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The Shifting Geopolitics of Water in the
Afton Clarke-Sather, Britt Crow-Miller, Jeffrey M. Banister, Kimberley Anh
Thomas, Emma S. Norman & Scott R. Stephenson
To cite this article: Afton Clarke-Sather, Britt Crow-Miller, Jeffrey M. Banister, Kimberley Anh
Thomas, Emma S. Norman & Scott R. Stephenson (2017): The Shifting Geopolitics of Water in
the Anthropocene, Geopolitics, DOI: 10.1080/14650045.2017.1282279
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The Shifting Geopolitics of Water in the Anthropocene
, Britt Crow-Miller
, Jeffrey M. Banister
Kimberley Anh Thomas
, Emma S. Norman
, and Scott R. Stephenson
Department of Geography, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware, USA;
School for the Future of
Innovation in Society and Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University,
Tempe, Arizona, USA;
Southwest Center, Journal of the Southwest, and School of Geography and
Development, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA;
Department of Earth and Environmental
Sciences, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA;
Department of Native
Environmental Science, Northwest Indian College, Bellingham, Washington, USA;
Geography, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, USA
This forum responds to recent calls to hypothesize a geopolitics of
the Anthropocene by examining how our notions of geopolitics of
water may shift in the context of this new and, at times, divisive
framework. The Anthropocene describes the geological epoch in
which humans are the dominant actor in the global environmental
system and has been a concept that is not without controversy.
Taking the Anthropocene as an epistemological divergence where
nature can no longer be viewed as separate from humanity, this
forum asks how moving away from understanding hydraulic sys-
tems as essentially stable to understanding them as unstable and
profoundly influenced by humans changes our understanding
ofthe geopolitics of water. Collectively the contributions to this
forum illustrate that formulating a water geopolitics of the
Anthropocene requires 1) moving beyond a focus on fluvial flows
to consider other forms of water; 2) broadening our understanding
of the actors involved in water geopolitics; 3) examining new
geopolitical tactics, particularly those grounded in law; 4) engaging
critically with new and emerging forms of visualization and repre-
sentation in the geopolitics of water, and; 5) examining how the
notion of the Anthropocene has been used towards geopolitical
ends and worked to elide different positionalities.
Introduction to the Forum
Afton Clarke-Sather and Britt Crow-Miller
In geopolitical discussion of resources, water has historically played a unique role.
As a flow resource, water has been in a contested realm that challenges traditional
territorial notions of geopolitical power. Research on the geopolitics of water has
often focused on its transboundary nature
and the potential for conflict and
cooperation in shared river systems.
Existing frameworks and foci, however, may
no longer be adequate as unprecedented human impact on the environment
CONTACT Afton Clarke-Sather firstname.lastname@example.org Department of Geography, University of Delaware, 223
Pearson Hall, Newark, DE 19716, USA.
© 2017 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
makes relevant new geographies of water and ways of governing them. This forum
responds to recent calls to hypothesize a geopolitics of the Anthropocene
examining how our notions of geopolitics of water may shift in the context of this
new and, at times, divisive framework. The Anthropocene, a term coined by
describes the geological epoch in which humans are the dominant
actor in the global environmental system. We take as a point of departure
Lorimer’s conceptualization of the Anthropocene as an epistemological diver-
gence where nature can no longer be viewed as separate from humanity.
essence, this forum asks how moving away from understanding hydraulic systems
as essentially stable to understanding hydraulic systems as unstable and pro-
In conceptualizing a geopolitics of the Anthropocene, water is an especially
appropriate and important place to begin for a number of reasons. As a global
function, and non-substitutable for both. As we continue into the uncharted
territory of fundamentally altered Earth systems, adjusting the ways in which we
as humans interact with water will be paramount, above all other resource
concerns. The resource’suniquemateriality—being quite heavy, fluid and yet
fixed in place—also constrains the ways in which politicalactorsmaytrytoaccess
and control it. As a flow resource, water must be used where it occurs. While it is
relatively easy to move once capital investments have been made, moving water
across borders either in physical or in virtual form tends to be guided by regional
and global geopolitics. This tension is coming into clearer relief as water-stressed
regions and global megacities begin reaching beyond their own borders for water-
intensive food production and a diversified supply.
of China, now building up an elaborate global infrastructure of water-intensive
food and energy production to support its development agenda
to see the acute
need for new frameworks for making sense of and governing water geopolitics in
this new epoch.
