Water Resources Research Paper

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Water resources encompass the freshwaters of the world. The geographic distribution and flow of freshwaters affect supplies of water available for human use, and associated problems of surplus, scarcity, and pollution. Psychological and behavioral research has focused on the perception of water problems and decision-making models, while phenomenological research has explored the deeper meanings of water use. Social scientific research on water has evolved from description of regional water problems, to economic and institutional analysis of alternatives and, more recently, to political and cultural dimensions of water problems. Although flawed, Karl Wittfogel’s research on social aspects of water development stimulated work of theoretical and practical value, which argues for continuing attention to comparative international research on water resources.

1. Freshwaters Of The World

In the social sciences ‘water resources’ generally refer to the freshwaters of the world. Freshwater includes precipitation that falls over the continents as rain or snow, infiltrates into soils and groundwater aquifers, runs off into stream networks that drain the continents, evaporates from lakes and transpires from vegetation, and ultimately flows back into the deltas and estuaries along the continental margins. As coastal and marine resources involve different types of use, they are treated separately. Advances in global environmental science may lead to greater integration fresh and saline water research.

Freshwaters constitute only 2.5 percent of the world’s water resources, the bulk of which (96.5 percent) are in the oceans. The largest proportion of freshwaters are frozen in ice caps and glaciers (68.7 percent), followed by groundwater (30.1 percent), lakes (0.26 percent), the atmosphere (0.04 percent), marshes (0.03 percent), rivers (0.006 percent), and biological water (0.003 percent) (Shiklomanov 1993). Biological waters are small in volume but have great social significance because they include the water in human bodies.

In addition to their physiological and ecological importance, freshwaters have been central to fundamental social debates about property, power, public interest, and the role of the state. Those debates, in turn, have influenced the course of environmental science, technology, and law; and those fields have deepened understanding of the distribution and flows of water from one location, physical state, and quality to another.

2. Water Distribution And Flows

The static percentages of freshwater mentioned above must be qualified in four important ways to understand their social significance. First, freshwaters cycle dynamically in space and time. For example, biological waters are replaced (through ingestion, perspiration, and excretion) on timescales of hours to days, while groundwater is only replaced (through discharge and recharge) on timescales of tens of thousands of years. These temporal cycles have profound implications for human water supply and pollution control.

Although biological water needs do not vary much within species, they do vary across geographic regions. The distribution of freshwater varies by latitude and by climatic processes within latitudinal zones, which range from arid to humid and which vary on seasonal, annual, and longer timescales.

These variations have implications for human water use that are analyzed through water budget analysis. A water budget compares the amount of water supplied by precipitation with the amount of water consumed by evaporation and transpiration from vegetation and crops—the largest use of water worldwide. The difference between precipitation and evapotranspiration defines the magnitude and duration of surplus and scarcity, which societies address by acquiring supplemental water, draining excess waters, or moving to more favorable habitats.

Freshwaters also vary in physical characteristics, chemical composition, and aquatic life. These characteristics reflect the broad climatic and physiographic contexts that shape the landscape of stream networks, groundwater aquifers, and wetlands. Variations in freshwater distribution, characteristics, and landscapes condition human water experience, which is the primary concern of this research paper (Gleick 1998). People who live in snow covered alpine watersheds have different water supplies, quality, and problems from those living in temperate or tropical watersheds fed by rain. People living in downstream environments face different water opportunities and problems from those upstream. It is well known that downstream groups face water quantity and quality problems generated by upstream groups; but it is appreciated less widely that downstream groups often have the political and economic power to regulate and constrain upstream development. Many engineering projects of the twentieth century failed to meet their intended goals or gain public support, in large part due to inadequate understanding of such basic social and behavioral aspects of water. Increasingly it is recognized that social research represents an important frontier for water resources management (Baumann and Haimes 1988).

3. Psychological And Behavioral Aspects Of Water

In addition to supporting life, water has distinctive psychological characteristics. At a physiological level, ‘thirst’ is experienced differently from ‘hunger’ and other needs. Psychological disorders (e.g., water phobias) include fears of immersion, swimming, and drowning. At a social level, perception of water-related risks and adjustments, have received attention in behavioral research on flood and drought hazards, beginning in the 1960s. Flood and drought hazards research evolved from an early emphasis on description of disaster losses and recovery strategies to research that seeks to explain decisions to locate in floodplains (White 1945).

