International water politics

The river-border complex

(Water International 2017)


International rivers are conventionally understood as watercourses that cross national boundaries, while borders themselves are taken to be static and given – passive features over and across which riparian processes unfold. Employing such straightforward framings of international rivers and borders, academic studies and policy analyses of transboundary water governance perpetuate problematic ideas about the relevant scales and actors involved in international river conflicts and crises. Through a historical examination of the Ganges River and the Indo-Bangladeshi border, I introduce the ‘river-border complex’ as a new framework for reconceptualizing international rivers and borders as synergistic, co-constitutive and interdependent.

The Ganges water treaty

(Water Policy 2017)


While cooperation appears self-evident and unproblematic, cases of formal cooperation reveal points of contestation about cooperation itself. For example, India and Bangladesh disagree about the extent to which cooperation is occurring over the Ganges River despite having penned a bilateral treaty that has been in force for 20 years. I analyze qualitative interviews and previously unpublished hydrological data to evaluate assertions that hydrological hazards in Southwestern Bangladesh result from India’s activities and that India is failing to uphold the 1996 agreement. The analysis indicates that these assertions are true and false: India is broadly adhering to the Ganges Treaty but unilaterally withdraws water during a critical period of the dry season when regional livelihoods are most vulnerable. The study concludes that transboundary water cooperation as an abstract ideal overlooks the fact that cooperation as a practice emerges from and operates within specific historical, political, cultural, and economic contexts.

Mundane violence

(Education About Asia 2018)


Excerpt: This article highlights two problems with the way we typically think about international water conflicts. First, war over water is extremely improbable but continues to claim an undue amount of our attention. Second, focusing on the perceived threat of water wars at some unspecified point in the future interferes with our ability to recognize and address the ordinary violence involving water that already exists. I describe everyday violence as “mundane” not to suggest that it is normal and therefore is not a problem, but to argue that it is a problem precisely because it has become normalized.

Rivers in the Anthropocene

(Geopolitics 2017)


Excerpt: Biodiversity hotspots. Big bang. Keystone species. Anthropocene. The natural sciences are replete with terms that convey the significance of the referent object or event, and concepts so named often have political as well as scientific salience. The notion of biodiversity hotspots, for instance, has been employed in the designation and protection of critically threatened habitats containing high levels of endemism. In the case of the Anthropocene, this provisional epoch highlights the long-term impacts of human interference with global biogeochemical cycles, which underpin the viability of socio-ecological systems such as international rivers. The Anthropocene has already been invoked in proposals for large-scale geoengineering of the climate and enhanced policing against wildlife trafficking, for example. Might the boundary-transcending concept of the Anthropocene also inform the traditionally territorial issues of international river governance?

Water security

(Geography Review 2019)


Excerpt: Billions of people lack water security. The case studies discussed here show the importance of looking beyond immediate factors to understand and explain water insecurity. In some cases, like South Asia, relations between states sharing water resources may be a key factor, while in others, like South Africa, it may be necessary to consider dynamics even further afield to address why people lack something so abundant and essential as water.

Post-treaty water conflict

(South Asia Journal 2012)


Fifty-four rivers traverse the border between India and Bangladesh. As such, these countries occupy a central position in the globally-critical discourse of international water governance and related issues, including global economic security, environmental migration, and natural hazards management. In particular, the Ganges River directly impacts the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people and has been a focal point of Indo-Bangladeshi relations since Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971. After twenty-five years of frustrated negotiations, India and Bangladesh finally brokered a long-term agreement over the shared management and equitable distribution of the Ganges. However, a close reading of the treaty reveals negative hydro-hegemony, as evidenced by stipulations regarding the timing of water release to Bangladesh and the geographic scope of the agreement. The present analysis then extends beyond the scale of the nation-state to consider supranational and domestic drivers of vulnerability to shifts in water availability.

Climate change

Weaponizing vulnerability to climate change

(Global Environmental Change 2019)


As scores of climate change adaptation measures are implemented around the world, there have been growing calls among academics and practitioners to also address the processes that underpin human vulnerability to climate change. However, there is mounting evidence that adaptation and vulnerability are linked, such that ostensibly adaptive responses can have negative consequences and augment people’s vulnerability. We analyzed several climate change responses at various scales and developed a typology of five discrete but related modes by which the vulnerability of already vulnerable populations is being [re]produced. Crucially, this work suggests that for at least one of these modes, the vulnerability of other groups is perversely inverted, such that relatively secure populations perceive themselves to be at risk. The cases we present illustrate that people’s vulnerability is being used against them, or put another way, is being weaponized―exacerbating their precarity by excluding them from much needed and due assistance, while directing resources instead to bolstering the well-being of those already well-positioned to respond to climate threats. Our typology provides a theoretical intervention by illustrating how climate vulnerability and security are co-produced, as well as a practical tool to help decision makers to adopt more just and equitable climate policies.

