10 Apr 2018

Review: Routledge Handbook of Water Economics and Institutions

I've had this book on my "review pile" for over three years, but I took some time to look through it the other day and have a few comments. This "review" is therefore not based on me reading all of the chapters word for word but my general experience with this type of material.

This 2015 book was edited by Kimberly Burnett, Richard Howitt (my old PhD advisor), James A. Roumasset, and Christopher A. Wada. It has 23 chapters by 41 authors (some repeats, many co-authors) that are organized into four parts:
  1. Principles and overview
  2. Private behavior and regulatory design
  3. Institutions and information
  4. Water markets and institutions around the world. 
It's important to note that the hardcover costs $250, the paperback $65 and that it's already posted to the pirate networks (let's be real, right?)

In browsing the book, I have a few comments:
  • There are three types of chapters in the book: model or optimization-driven, conventional wisdom on important dynamics, and regional/local case studies. 
    • The model and optimization-driven chapters might be interesting to academics who understand their limits (assumptions lead to results, missing data are misleading, false-precision, etc.)
    • The conventional wisdom chapters will be useful to anyone who's not thought about how water is (or should be) managed, but these chapters often ignore (institutional) barriers to change.
    • The institutional chapters are more useful at discussing how local situations and decisions lead to different outcomes, but they are (as usual) limited in their relevance to other locations.
  • In my quick read, I did not see a really strong case made for setting aside "social water" (see part II of my book) before discussing "economic water." This omission may have reflected a decision to "ignore politics" but I think that the editors missed an opportunity to test economic models against political reality. I was quite discouraged, for example, to see "environmental water" discussed only as another source of demand in water markets. Such a discussion not only ignores the non-market nature of environmental flows as non-excludable goods, but it also flies in the face of everyday discussions of "for whose benefit do we manage water?"
  • The only reference to Elinor (or Vincent) Ostrom is in passing. Given the book's use of "institutions" in the title, I think that the absence of her perspective/framework significantly weakens the value of this book. (I'm not too surprised at this, as I found out about Ostom's work outside of my graduate courses.)
  • On the other hand, I was extremely pleased to see that Gary Libecap revised his discussion of the Owens Valley (a famous case in which critics blame Los Angeles of "water grabbing" from farmers). In his first take on the topic (back in 2003 or so), Libecap pointed out that "holdout" farmers got higher prices, but ignored how those same farmers captured only a fraction of the total value of the water, i.e., that Los Angeles got most of the benefits. In this version, he adds some data showing how they didn't get very much of the surplus, thus giving an empirical foundation to their complaints. His chapter is therefore far better from a political-economic (as well as common-sense) perspective.
  • Many of the institutional chapters could have used a "measuring stick" comparing the current situation to "best in class" or "theoretical best" to help readers see the gap between where water management is (positive) and where it should be (normative). The California chapter, for example, is subtitled "lessons from a maturing market" but I would have written "lessons from a underperforming market."
Bottom line: I recommend this book to academics interested in these topics (FOUR STARS) but not to the general public, as the topics are too narrow and treatments too technical to be useful. For the general public, I recommend (in random order) Take Me to the SourceWater for SaleHeart of DrynessWater and the California DreamDead PoolKing of CaliforniaWater FolliesBlue RevolutionWhen the rivers run dryDown the DrainRain, and Introduction to Water in California. You could also do worse than reading my book, which is short, free and complete in terms of its discussion of the political-economy of water.

For all my reviews, go here.

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