Water is also among the only resources with which humans frequently interact
in all three of its physical states: solid, liquid and gas. Yet our existing geopolitical
focus on water has been primarily on water as an abstractable liquid resource. The
complexity of the human interface with water—becoming increasingly wicked in
the face of emerging planetary stresses—both shapes and is fundamentally shaped
by politics at multiple scales, including the national, regional and global. Engaging
with the geopolitics of water in the Anthropocene therefore represents an impor-
tant opportunity to address critical challenges across the shifting spatialities of the
twenty-first century. Additionally, although the Anthropocene should not be
solely understood in relation to climate change, anthropogenic climate change is
perhaps the clearest manifestation of the Anthropocene, and many of its direct
impacts on humans are mediated through water, including increased frequency
2A. CLARKE-SATHER ET AL.
mountain watersheds that provide water for large portions of the global popula-
tion. While local adaptation to these changes is essential, so too is broader
international cooperation around greenhouse gas mitigation, global environmen-
tal governance structures and humanitarian efforts for those most impacted by
climate change in the global south.
In these ways, a range of water-related issues—from the construction of large
dams and changing sediment regimes to the water quality impacts of nitrogen
fixation and the push for interbasin water transfers—areallpartofthewater
geopolitics of the Anthropocene. As human–environment interaction increasingly
comes—forbetterorforworse—to be understood through the lens of this emer-
ging framework, water geopolitics demands greater attention and the four essays
below represent a first step in setting a new research agenda toward that end.
Collectively, the diverse group of scholars we have brought together in this forum
examine how geopolitical inquiry and praxis around water might be altered by the
epistemological turn encompassed in Anthropocene thinking. In other words, how
does a move away from viewing the Earth’s surface features as relatively stable
a concurrent placing of humans at the centre of that instability alter both views and
practices of water geopolitics? Some of our contributors frame their work as
explicitly geopolitical in the sense of interstate relations, and others examine the
spatial politics of water in ways that may inform a new understanding of water
geopolitics for our changing world. These pieces also engage with the
Anthropocene as both an epoch and an idea. As an epoch, these pieces respond
to Dalby’s call to move away from viewing the earth as relatively stable and
examine geopolitics in a world where humans make the geo. As an idea, two of
the contributions (Banister and Thomas) examine how the Anthropocene has
come to be deployed to make geopolitical claims about water.
Banister, for example, explores water and the visual politics of the
Anthropocene, highlighting a critical view on the Anthropocene framing through
examples of modern water control in Mexico. Thomas interrogates what the
Anthropocene means for the governance of international rivers, concluding that
we must put into practice governance approaches that take seriously social and
spatial difference across the globe and are “attentive to power, scale, and context-
specific knowledge”(Thomas, this forum). Drawing on a powerful example of
indigenous-led activism to take ownership over water governance in the Pacific
Northwest of the United States, Norman’s provocative contribution is a call to
water geopolitics of the Anthropocene. Her contribution gains increased salience
alongside ongoing resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock
Reservation of the Lakota and Dakota peoples on the ground of potential water
quality impacts and both cases highlight the interactions of tribal sovereignty and
national juridical control of territory. Finally, Stephenson illustrates how the
ice melt) contribute to a shifting geopolitics of water as nation-states, transnational
governing bodies and laws, global economic interests, and science all come into
play in negotiations over a trans-Polar shipping route.
We identify five key points to guide future work in the context of this emerging
framework. First, in understanding the geopolitics of water in the Anthropocene,
it is essential to think through the materiality of water in the various forms it may
Water has most often been treated within geopolitics as an abstractable flow
resource through lenses including critical geopolitics and hydro-hegemony.
While these approaches remain important, they will require a reformulation in
our current epoch (see Thomas in this Forum). Thinking through water and
geopolitics in this new context will also require moving beyond fluvial flows. For
example, though composed of water, oceans have rarely been viewed through the
lens of water geopolitics, instead treated as part of a discrete set of concerns around
Yet in an era where pollution and plastics flow readily
from river to sea, from bay to open ocean and between continents, the nature of
seawater as a flow resource deserves attention. Ice has similarly been relegated to
the realm of Arctic studies (for example, see the journal, Polar Geography). But as
from ice to liquid water in the Arctic is accompanied by profound geopolitical
tensions. In the Anthropocene, the geopolitical imbrications of water must be
thought to include not only both salt and freshwater, but also both solid and
gaseous states in addition to liquid water. Similarly, rethinking the geopolitics of
water calls for rethinking the uses of water. While transboundary water geopolitics
and state-building interbasin transfers are concerned with the abstraction of
freshwater for direct human use, as Stephenson and Norman’s contributions
make clear, water, in its changing states, is also an essential resource for global
A second point raised by this collection of pieces is that we must work to
identify the key actors and the scales at which they are operating in the water
geopolitics of the Anthropocene.
