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Water Policy for Sustainable Development

Water Policy for Sustainable Development by David Lewis Feldman. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007, 371 pp.

I read Water Policy for Sustainable Development because the topic is so intriguing and because water is so essential to every aspect of human endeavor. Too bad the book is not as intriguing as the topic. The author presents good information but takes over 370 pages to convey ideas that could be adequately expressed in many fewer, presenting information in a manner that detracts from relevant policy positions or lessons that can be learned and utilized.

The book states it purpose “is to illuminate how the management of freshwater has become a global political, social, economic, and environmental problem and to suggest ways we might soberly and equitably address it.” The word equitable is where the whole process breaks down. What role should government, the populace—collectively and individually—industry, landowners, developers, and speculators play in practicing the art of water policy management?

The author postulates that “democratic societies should protect the water supply through ensuring that allocation and management is fair, open, honest and flexible,” and surmises that the United States with its democratic institutions is capable of this “sound approach to management.” Feldman presents specific examples from throughout the United States as evidence of his theory of sustainable water policy for development. One major flaw in his logic is that all brokers involved in the formulation and execution of water resources present solutions that may come from dubious actors that are more self-serving than philanthropic in their water policy solutions.

What it all boils down to is who gets how much water and what can be done with it. All players are not and should not be on equal footing in the debate. Three key areas encompass the challenges that all policy makers can agree on: economic growth versus environmental protection; climate change and meteorological uncertainty; and control and ownership of water, dispute or polemic?

Should water be publicly or privately owned and controlled? Environmentalists argue that access to water is a basic human right, not to be controlled by private for-profit entities. Privatization and its agents are not all inherently evil, but some may exhibit unscrupulous business practices. Is government oversight required for all water management policy? Government agencies are certainly not immune from the same unscrupulous practices that are exhibited in private concerns, albeit for different reasons, namely power or control.

Feldman presents numerous case studies to examine both historical and present day examples of how different instruments have been utilized successfully and unsuccessfully throughout the history of America to attempt to resolve water sustainment issues. These include federal interstate compacts (e.g., the Colorado River and Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint [ACF] River Basin Compacts) and interstate commissions (e.g., the Delaware and the Susquehanna River Basin Commissions).

The methodology lays out how decision makers formulate initiatives by establishing consensus—making decisions; soliciting public input and using science in decision making; stakeholder roles—opposing and supporting the status quo; the water quality versus water quantity argument; riparian and prior appropriation; and finally, funding and obstacles to goal achievement. Another measure that must be included in any decision-making process is cultural context and political acceptability—perhaps the most subjective and volatile variable in the equation formulating water policy because it is so emotionally charged.

One water policy adaptation tool that continually surfaces through this survey is adaptive management. Without argument, the author rightly points out that “sustainable development requires a distinctive set of political and institutional changes . . . that builds accord among stakeholders, agencies, and nongovernmental organizations” by formulating plans by which “decisions are made and modified as a function of what is know and learned about the (natural) system.” As the name implies, it forces the actors to adapt and overcome—recognize and acknowledge mistakes, monitor and measure change, adopt midcourse corrections, and apply lessons learned where appropriate.

Bottom line, the above mentioned process, adaptive management, is really the only hope for a fair, equitable, and sustainable water policy resources management process that is able to truly map the way forward for all parties to continue to share life’s most precious resource, water.

Maj Charles Sammons, USAF

C2 Branch 8AF/OV

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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