International water politics

The river-border complex

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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.


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 I analyze qualitative interviews and previously unpublished hydrological data to evaluate assertions that hydrological hazards in Southwestern Bangladesh result from India’s activities and that India is failing to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

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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

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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?


Climate change

Climate vulnerability

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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.


Marine science

Population connectivity

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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

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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

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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.