As we begin to broaden the physical spaces and
biophysical states through which we think about the links between water and
geopolitics, we must also consider who and what is privileged or marginalized,
legitimized or delegitimized in the negotiation of power. Geopolitical discussions
of water, like geopolitics more broadly, have historically prioritized state actors as
units of analysis.
the importance of relationships between states, including Stephenson’sillustration
of how Russia has shifted both its geopolitical claims and tactics in the face of a
coherent theme of decentring the role of the state in geopolitical thinking.
Thomas, for example, considers whether the Anthropocene will challenge the
traditional priority assigned to state actors in transboundary water governance,
while Banister suggests that an Anthropocene framing “closes down potential
pathways for a differentiated understanding of the roles of individual nation-states
4A. CLARKE-SATHER ET AL.
operating within the emerging transnational structures of climate governance”
(Banister, this Forum). Stephenson, again,raisesquestionsaroundscaleandwater
governance in his discussion of the United Nations and global governance frame-
works, while Norman moves the conversation to a different scale of resolution in
her examination of the struggles of indigenous groups to illustrate how both
locally and regionally based non-state groups are active participants in geopolitical
disputes around water and resources in the Anthropocene. Collectively, these
papers point to the need to move beyond state-centric territorial assumptions in
the geopolitics of water, and critically view geopolitical actors at different scales.
The shifting tactics used to negotiate geopolitical engagements with water in the
Anthropocene form a third locus of attention throughout the contributions in this
forum. Two essays engage directly with the malleable use of law in making
geopolitical struggles. In Norman’s case study, indigenous opposition to a coastal
coal export terminal rested heavily on the use of treaty rights, and examining how
the application of those treaty rights to fishing livelihoods based on use of water
would shift in the context of the Anthropocene. In Stephenson’s case study,
Russian state actors have looked for ways to reinterpret existing norms of inter-
national law in the context of a rapidly changing Arctic. Both of these contribu-
tions illustrate that deploying existing legal frameworks in new ways can be a
means of achieving geopolitical power in a changing environment.
Fourth, several of the contributions in this forum make clear the important role
of representation in how players assert their influence over water in the
Anthropocene. The emergence of critical geopolitics (and indeed this journal)
has been underpinned by an implicit acknowledgement of the idea that geopoli-
tical representations themselves hold power insofar as they often come to con-
stitute geopolitical reality. The prioritization of (geo)political uses of
representations of water is also a defining attribute of critical hydropolitics.
of the contributions to this forum address how representations of water are
changing in the Anthropocene. Visualization is perhaps a key form of representa-
tion, and Banister examines how forms of visualization of water resources create a
specific type of politics promoting inter-basin transfers in Mexico. Two forms of
representation are presented in Stephenson’s contribution on Russia’sgeopolitical
approach to melting sea ice. First, Russia relies upon a representation of the
Russian state as a protector of the Artic from shipping pollution to invoke specific
Second, through the use of bathymetric surveys, the Russian state endeavours to
use scientific forms of representation to claim an extended territorial shelf as the
basis for expanding its sovereign power over previously unclaimed portions of
Arctic territory. Norman’s contribution also explores how representations of
livelihood came to be deployed by indigenous groups to invoke treaty rights.
Finally, Thomas examines whether representing the Anthropocene as an organiz-
ing framework under which to assemble global forms of knowledge elides persis-
tent geopolitical tensions in transboundary waters.
Finally, as a more general point about the Anthropocene framework raised by
many of our contributors, as new spaces and actants come to be entangled in water
geopolitics in a variety of ways, the voices, positionality, interests and culpability of
others have effectively been erased. These contributions collectively argue that not
all humans have altered biophysical processes equally: “Humanity,”as the agent
now responsible for fundamentally altering global environmental systems, needs
to be disaggregated. Because theAnthropoceneframework“collapses the spatial
and temporal differences that both drives and is shaped by environmental trans-
formation into one deceptively neat stratum”(Banister, this Forum), we run the
risk of losing nuance in how we think about spaces, processes and actors in change
as they relate to water geopolitics. The Anthropocene as a concept conjures up an
image of a flat-surfaced globe as the stageuponwhichbothproblemandsolution
are acted out, placing them both everywhere and nowhere at once. Spatial and
temporal differences are precisely what we need to understand and make explicit,
especially insofar as they bring to light equity issues and unequal power geome-
tries. As we grapple with the complex range of conceptual questions raised by the
Anthropocene framing, we must also ask operational questions, such as at what
scaleorscalesdowelocateaction,impact, responsibility and governance around
water issues? Importantly, as Thomas argues with her river–border complex
framework, we need new approaches to water geopolitics that offer a higher
spatial and temporal resolution in the face of the borderless and flat ontologies
given renewed credence by Anthropocene thinking.
It is our hope that, taken together, these five points will serve as a foundation for
a new research agenda for water geopolitics in the Anthropocene. It is not yet
precisely clear how the geopolitics of water will shift in this emerging context,
which actors and scales and issues will move to the fore. The contributions in this
forum offer some preliminary clues. However, as the changes play out they will, no
doubt, be complex and geographically contingent. As we begin to uncover a
clearer picture in the years and decades to come, we expect the areas pointed to
above to be especially dynamic and important both for understanding the new
context of water geopolitics and for operating within it. As this collection shows,
Anthropocene thinking is already beginning to unsettle traditional frameworks for
support a critical rethinking of the Anthropocene framework remains to be seen.
Visions of Water and the Anthropocene
Jeffrey M. Banister
While scholars in the humanities and social sciences have broadly latched onto the
idea of the Anthropocene, some have continued to point out the obvious reduc-
tionism troubling the concept.
Anthropocene discourse, they suggest, facilely
collapses the spatial and temporal difference that both drives and is shaped by
6A. CLARKE-SATHER ET AL.
environmental transformation into one deceptively neat stratum of geology:
Humanity. While “we”(humanity) might all be in “this”(greenhouse gas
(GHG)-induced climate change and anthropogenic transformation more broadly)
placing Anthropocene discourse at the centre of inquiry could simply re-inscribe
the very nature–society divide that some suggest the concept effectively
Accepting that “humanity”has singularly trashed the garden may
in fact narrow our scope for comprehending the central role of socio-spatial
difference (human and non-human, historical and contemporary) in producing
a planet increasingly hostile to biological life. In this regard, Anthropocene
discourse shares much in common with other modern abstractions, including
the very idea of “water.”
Based on the work of Hamlin
elsewhere defined the process “modern water”as “a shift from the traditional
notion of water as a heterogeneous element expressive of diverse geographies and
histories –waters, that is –toward an understanding of water as a placeless,
Thinking with the Anthropocene, just like thinking
with “modern water,”may actually limit our ability to broadly sense the world and
thus think about alternatives to the currently dominant suite of state-centric,
technicized and apolitical approaches to the most pressing water problems.
Nicholas Mirzoeff argues that humans haven’t the capacity to “...see the
Anthropocene, extending across centuries, through dimensions and across time.
It can only be visualized [. . .such that] all past human history. . .is [therefore also]
Visualization inevitably combines politics and, in this case,
literally, a worldview. Politics, writes Rancière, always brings aesthetics along with
it—that is, a “system of aprioriforms determining what presents itself to sense
As Anthropocene discourse gains traction, circulates ever more
widely and, in some cases, is enlisted in hegemonic projects of mitigation and
adaptation, it is increasingly important to ask, á la Lefebvre, how does a macro-
scale abstraction like this actually relate to socio-spatial practice?
Circling back to
the matter of water control, how does it articulate with other modern abstractions
such as the hydrological cycle, also a highly visual and widely accepted concept,
one that scholars have recently attempted to broaden into the idea of the “hydro-
Like the hydrological cycle, Anthropocene thought might indeed heighten the
historical tensions between vision, space, scale and politics that I see as typifying
the modern approach to hydraulics. In an analysis of scale and climate change,
Sayre states this tension in terms resonant with geographers: “The processes that
link GHG emissions to climate change combine extremely fine grains and extre-
mely large extents, both spatially and temporally.”At the granular level, micro-
scopic (i.e. invisible to the human eye) CO
molecules are released by diverse and
spatially uneven processes ranging from human respiration to coal-fired power
generation. Their reach, however, becomes global as they then form part of the
Earth’s atmosphere and, thus, fortify the greenhouse effect. The temporality of
GHG emissions is also characterized by “short grain and long extent.”Instantly
molecules can remain in the atmosphere for over 100 years. By the
time they are released, those same molecules might have been embedded in trees,
soils or fossil fuels anywhere from decades to several million years. The spatial and
temporal tensions between grain and extent that climate and anthropogenic
environmental transformation bring together make this an extremely difficult
set of problems to confront at the level of politics.
molecules are everywhere and nowhere, while the processes creating GHG
emissions are unevenly produced yet subtly and complexly bound together within
modern capitalism. True adaptation and mitigation, Sayre continues, will necessi-
tate the devaluation of historical (and, often, slow-to-amortize) investments in
infrastructure rendered obsolete or ecologically and socially unsustainable by the
effects of climate and anthropogenic environmental change. Importantly, here the
term “investment”also signifies the deep emotional attachments and material
dependencies that develop with infrastructures.
The dominance of the hydrographic basin-as-management unit illustrates
some of these tensions rather elegantly. Basin-scale water governance is by no
means a new concept. Since the early 2000s and the emergence of the Integrated
Water Resource Management approach (IWRM), however, it has become what
Molle calls a “Nirvana Concept”:awidelycirculated,purportedly“replicable”
framework and approach propelled by a “vision of a ‘horizon’that individuals and
Though Molle does not address it directly, the
word “vision”plays a crucial role here, for basin management is an inherently
visual-geographic concept. In Mexico City—the focus of my current research—
water woes constitute a politically and ecologically untenable situation in part
because the official picture of modern water almost invariably begins with a view
from on high, a picture of both the city and broader geography of the Basin of
(The densely populated capital today sprawls out across a large volcanic
bowl, covering what was once a series of ancient lakes.) Hydraulic infrastructure
thus also includes a variety of historical objects and works that both move water
and also deliver a visual narrative of nature and space. From nineteenth-century
landscape paintings to today’s computer-based models, digital media platforms
and glossy published reports, it is astonishing to see how consistently rehearsed
and durable the official, God’s-eye view of Mexico City’s water and hydraulic
geography has become. Of course, there have been adjustments over time, for
transformations in the basin landscape have made certain types of thinking and
politics practically impossible. Still, the basic sketch remains surprisingly intact.
Portrayed as a visually comprehensible whole, then, there seems to be almost no
other conceivable option for water managers but to continue down the well-trod
path of large-scale infrastructural interventions. In turn, this perpetuates a vicious
cycle wherein the negative socio-environmental consequences of one project
necessitate yet another initiative of even grander and more oppressive (for many
Mexicans) scale and so on it goes. Each intervention embeds and multiplies the
8A. CLARKE-SATHER ET AL.
deleterious social and environmental consequences of its predecessors. In the
current context of increasing hydro-climatic variability, the visual discourse of
modern water plays a central role in state efforts to control an expert-driven water
politics made increasingly unstable by the devaluation of hydraulic infrastructure
and the built environment more broadly. To understand the city’s water woes, one
must start with the assumption that the current structure is ecologically, socially
and politically untenable.
Potable provision and drainage since the colonial period have produced this
increasingly untenable and highly uneven social geography of exploitation that
now spans the populous central plateau region. While water infrastructure makes
possible the generation of nearly a quarter of the nation’s GDP (produced in the
Basin of Mexico), its benefits are by no means enjoyed equitably across the
different interconnected watersheds feeding or draining the capital. At best, it
marginally supports the social reproduction necessary to feed the basin’seco-
nomic growth machine. Likewise, the constantly increasing costs (ecological,
political, social) of “managing”its rapid decay and devaluation are largely borne
by those who benefit least. These are the millions of “informal sector”or otherwise
marginalized labourers populating the colonias and barrios with the most tenuous
potable and drainage situations; the inhabitants of distant watersheds who have
seen the disappearance of erstwhile abundant surface water; or the farmers and
ranchers downstream of the capital’s sewer and runoff system who irrigate with its
outfall of aguas negras. How are we to adequately historicize this kind of infra-
structural violence when socio-spatial difference is flattened into a single geologi-
cal stratum: Humanity?
Basin-scale hydraulic management has its own talisman, the “water user,”and
large-scale inter-basin transfer and flood control projects are now in various
stages of planning and implementation across Mexico. In one way or another,
each of them is infused with a climate-change reductionism that now propels
centralized hydraulic planning. Government officials in the Mexican state of
Sonora, for example, have forced through an aqueduct project that redirects a
large portion of Yaqui River’s surface flow away from its basin and into the state
capital, Hermosillo. Neither months of aggressive protest on the part of farmers
and Indigenous people nor Supreme Court rulings could slow construction.
Indeed, some of the protesters (water users?) were imprisoned un-trumped-up
charges. In other places, they have been kidnapped or assassinated. Farther
south, officials with the Río Mayo Irrigation Districthave teamed up with federal
and state authorities to begin construction of an additional large-scale dam and
reservoir that will displace Guarijío indigenous villages.
This structure is
intended to protect downstream cities, towns and fields from periodic floods,
which have long lashed the region but are likely intensified by a warming
climate. Those who have resisted this effort have also faced state-backed harass-
ment and even deaths threats thinly veiled as having come from drug traffickers.
Finally, there is the hallucinatory “Monterrey VI”project, a proposed 300-
kilometer aqueduct to “transfer”water from the Pánuco basin, in the eastern
coastal state of Veracruz, to the economically powerful northern city of
Monterrey. The project has generated widespread protest, including from sev-
eral indigenous groups whose water resources will be directly affected.
the official framing of “adaptation,”one region’s salvation becomes another’s
Water control, a fundamentally spatial process, is therefore an important place
at which to come to terms with the problem of vision that typically haunts large-
scale environmental interventions. One prominent feature is a tense connection
between the monism of concepts like Anthropocene, River Basin or, indeed,
“Potable Water,”and the way it necessitates a vanishing point at precisely the
place where the flows connecting the human and non-human become too dense
to capture and convey without some sort of stabilizing political-visual device. Such
devices, in turn, are effectively (and affectively) built into both politics and water-
works. Furlong argues that the extant scholarship on infrastructure has largely
overlooked the so-called global south, and thus embeds the bias of a “modern
infrastructural ideal.”Typically, the assumption here is of a “single, universal, and
uniform network.”By contrast, in her own research, she finds something quite
distinct: a process of “. . .cumulative adaptation and learning [that]. . .is also about
custom and coping. When and where adapting to disrepair becomes a normal and
Visualizing the space of hydraulic control involves habits of view that revolve
around a singular problematic, reinforcedbytheconnectionsrepeatedlydrawn
between infrastructure and images, graphs, charts, relief maps and, more recently,
seductive geo-visualization. The result is a picture of water control and hydraulic
geography that perpetuates either the ideal of spatial-temporal uniformity
(Furlong’s“infrastructural ideal”), and an illusory telos of social betterment over
time and space by virtue of state environmental intervention. Typically erased is
anything resembling the actual process of “custom and coping”often needed to
sustain life and livelihood in the shadow of large-scale waterworks. Along with
water, therefore, socially and environmentally unsustainable hydraulic infrastruc-
ture thus also delivers the very worldview developed to sustain it.
Is the Anthropocene a case of the same water now in a slightly different
bottle? Thinking with the Anthropocene adds a new and equally slippery
slope to this quintessentially modern visual geography, combining a kind of
social stratigraphy with the perspectival vantage point invariably included in
river basin cartography. Despite a tacit claim to capaciousness, we are still left
with a picture of the global environment that leaves very little room for
difference, either within the strata or among them.
10 A. CLARKE-SATHER ET AL.
Governing International Rivers in the Anthropocene
Kimberley Anh Thomas
Biodiversity hotspots. Big bang. Keystone species. Anthropocene. The natural
sciences are replete with terms that convey the significance of the referent object
or event, and concepts so named often have political as well as scientific salience.
The notion of biodiversity hotspots, for instance, has been employed in the
designation and protection of critically threatened habitats containing high levels
of endemism. In the case of the Anthropocene, this provisional epoch highlights
the long-term impacts of human interference with global biogeochemical cycles,
which underpin the viability of socio-ecological systems such as international
rivers. The Anthropocene has already been invoked in proposals for large-scale
geoengineering of the climate and enhanced policing against wildlife trafficking,
for example. Might the boundary-transcending concept of the Anthropocene also
inform the traditionally territorial issues of international river governance?
It certainly seems that the field could use a fresh perspective, as the strides of
conventional forms of transboundary river governance have begun to flag. There
is an encouraging trend in which co-riparian states have been increasingly resol-
ving disputes through formal legal instruments. However, asymmetrical power
dynamics—characteristic of many a river basin—mean that in practice many
treaties lack effective enforcement and may even codify unequal terms of
exchange. Meanwhile, the holistic approach of Integrated Water Resources
Management (IWRM) has dominated water management discourse for decades,
but has fallen far short of its promises. Moreover, joint river organizations foster
activities such as shared decision making over river development and diplomatic
exchange of data; however, many powerful riparian states like China, Egypt and
India refuse to join them. As a result, the Mekong River Commission is limited in
its scope and ability to regulate regional water development, while the establish-
ment of a Nile River Basin Commission has been stalled by Egypt’sabstention
from the Cooperative Framework Agreement that would create a permanent
commission. Given that water notoriously “does not respect political boundaries,”
is it possible for the planetary-scale focus of the Anthropocene to resolve the
knotty jurisdictional and boundary issuesthatIWRMandjointrivercommissions
seek, and have so far failed, to remedy?
