My research contributes to on-going debates about human vulnerability to environmental change at multiple scales by investigating the interplay of environmental governance, state-making, and socio-economic development. This work uses international river governance as an entry point for examining the intertwined issues of resource access, socio-ecological change, asymmetrical power dynamics, and underdevelopment.

 

Rajshahi 2014
Interviewing fishermen on the Padma (Ganges) River, Rajshahi.

International water governance

There are few things that seem as straightforward as an international river. Not surprisingly, most academic research and policy work approach international rivers as watercourses that cross national boundaries. The consequence of such a framing is that the borders and bordering processes (e.g. fencing, policing, monitoring) that crucially structure international watercourses are sidelined, obscured, or ignored altogether.

This project argues instead that we need to reconceptualize international rivers as synergistic, multifaceted, and ongoing interactions between rivers and borders. Through an integrated environmental-political-historical analysis of the Ganges River, I advance a new theoretical concept, “the river-border complex,” as an alternative approach to addressing intractable transboundary river governance problems (Water International 2017). For instance, by demonstrating how asymmetrical power dynamics between India and Bangladesh hinge on historical contingencies and discursive practices, this work reveals how such power dynamics may be contested and reconfigured to establish more equitable systems of transboundary resource access and use.

 

Climate justice

Locating sites of water management infrastructure in the Mekong Delta.

Popularly described since the time of French colonization as two rice baskets at opposing ends of a pole, Vietnam’s socio-ecology is strongly structured by the fertile deltas of the Mekong River in the south and the Red River in the north. Like Bangladesh, these deltaic landscapes are acutely vulnerable to climate change hazards such as floods, droughts, sea level rise, and tropical storms. A variety of government, foreign, and multilateral development agencies are therefore actively exploring investment opportunities to buttress Vietnam’s water infrastructure against climate change. However, my research in Bangladesh revealed that foreign climate finance for the country’s flood management infrastructure is destabilizing rather than protecting critical socio-ecological systems.

In this project, I evaluate climate finance as a vehicle for climate justice through a comparative analysis of climate change adaptation programs in the Ganges and Mekong Deltas. Hundreds of billions of dollars of climate finance are being mobilized to help developing countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh adapt to climate change threats. However, the lack of definitional clarity means that climate finance is often disbursed not as grants but as loans with attendant interest, and some programs have been criticized for prioritizing the goals of donor countries and financial institutions over those of the target populations. Thus, there is an open and pressing question whether climate finance serves primarily as a mechanism for industrialized states to secure benefits for themselves or to rectify their historic contributions to climate change and to mitigate the associated impacts that developing countries disproportionately suffer. This work is supported through a Multi-Country Research Fellowship by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers.