International water cooperation
The relationship between resource availability and conflict is a complex one that is shaped by several factors, including state capacity, institutions, resource distribution, and livelihood stability. Such complexity notwithstanding, there has been a tendency in popular media and some policy circles to promulgate the notion of violent conflict erupting between countries over increasingly erratic and dwindling supplies of water.
However, predictions of water wars elide the fact that inter-state conflict over water is exceedingly rare and that actual conflicts tend to occur at national and sub-national levels, often as a result of manufactured scarcity. Furthermore, many analysts point to the historical record, which indicates that states are significantly more likely to cooperate than fight over water.
My research intervenes in this debate by examining interstate water cooperation between India and Bangladesh over the Ganges River. In this case, I find that a landmark treaty has not been unequivocally positive. One on hand, it assures Bangladesh dry season water flows; however, its uneven implementation has periodically created conditions of extreme water scarcity in the downstream state (The Third Pole 2017). Contradictory perceptions of the treaty's efficacy, I propose, result in part from divergent understandings of just what international water cooperation actually means (Water Policy 2017).
My work also draws attention to the concern that focusing on water wars leaves unattended the everyday, low-level violence that communities already endure around the world (Education About Asia 2017). It is this "mundane" violence that warrants our attention.
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.