This is not a novel proposition. Recent studies have illustrated how a range of
stressors on local and regional hydrological systems (e.g. river impoundments,
withdrawals, pollution) cumulate with negative effects that transcend borders, and
such findings have been used to argue in favour of global governance informed by
universally shared principles.
Alternatively, Schmidt argues that IWRM may yet
be redeemed by internalizing the idea and the ethical implications that we have
entered a new geological period defined by human activity.
studies posit that a global perspective on water can improve governance by
emphasizing linkages and feedbacks between social and natural systems.
Orienting water governance around the concept of the Anthropocene is not only
thought to challenge ontological distinctions between nature and society that
underpin reductionist solutions to water problems, but it is also expected to
engender the kind of “global thinking”necessary to achieve equitable and sustain-
There are perils to taking an Anthropocene approach, however, that threaten to
overwhelm its potential contributions to water governance. I will reflect on just
two of these before turning my attention to alternative governance frameworks.
The first pitfall pertains to the “global kinds of knowledge”that an Anthropocene
approach to water requires.
Gupta et al.lamentthatthereexists“avacuumin
water governance at the global level,”
which is partially attributed to the incom-
plete penetration of science into water management practice and the public
However, while scientific knowledge may form an obvious basis for
developing a “global perspective”and “universal principles”to guide global
governance, there are substantial costs that attend the production of such globa-
lized knowledge. Vörösmarty et al.assert,“[a] global perspective is essential for
providing context to local conditions,”
but here the actual relationship between
generalized knowledge and context is inverted—it is precisely by decontextualiz-
ing and abstracting knowledge that universal claims can be made.
observes about abstraction, “all the moorings that tie scientific claims to local,
subjective and contingent circumstances are cut loose so that claims may float
freely and persuade people as objective facts.”
What we need instead, Hulme
argues, is for incomplete, plural, situated knowledges that are fluid and malleable
but do not collapse down to a single scale.
Such types of knowledge are amenable
to the polycentric, adaptive and even anarchic forms of governance that multi-
dimensional water challenges demand.
It is perhaps the totalizing tendency of global knowledge that contributes to
another pitfall of the notion of the Anthropocene: that all humans are equally
culpable for the species extinctions, climate disruptions and other large-scale
alterations to planetary systems that define the time. In one of his earliest
formulations of the Anthropocene concept, Paul Crutzen acknowledged that
only one quarter of the human population is responsible for having produced
the effects that characterize the period, yet he and countless others have persisted
in naming it in a way that implicates all of humanity.
Some proponents of the
Anthropocene concept trace contemporary ecological crises back to the invention
of the steam engine, a moment that if anything should focus our blame rather than
enable us to cast it indiscriminately: “Capitalists in a small corner of the Western
world invested in steam, laying the foundation stone for the fossil economy: at no
moment did the species vote for it either with feet or ballots, or march in
mechanical unison, or exercise any sort of shared authority over its own destiny
and that of the Earth System.”
This rebuke of the implicit and explicit assign-
ment of responsibility for global environmental disruptions to an undifferentiated
mass of humanity lays bare the reality of gross differences in social power that also
12 A. CLARKE-SATHER ET AL.
permeate water resource governance. Like the capitalists who set the fossil econ-
omy in motion, those who wield the financial means, expert knowledge and/or
decision-making power to effect dam construction, treaties, large-scale irrigation
schemes and virtual water trading, among others, comprise a miniscule fraction of
the human population.
Moreover, while these individuals may be counted
among the many who prosper as a result of these activities, they are the least
likely to suffer their unintended, and sometimes devastating, outcomes.
I noted at the outset that the Anthropocene concept has already been put into
the service of diverse agendas, but the debate about whether or not to demarcate a
new geological period remains unsettled, and some stratigraphers are uncertain
that a global chemical signal necessary for establishing a starting date exists. “Some
Anthropocene proponents concede that difficulty. But don’tgetboggeddownin
the mud, they say, just stipulate a date and move on. . . Either way, [Will Steffen]
says, the new name sends a message: “[It] will be another strong reminder to the
general public that we are now having undeniable impacts on the environment at
the scale of the planet as a whole, so much so that a new geological epoch has
Setting aside for now the glaring problem of demarcating a new epoch
in order to make a point that we now live in a new epoch, there are other political
concerns to address. By treating humans as a monolithic force driving global
environmental change, the notion of the Anthropocene erases key differences in
culpability for, vulnerability to, and capacity to respond to socio-ecological dis-
ruptions. Furthermore, attributing planetary-scale transformations to some char-
acteristic immanent in humans, such as the ability to wield fire or domesticate
animals, naturalizes processes like climate change, thereby inhibiting prospects for
The notion of a “geology of mankind”effectively depoliticizes what
is inherently political activity.
