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Governing Transboundary Waters: Canada, the United States, and Indigenous Communities

By Emma Norman

March 13, 2016

Review By Daniel Macfarlane

Most of the world’s water basins are transborder. The vast majority of North America’s surface freshwater falls within a border watershed. Indeed, contemporary water governance within just one country is already complex enough — overlaying an international border, and foregrounding Indigenous issues and concerns, makes things even more complicated. But in Governing Transboundary Waters: Canada, the United States, and Indigenous Communities, geographer Emma Norman embraces this challenge as she guides the reader through the various layers — spatial, environmental, biological, cultural, political — juxtaposed on the fluid Canada-US border.

Primarily concerned with British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, though with forays to the Yukon River watershed and the Great Lakes basin, Norman approaches waterscapes as inherently political and hydrosocial (as have scholars such as Karen Bakker, Eric Swyngedouw, Francois Molle, and Alice Cohen). The first section of the book establishes the theoretical and conceptual methodology and surveys the relevant institutional mechanisms for transboundary governance that guide analysis of the case studies in the second section. Case studies examine Indigenous-led movements designed to contribute to ecosystem protection: the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Council, the Coast Salish Gathering, the Luna the Whale controversy, and the Great Lakes Indian Fisheries Commission. The central goals of the book are to fill gaps in the existing transboundary water governance literature, bring the politics of colonial boundary-making into the discussions of transboundary water governance, highlight Indigenous-led work to address water issues of shared concern, and make sure environmental justice concerns are at the forefront in discussions of transboundary water governance (3).

Norman painstakingly unpacks the ways that the border is part of the colonization process, as well as the ways that alternative water governance approaches can be a decolonization tool. The case studies flesh out the methods such as performative techniques that First Nations groups have used to counter ecocolonization, which is at base about what values, resources, and rights are prioritized as well as which level of authority gets to make decisions about environmental resources. The book is at its strongest when the author draws on her intimate knowledge of the Coast Salish people and their region. One of the book’s prime contributions involves the politics of water and the rescaling of water governance in ways that make ecological and cultural sense (116). Norman problematizes the shift towards watershed-level governance, which has arisen in the last few decades and has become institutionalized in various forms (such as the International Joint Commission’s International Watersheds Initiative). She demonstrates that the downloading of responsibilities to subnational levels can be both a positive and negative. Furthermore, her point about various regions viewing the value of the International Joint Commission differently is a salient one.

Governing Transboundary Waters does not just identify existing problems but provides prescriptive principles — for example, in the Introduction Norman poses the question “what qualities make a good upstream neighbour?” and then provides a multi-faceted answer in the book’s Conclusion. Given the blending of transboundary water governance and Indigenous issues, this is a timely book that will be of interest to government officials and policy practitioners, particularly in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, as well as scholars engaged in water governance, political ecology, Indigenous studies, border studies, and geographers of various stripes (particularly cultural, environmental, and human), not to mention those concerned with the future relevance of the International Joint Commission.

Governing Transboundary Waters: Canada, the United States, and Indigenous Communities
Emma Norman
London: Routledge, 2015. 220 pp. $145.00 cloth