Uneven vulnerability to climate change

(WIREs Climate Change 2018)


The varied effects of recent extreme weather events around the world exemplify the uneven impacts of climate change on populations, even within relatively small geographic regions. Differential human vulnerability to environmental hazards results from a range of social, economic, historical, and political factors, all of which operate at multiple scales. While adaptation to climate change has been the dominant focus of policy and research agendas, it is essential to ask as well why some communities and peoples are disproportionately exposed to and affected by climate threats. The cases and synthesis presented here are organized around four key themes (resource access, governance, culture, and knowledge), which we approach from four social science fields (cultural anthropology, archaeology, human geography, and sociology). Social scientific approaches to human vulnerability draw vital attention to the root causes of climate change threats and the reasons that people are forced to adapt to them. Because vulnerability is a multidimensional process rather than an unchanging state, a dynamic social approach to vulnerability is most likely to improve mitigation and adaptation planning efforts.

Hazards mitigation targets

(Climate and Development 2019)


Large-scale water management systems were introduced to the Ganges-Brahmaputra and Mekong Deltas in the latter half of the twentieth century to manage extreme water hazards and increase food production. However, these systems significantly altered their respective hydrological regimes, often creating worse socio-ecological conditions and greater vulnerability to floods and seawater intrusion than existed previously. Despite this history of disaster experience, climate change adaptation measures in the Ganges-Brahmaputra and Mekong Deltas use contemporary socio-ecological conditions as the baseline for disaster mitigation efforts. Paradoxically relying on old approaches to address future climate threats, disaster planners overlook how current conditions in both deltas are unstable outcomes of historical processes. These cases illustrate that large-scale and capital-intensive climate responses may fail to measurably reduce disaster risk. The concept of shifting baselines, borrowed from fisheries science, becomes helpful for selecting more appropriate reference points for disaster mitigation than current conditions.

Marine science

Population connectivity

(Marine Ecology Progress Series 2009)


Population connectivity plays significant roles on both evolutionary and ecological time-scales; however, quantifying the magnitude and pattern of exchange between populations of marine organisms is hindered by the difficulty of tracking the trajectory and fate of propagules. We explored biophysical correlates of population substructure to determine how well pelagic larval duration (PLD) correlates with population genetic estimates of connectivity in a sample of 300 published studies drawn pseudo-randomly from about 1600 hits on electronic searches. In direct contrast to the general expectation of a strong correlation, we find that average PLD is poorly correlated (r^2 < 0.1) with genetic structure (FST). Furthermore, even this weak correlation is anchored by non-pelagic dispersal, because removal of the zero PLD class (direct developers) from the analysis resulted in a non-significant relationship between FST and PLD. ... Our meta-analysis refutes recent reviews and conventional wisdom that PLD is a good predictor of the magnitude of gene flow and geographic scale of population structure in marine systems.

Marine debris

(mSystems 2016)


Excerpt: Marine plastic debris is a growing concern that has captured the general public’s attention. While the negative impacts of plastic debris on oceanic macrobiota, including mammals and birds, are well documented, little is known about its influence on smaller marine residents, including microbes that have key roles in ocean biogeochemistry. Our work provides a new perspective on microbial communities inhabiting microplastics that includes its effect on microbial biogeochemical activities and a description of the cross-domain communities inhabiting plastic particles. This study is among the first molecular ecology, plastic debris biota surveys in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. It has identified fundamental differences in the functional potential and taxonomic composition of plastic-associated microbes versus planktonic microbes found in the surrounding open-ocean habitat.

Biophysical oceanography

(Continental Shelf Research 2007)


Sea breezes often have significant impacts on nearshore physical and biological processes. We document the effects of a diurnal sea breeze on the nearshore thermal structure and circulation of northern Monterey Bay, California, using an array of moorings during the summer upwelling season in 2006. ... Examination of tidal, current, temperature, and wind records revealed that the observed temperature fluctuations were the result of local diurnal upwelling, and not a result of nearshore mixing events. Westerly diurnal sea breezes led to offshore Ekman transport of surface waters. Resulting currents in the upper mixed layer were up to 0.10m/s directed offshore during the afternoon upwelling period. Surface water temperatures rapidly decreased in response to offshore advection of surface waters and upwelling of cold, subsurface water, despite occurring in the mid-afternoon during the period of highest solar heat flux. Surface waters then warmed again during the night and early morning as winds relaxed and the upwelling shadow moved back to shore due to an unbalanced onshore pressure gradient.

Marine evolution

(Geobiology 2007)


The earliest record of animals (Metazoa) consists of trace and body fossils restricted to the last 35 Myr of the Precambrian. It has been proposed that animals arose much earlier and underwent significant evolution as a cryptic fauna; however, the need for any unrecorded prelude of significant duration has been disputed. In this context, we consider recent published research on the nature and chronology of the earliest fossil record of metazoans and on the molecular-based analysis that yielded older dates for the appearance of major animal groups. We review recent work on the climatic, geochemical, and ecological events that preceded animal fossils and consider their portent for metazoan evolution. We also discuss inferences about the physiology and gene content of the last common ancestor of animals and their closest unicellular relatives. We propose that the recorded Precambrian evolution of animals includes three intervals of advancement that begin with sponge-grade organisms, and that any preceding cryptic fauna would be no more complex than sponges.