Furlong, K. (2006). Hidden theories, troubled waters: International relations, the “territorial trap”, and the Southern African Development Community’s transboundary waters. Political Geography, 25(4), 438–458.

Furlong’s (2006) article critiquing the IR/IO theorizing in the international watercourses literature addresses important limitations found throughout the literature. Her main critique is on the regime approach to water discourse and the territorial trap, which obscure water realities within states and between communities. She also invokes the hegemonic stability theory to explain and understand the substance of watercourse agreements.

The territorial trap: Couched within a regime approach to water discourse, Agnew’s (1994) territorial trap involves three crutches: 1) “the reification [(making something abstract into something real)] of sovereignty as complete state control over a fixed unit of territorial space; 2) the severing of domestic and foreign politics; and, 3) the state as prior to and a container of society” (442). As illustrated in her case study of the SADC, this triad is often exhibited simultaneously.

What the territorial trap risks is ignoring, or obscuring, the decisions about access to and use of a scarce resource involving actors at multiple scales – from the international, national/governmental, regional, community, and household levels (442). In my estimation, this is an argument for multilevel governance in water resource management and governance, which requires a shift from the regime approach and the territorial trap. Furlong argues that a critical geopolitical and political ecology approach to water discourse can illuminate the shortcomings and limitations of an IR/IO theorization, and allow for the inclusion of facets, such as intra-state social and political realities, into the discussion.

The ‘hegemonic stability theory’ “holds that hegemonic structures of power, dominated by a single country, are most conducive to the development of strong international regimes whose rules are relatively precise and well observed” (Keohane, 1980, p. 132 cited in Furlong, 2006, p. 443). Furlong argues, however, that historical realities and the geographies of water resources, which have a strong influence on relations between riparians, are ignored.

Furlong’s argument that hegemonic stability theory does not necessarily require a strong hegemon is quite interesting, as it opens up the possibility for the compression (or elimination entirely) of spatial considerations in hegemonic influence in a water basin. Furlong argues “hegemony does not require a hegemon but can come in the form of (and always with) an ideology that conditions behaviour of actors in world politics – in contemporary geopolitical order, according to this approach, the hegemonic ideology is market liberalism” (443). The hegemonic ideology we are perhaps most familiar with – market liberalism – is propagated by the usual suspects – the World Bank, IMF, and WTO (443).

Furlong illustrates hegemony as an ideology. But, it finds its teeth in ‘governmentality’, “through the degrees of force and reason…ordered visions of space, territory, and geography are imposed upon ambivalent lands, terrains, and cultures to coincide with imperial imperatives and perspectives” (443). Indeed, the practice of governmentality is expressed by Bakker (2009) in her analysis of the Mekong, which shifted from a Cold War ‘front line’ into a ‘corridor of commerce’ – from the ideology of securitization during the Cold War to an ideology of market liberalism (443).

Stocked with more interesting insight, Furlong illuminates how the IR/IO theorization that argues interdependence and reciprocity can reduce asymmetric gains (which are significant obstacles to cooperation among states), is flawed. IO theorization states that integration addresses asymmetries; that the maximization of system values (i.e. the economic value of water over the whole system) can be achieved through large-scale infrastructure projects (444). It shouldnt be a surprise then that IO’s such as the WB heavily invest in hydroelectric development. Yet, what this obscures, Furlong argues, is intra-national impacts on marginalized and economically poorer regions and communities (evident in her example of the LHWP). Though hydropower development may increase cooperation between states at the international level, an IR/IO theorization does not address the “experiences of individuals and communities residing in and around the basin” and propagates the ‘state as container’ model (445).

Water Scarcity:
IR approaches to scarcity are unable to expose the common experience of water scarcity as ‘droughts for the poor and floods for the rich’ (Bond, Ruiters, & Stein, 2002, p. 271 cited in Furlong 2006, p. 447). Furlong is saying that water scarcity is not strictly a biophysical phenomenon, or evenly experienced. Scarcity is uneven, and affects poor and rich differently. The IR approach can recognize water scarcity between states, but is unable to look at social relations within states that unevenly distribute water nor explain the social aspects of water scarcity. Water scarcity is more than an expression of equations that “link population density and growth to availability of freshwater resources, it is a socio-historical production” (447).

Perhaps the most important line from this article is this: “The management of international watercourses is not simply about the water that flows through them today, but the particular histories of how the water within them and the local human and environmental relationships to them have been produced” (448). These complexities are simply beyond the ability of an IR/IO theorization of the water discourse to interpret, let alone identify, when the focus is on the state-to-state relationships, guided by a hegemonic ideology of market liberalization. It strikes me that this hegemonic ideology is alive and well, as I look at an OECD report (2014) entitled “Water Governance in the Jordan: Overcoming the Challenges to Private Sector Participation”. The “establishment of strong PPP capabilities” are considered tools to address planning gaps in the water utility sector in Jordan (p. 9 of the report). Furlong reminds us that public-private partnerships and full-cost pricing are often part of the neoliberal model. Though a loosely put together example on my part, it none-the-less suggests a hegemonic ideology of market liberalism at work.

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