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Beyond Cooperation : Environmental Justice in Transboundary Water Management Public Deposited

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  • Since the Wolf, Yoffe, and Giordano 2003 Basins at Risk study, examining human interactions with transboundary water resources through a lens of conflict and cooperation has been a dominant paradigm. The Basins at Risk (BAR) method involves categorizing events on a scale from most conflictive (e.g. war or extensive casualties) to most cooperative (voluntary unification into one political unit). While this research provides significant insight into the nature of cooperation and conflict over water, it frames the discussion about water politics in terms of diplomatic, economic, and military hostility. However, a basin can exhibit an impressive level of cooperation, yet beneath the surface display tremendous environmental injustice to basin countries and basin sub-populations (e.g. indigenous groups, women). Recognizing that cooperation could mask various forms of conflict and looking at the nexus of water conflict and cooperation in terms of interactions rather than events, Mirumachi introduced the Transboundary Waters Interaction Nexus (TWINS) tool (Zeitoun & Mirumachi, 2008). Yet, this nexus also defines water conflict using high politics and militarized conceptualizations. Thus, I argue that the conflict-cooperation paradigm alone is insufficient for understanding the range of impacts from human interactions with transboundary water. Particularly, these scales do not sufficiently capture decisions and policies that have inequitable distributions of environmental costs and benefits. In other words, they do not capture the environmental justice (also referred to as structural violence) implications of water decisions, whether cooperative or conflictive. This is especially true for more nebulously defined qualitative needs like the cultural or aesthetic values for water resources. Furthermore, while institutions like treaties are key to cooperative (i.e. less direct violence) basins (according to Wolf et al., 2003), they may also solidify and reinforce existing power imbalances and injustices (Zeitoun & Mirumachi, 2008). Thus, if cooperation alone does not guarantee progress towards environmental justice, it is important to understand the role of institutions like treaties and river basin organizations (RBOs). Do they deter affected countries and communities from meeting their basic human needs, or can institutions be wielded to affirm those needs? What is the role of participatory processes? Practically, how can managers, policymakers, and environmental facilitators understand and respond to structural violence related to natural resource decisions? The purpose of this dissertation is to bridge the gap between pragmatism and social idealism, between real-world politics and the charge from great philosophers and leaders to create a more just world. Towards this goal, I developed a scale of structural violence in transboundary basins that complements the work of Wolf et al. and Mirumachi et al. (referred to as the London Water Research Group- or LWRG). This tool- called the Integrated Basins at Risk (iBAR) scale- draws from Wolf's (2008) work on water and spirituality, mirroring Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I developed a linked method to assess structural violence/environmental justice using the scale as a prism to assess archival events (newspaper articles), interviews, and observational data from conference and panel presentations. Using the Mekong Basin as a transboundary water case study, I tested the scale and methodology, painting a detailed picture of environmental justice in the basin and the institutional variables associated with positive and negative outcomes. From this, I drew conclusions and produced recommendations relevant to practitioners interested in improving justice outcomes in transboundary basins. Finally, I evaluated the iBAR method's utility as an assessment tool for water conflict facilitators and water managers.
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