Droughts develop more slowly than floods and involve different processes of perception, behavior, and adjustment (Saarinen 1966). Water-related disease hazards range from disease vectors in aquatic habitats to inadequate water supply for washing, and vectors that breed in wet areas (White et al. 1972). Reexamination of pioneering studies of hazards designed to assess the effects of increased knowledge have noted limited progress in reducing economic losses. Efforts to develop general decision-making models to address water problems developed a key analytical construct, known as the ‘range of choice,’ which attributed failings to undue narrowing of the alternatives considered (Wescoat 1992).

Criticism of behavioral research on water has focused on structural constraints, especially in developing countries. These criticisms led to research on social vulnerability to water problems. Another, smaller, line of phenomenological inquiry has questioned assumptions about human experience of water (Bachelard 1983, Cosgrove and Petts 1990).

4. Cultural Representations Of Water

Social research on the representations of water (e.g., in texts, arts, and popular culture) is scattered across many fields. In the sphere of belief systems, it includes creation stories such as the Enuma Elish that begin with a watery chaos from which fundamental divisions emerge. Comparative studies of flood stories (Dundes 1988), water deities and rituals, and paradise gardens ‘underneath which rivers flow’ (Qur’an, passim) have continuing significance for many cultures.

In the modern era, numerous travel accounts proceed from source to sea on major rivers of the world. While tourists generally travel downstream, ‘imperial’ explorers often labored against the current, searching out navigable trade routes and resources (e.g., Rennell on the Ganges; and Lewis and Clark on the Missouri River). Some literary works, such as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, influenced contemporary and subsequent views of water. There has been less research on water in the visual arts, music and film. One exception is the use of photography in environmental perception research related water re-sources management and planning (Litton et al. 1974).

5. Water As A Natural Resource

Questions about managing water as a natural resource, and about whether ‘water is different’ from other resources, have been central concerns of social scientists. They are pursued in close association with engineering, natural sciences, and law.

Water management has been dominated by engineering sciences, which have addressed social ideas and problems implicitly if not explicitly from antiquity to the present. Debates on the origin of rivers were resolved with the development of watershed science in seventeenth century France, which made it possible to estimate water supplies. The expansion of irrigation agriculture advanced with the development of water budget analysis. Water pollution control evolved with advances in instruments to measure organic and inorganic contaminants.

This is not to say that traditional water management is unsophisticated, impractical, or ineffective. Humoral theories that originated in Greek and Islamic sciences are still practiced effectively in rural South Asia. Hindu temple tanks and modern irrigation works operate parallel, though not always in coordination, with one another (Lansing 1991). The contrast between traditional and modern breaks down at many points. Some traditional irrigation societies devised highly sophisticated water diversion and measurement systems that required elaborate forms of social organization (e.g., qanats in Persia). Many modern water systems, by contrast, are supply-driven with little measurement or management of water. Irrigation efficiences in some areas of the western US are only 50 percent, compared with rates of 90 percent in Israel and Jordan.

The most acute water problems seem to occur in low-income areas subject to civil unrest, state corruption, vague water laws, and/or highly skewed land tenure regimes. These conditions have arisen in irrigation systems and peri-urban areas of developing countries. In those situations, the laws, policies, and regulations that do exist rarely are implemented.

Laws define aspects of water that society regards as a resource. From antiquity to the present, legal systems have defined certain aspects of water as natural rights, others as social rights, and still others as res nullius. Legal struggles reflect changing social values and water demands.

Social research on water laws has focused on four major themes: (a) access rights; (b) water rights transfers; (c) institutional fragmentation; and (d) transboundary conflicts. Research on access rights asks who (including animals) has rights to use water and what are the social and environmental consequences of different access regimes. Research on water transfers has focused on the impacts of property rights transfers from one type or location of water use to another (Saliba and Bush 1987). Research on institutions has highlighted fragmentation, gaps, and redundancies among water organizations; and it has more recently begun to focus on power relations among organizations and their social and environmental consequences (Emel and Roberts 1995). Transboundary conflicts encompass water pollution and floods, as well as water scarcity. During the 1990s, a large body of research focused on transboundary water problems in the Middle East (e.g., Biswas et al. 1997, Committee on Sustainable Water Supplies for the Middle East 1999).

