Wachsmuth, D. 2014. Urbanizing urban political ecology: A critique of methodological cityism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39(1): 16–27.
Boelens, R.; Hoogesteger, J.; Swyngedouw, E.; Vos, J. and Wester, P. 2016. Hydrosocial territories: A political ecology perspective. Water International 41(1): 1–14.
Johnson, M. P. 2012. Community-based operations Research: Introduction, theory, and applications. In M. P. Johnson (Ed.) Community-based operations research: Decision modeling for local impact and diverse populations. Springer. pp. 3–36.
Swyngedouw, E. and Kaika, M. 2014. Urban political ecology. Great promises, deadlock… and new beginnings? Documents d’ Analisi Geografica 60(3): 459–481