Book Review
Flood Planning: The Politics of Water Security


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Flooding is the most common of natural disasters. It accounts for 40 percent of all natural calamities in the world and 15 percent of all disaster-related deaths. As a result governments around the world face pressure to undertake flood protection schemes for security purposes. These big ticket schemes have often become contentious over the years for a variety of reasons. Jeroen Warner’s book – Flood Planning: The Politics of Water Security – is an in-depth look at a few water management projects and the difficult political dynamics that are associated with them. At another level, it is an exploration of the political aspect of flood protection, which shapes decision making and risk management.

Flood Planning makes an important hypothesis upfront – the way environmental hazards like flood are managed is a reflection of how a society is organized, the division of labor or responsibility between public and non-public actors. Two interesting case studies set the ball rolling – Nile in Egypt and Euphrates and Tigris in Turkey. The case of Nile – which the author says oscillates from being Egypt’s worst enemy to its life support – is astonishing. Egypt is also bracketed, alongside Mesopotamia, as the first ‘hydraulic civilization’ even though the ‘hydraulic imperative’ became an issue in the past century when the country was under foreign rule.

Interestingly, Egypt’s tryst with the Nile and its famous Toshka project has a significant UAE connection. It is a dream called Second Nile that, among others, Founder of the UAE, the Late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, believed in and even made a $100 million investment to enable its main cataracts. The project, however, got mired in controversy in the late 1990s.

Toshka was not the only Egyptian water project to be influenced by global geopolitics. The country’s Aswan Dam project was paid for by the Soviet Union, to the tune of $1 billion plus technical assistance, plus $650 million coming from Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956. Despite the controversy, in principle, the 5-kilometer-long and 100-meter-high dam finally secured total flood protection by stopping the floodwater altogether.

According to Warner, a bewildering historic heritage enables Egypt to keep its nine neighbors’ in check. Ethiopia has been one of the 10 riparian countries challenging Egypt’s claim over the Nile. The country expressed displeasure over Egypt’s announcement of the Toshka scheme in 1997 and on several other occasions. However, it was Ethiopia’s perpetual state of conflict with Eritrea that has kept it away from negotiating with Egypt on this issue.

A strong-headed Sudan has been another tough nut to crack for the Egyptians on water security. The Blue and White Nile join forces at Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum and since Sudan controls both branches of the river, a healthy relation with its next-door neighbor is of great importance to Egypt. Warner says at an early stage, Britain recognized the potential for political blackmail of the Nile to play the countries off against each other. Politics of this kind has indeed played its part through various regimes on either side.

Yet the relevance of Sudan to Nile’s water resources cannot be ignored. The country borders six Nile countries and is hydrologically well placed to exploit the river’s water resources. Two out of three Sudanese works in agriculture sector; recurring famine and malnutrition call for water development and the country’s 40-million-population is growing at 2-2.4 percent each year. Needless to add, this demographic pressure will further stress Sudan’s Nilotic water resources. Besides, the past few decades have also seen the fledgling formation of a second power block – the East African community namely Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

On occasions, the title Flood Planning seems misplaced as the focus throughout the book largely remains on the politics of water security. Occasional references to Wikipedia and figures from websites contained in the book can be a little unnerving for the puritans. Jeroen Warner’s expertise lies in domestic and international environmental conflicts and multi-stakeholder participation. He developed an interest in the politics of risk and security and wrote his PhD dissertation on ‘The Politics of Flood Security’. This, apparently, is the inspiration behind Flood Planning.

The book is definitely not a drab monologue. The monotony of its hydrological analyses is interspersed with the quibbling of the chapters’ titles. Here is an example: Resisting the Turkish Pax Acquarium? The Ilisi Dam Dispute as a Multi-Level Struggle. The chapter on Turkey – on Tigris and Euphrates to be more precise – is a collection of three narratives on the country’s relations with its neighbors vis-à-vis its water resources and its near violent clash with Syria over water in 1976. The chapter narrates how Turkey, as a former empire, learned to be ‘first among equals’ in a ‘rough neighborhood’ besides sketching the genesis of its hydraulic development.

The terms hydro-politics and hydro-diplomacy are especially relevant to Turkey as its territory is located upstream on Euphrates and Tigris and, alongside Lebanon, is the only water rich country in the region. What benefits Turkey is the fact that its geographical location as the headwaters of the two rivers is the main source of freshwater of its most troublesome neighbors – Syria and Iraq. This has led to intensive damming of the two rivers which has enabled Turkey to literally turn the tap on or off.

However, privatization of Turkey’s water sector has brought new actors, such as transnational corporations and international NGOs, into play. Subsequently, a campaign was launched over the human rights situation in the country’s Southeast and opposition from co-riparian countries hampered funding of some projects. It is apparent that while hydraulic conflicts play out at domestic and basin levels, they are also subject to the dynamics of global political economy and geopolitics.

Bangladesh’s Flood Action Plan (FAP-20), also called the Compartmentalization Pilot Project, is a similar yet unique case study. Aimed at preventing flood destruction in the country for good, the FAP-20 was intended to establish feasible, achievable and sustainable water management systems. However, as has been the case with most such projects included in the book, FAP-20 also raised a host of socio-economic, environmental and institutional issues which ultimately politicized the project.

The case study that stands out though is the one that describes the highs and lows of the Dutch Maaswerken plan, which was conceived in 1985. From its contractual formalization to kick off in 2005 the project passed through various stages of renegotiation and politicization and in the end lost five years in overcoming a series of perhaps foreseeable crises. In this chapter, Warner also deals with the subject of public participation in emergency river storage and illustrates it further with the Netherland’s Ooij Polder example.

A more contemporary water-related disaster that finds mention in the book is the July 2007 floods in England. Apart from highlighting the policy aftermath of this disaster, the chapter pits three competing frames in flood management against each other: flooding, flood plain development and the project itself. Like in any other part of the world, different blame and remedy stories clashed, based on different flood, river and risk management paradigms.

Based on the politics of six river interventions Jeroen Warner has managed to create a synthesis during the course of Flood Planning: The Politics of Water Security. He has also succeeded in linking the securitization of flood events to its implications on security analysis. The final outcome of this comprehensive exercise will be best served as lessons for policymakers on the politics and decision-making of flood planning.