It is not clear what influence social research has had on water laws to date. The slow pace of legal reform has led social scientists to concentrate on public policies where legal issues may be at stake but decisions will likely be made by water managers and users. One of the oldest policy debates revolves around questions of whether ‘water is different’ from other resources. Most social scientists grant that water has unique physical qualities and uses but some, principally economists, have argued that water is no different from other resources. By this argument, water is a means to ends that have social values that may be, indeed must be, compared with other values, if society and individuals are to make rational decisions to improve human welfare and environmental quality.

These arguments have stimulated detailed empirical research on the economics of water use. One set of researchers has quantified the price elasticity of demand for residential water use while others have focused on agricultural water values (Baumann et al. 1998). These sectoral studies were drawn together in models for optimization and multiobjective management of complex river basins in the 1960s. These models sought to calculate trade-offs among competing water uses for agriculture, flood protection, recreation, municipal, and industrial sectors.

The principal internal debate in these efforts pitted optimization models, based on neoclassical economic principles, against simulation models based on behavioral models of decision-making. After sobering recognition of the limited use of these models, and further technological advances, research in the 1990s began to develop decision support systems (DSS). That work built upon research in human–computer interactions, river basin operations, and adaptive environmental assessment and management.

More recently, environmental economists have sought to estimate ‘nonuse’ values of waters that remain in natural watercourses, the value of ‘ecosystem services,’ and the trade-offs among competing environmental objectives. As in other applications, these water resources efforts rely largely on contingent valuation and other indirect methods.

As is evident in the examples above, water resources research has been more concerned with pragmatic inquiry (in the philosophical and colloquial senses of the term) than in leading debates in the social sciences (Wescoat 1992). It strives to define the social dimensions of pressing water problems and evaluate the consequences of alternative courses of action. Early research focused on river channel problems (e.g., flooding, navigation, and pollution). This emphasis on channels, rather than basins or watersheds, reflected legal and technical constraints on the role of the state in natural resources management. A concurrent line of research sought to describe river basin problems and resources. Basin surveys became increasingly important in the early twentieth century in Europe and the US. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), authorized in 1933, sought to address problems of severe economic poverty, land degradation, and bureaucratic fragmentation. It included regional resource surveys, the design of planned communities, and economic development programs. Although the TVA experiment was not replicated in the US, it had growing significance in postwar development programs in many countries (e.g., the Damodar, Gal Oya, Indus, and Mekong river basins).

Policy reforms in the 1930s were influenced by social research on water financing, pricing, and decision-making. The TVA framework was broadened to the scale of national water planning in the 1960s. These efforts culminated in the US with the ‘Principles and Standards for Planning Water and Related Land Resources,’ which established four evaluation criteria: national economic development, regional economic development, environmental impacts, and other social effects (e.g., community impacts). Economic research focused on the first account, while other social scientists focused on the other three accounts.

One line of opposition to these economic and multiobjective approaches argued that water is different from other resources and that it has unique importance in supporting life. These views were advanced both by water developers arguing for irrigation projects and their environmentalist and antidam opponents. Indigenous values often conflict with all of these arguments and approaches, though oppositions between indigenous and modern values are sometimes presumed rather than studied closely. Although arguments for the inherent natural or cultural value of water have sometimes been self-serving, they effected a major shift from water development to environmental management in the late-twentieth century. In some cases, they have disputed the possibility of commensurating different water uses and values (Espeland 1998). Policy stalemate is sometimes taken to be evidence of incommensurable values. Analysis of institutional problems, including conflict and stalement, was a major research advance in the 1970s and 1980s. In earlier decades, water organizations increased in scale and scope to address increasingly complex water problems, but they often weakened local institutions. In response, some research focused on local irrigation organizations (Ostrom 1992), while others assessed bureaucratic behavior and reform (Coward 1980). As engineering projects failed to meet their planning objectives and had unanticipated social impacts, increasing attention was directed to ‘institutional strengthening,’ ‘capacity-building,’ and ‘participatory development’ (Uphoff 1992). After two decades of research and experimentation, the importance of institutional factors is well established, though the efficacy of institutional alternatives remains a high research priority.

Beyond these economic and institutional approaches, social scientists have examined an array of specific social impacts in ways that have redefined water resources management. Social research on large reservoirs has focused on displacement and resettlement of people whose homes and lands are flooded by reservoirs, examining issues of equity, state performance, and antidam movements that have stopped international aid for projects in India, Turkey, and China.

Recognition that women, especially in poor rural societies, spend disproportionate amounts of time and energy carrying water and managing domestic water and sanitation, led to social research on water and gender. Development assistance, by contrast, often addressed men in those societies. Feminist research has shed light on women’s understanding of water resources (e.g., Feldhaus 1995), and gender was one of four top priorities identified by the UN Commission for Environment and Development in 1992 for improving water management. Movements have organized around environmental problems in aquatic and riparian habitats, including species extinction, wetlands preservation, groundwater contamination, and river restoration. During the 1990s, a large number of watershed movements arose in the US to address issues ranging from nonpoint source pollution to riparian habitat protection and landscape identity. Social scientists have sought to understand how these movements articulate environmental values (intrinsic, instrumental and inherent) with political strategies, organizational dynamics, and environmental consequences.

A growing line of research focuses on political aspects of water management that behaviorist approaches failed to explain. These political issues include acute water problems faced by the poor, corruption and violence in water administration, inequitable access to water, vulnerability to flood hazards, and devolution of state authority to nongovernmental organizations. Brown and Ingram (1987) have attempted to explain problems faced by low-income ethnic minorities by contrasting ‘community’ and ‘commodity’ values in water. A broader, but fundamentally flawed, political framework was put forward by Wittfogel (1981).

6. Water And Power: Wittfogel’s Theory Of Hydraulic Civilizations

Wittfogel argued that irrigation agriculture had a formative role in the development of complex bureaucratic social organization, initially in the large arid floodplain environments of Asia which constituted a distinctively ‘Oriental mode of production’ that has, throughout history, threatened democratic societies. This contorted web of arguments was refuted soundly on empirical and theoretical grounds. Archaeological research on early irrigation systems showed that large-scale irrigation agriculture often followed complex state formation and had no consistent relationships with ‘despotism’ as Wittfogel defined it.

Notwithstanding these flaws, Wittfogel’s work had two lasting implications for social research on water resources. First, it provoked three waves of research that included leading social scientists. The first wave included archaeologists and social historians who challenged the historical argument (e.g., Butzer 1976). The next wave of students focused on structures of power in modern irrigation systems. A third generation of students became involved in the applied institutional experiments described earlier (Coward 1980). The theoretical contributions of each group was sharpened by their response to, and continuation of, debates provoked by Wittfogel.

Wittfogel’s second legacy was to draw together structural aspects of water management that were previously neglected or treated separately. His frame-work encompassed environmental conditions, technologies, economic patterns, property regimes, state organization, social class, and modes of social power. Discerning the relationships among these structures of water management remains a major challenge for water researchers.

7. Conclusion

Of the natural resources, water seems especially prone to social experimentation. Its fluid characteristics make it less subject to private control than land, and thus more open to collective control. It is more subject to social control than diffuse resources like the atmosphere, which eludes most (purposeful) human management efforts. Water resources thus lie at a vital intersection between public and private control. The historical interactions between public and private water management, and social research on them have yielded insights of broader significance for the social and behavioral sciences.

One important observation on the twentieth century’s water research concerns the changing significance of social research in different parts of the world. In the late-nineteenth century, US and Australian water specialists traveled around the world for models and lessons of water development in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The subsequent dominance of US and European researchers was based on advances in the theory and practice of integrated river basin development. But the most creative social research on water management in the late-twentieth century occurred in developing areas that were open to institutional experiments in irrigation, domestic water supply, and sanitation (Lansing 1991, Uphoff 1992). The most creative transboundary water research focused on Middle Eastern water problems. US and European research remained innovative in the fields of floodplain management, urban water management, and water resources effects of global climate change.

These observations point toward a number of opportunities for future inquiry, including: (a) collaborative research on transnational water problems; (b) research on social scales of water control from the local to global; (c) critical assessment of trends from public water management toward private and market-based water management; and (d) research on experiments in ‘science-based policy’ and ‘adaptive management’ of complex water ecosystems (National Research Council 1999).

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