This does not bode well for those of us concerned with the deeply political
issues of water resource access and control, transformation and distribution.
However, the unsuitability of the Anthropocene concept for addressing recalci-
trant transboundary water problems may not pose a terrible loss, for, until we
are collectively prepared to retire the term “international river,”we are going to
have to contend with such watercourses, as well as the borders that define them.
Fortunately, some practical conceptual tools are ready at hand.
Even those who call for global water governance acknowledge that it is not a
panacea and cannot operate independently of governance at other scales.
Accordingly, there has been broad support for Ostrom’s“polycentric”approach
that involves multiple governing authorities at varying scales.
Not only can a
polycentricsystembemoreproductive,coherent, equitable and sustainable than
centralized systems guided by international agreements, but they also afford such
benefits as increased innovation, learning, adaptation and cooperation. As with
global governance, however, neither is polycentrism a silver bullet. The multi-
plicity of actors in complex systems of governance may lead to perverse outcomes
(e.g. leakage, inconsistent policies, inadequate certification, free-riding), and there
are inherent challenges of coordinating activities at multiple scales and reconciling
local arrangements with higher-level policies.
Also absent from this framework
is explicit accounting for the distribution of power.
Polycentric systems of transboundary water governance may therefore be
bolstered by integration with such approaches as critical hydropolitics and
hydro-hegemony that elucidate, respectively, the “multi-scalar, multi-actor char-
acter of water politics”
and the asymmetrical power relations between riparian
These two frameworks crucially inform international hydropolitics by
demonstrating how inter-state cooperation can manifest as subnational conflicts,
as well as how hegemonic states may structure treaties according to their prefer-
ences and coerce weaker states into complying with unequal terms of agreement.
A final challenge of governing transboundary rivers is accounting for the
borders that bring such entities into being. Anthropocene proponents echo
popular understandings of globalization that emphasize accelerated flows in an
increasingly “borderless world.”However, since the 1990s, critical scholars have
been complicating “borderless”and analogous “flat world”ontologies, arguing
instead for greater cognizance of “the complexity and flexibility of states’infra-
structural power and its territorializing thrust.”
Therefore, to the three comple-
mentary frameworks of polycentrism, critical hydropolitics and hydro-hegemony,
Iaddafourth,theriver–border complex, which interrogates how international
rivers and borders intersect and interact.
The river–border complex reconceptualizes international rivers as synergistic,
multifaceted, ongoing interactions of rivers and borders.
This approach main-
tains a concern with water but expands our understandings of river dynamics by
encompassing the non-water flows (e.g. shipping, sediments, pollutants, kinetic
energy) that also fundamentally structure riparian relations. Such an approach
reveals that borders and bordering activities (e.g. patrolling, exclusion, policing)
mediate both water and non-water flows along transboundary rivers, thereby
recognizing borders as active agents shaping socio-ecological processes of
hydropower development, navigation and fisheries, for example. The river–
border complex therefore provides a method by which we can characterize
and trace important linkages, flows and their outcomes across administrative
boundaries—necessary activities for contemporary geopolitics.
It is imperative for us to reckon with the patterns of resource extraction,
consumption and trade that have rendered species extinct, climates unstable,
oceans acidic and habitats polluted on a global scale. In doing so, it is equally
important to identify and reform the political, economic and cultural systems that
produce and sustain such processes. The notion of the Anthropocene, with its
“view from everywhere,”
lacks the requisite attention to social and spatial
difference to guide such a project. Fortunately, existing and emerging frameworks
for international river governance (attentive to power, scale and context-specific
knowledge) are well suited to the task and are available to be put into greater
14 A. CLARKE-SATHER ET AL.
Water, Fish and Power in the Salish Sea Basin: Indigenous Treaty
Rights and Water Politics in the Anthropocene
Emma S. Norman
The shifting geopolitics of water in the Anthropocene has global implications. As
this forum explores, this shift is salient particularly for Indigenous communities,
who not only have deep and sustained connections to place and specific water-
ways; but whose cultures, worldviews and well-being are reliant on intact ecosys-
tems. The desecration of these systems through human-induced environmental
change contributes to what climate justice scholar, Kyle Whyte, describes as
colonial de ja vu.
For many Indigenous communities the world over, the Anthropocene poses a
doublebind.Thatis,asaresultofsettler-expansion and subsequent colonial
framings of land ownership and fixed political boundaries, Indigenous commu-
nities are faced with a reduction of traditional territory to small fractions of their
This reduction of land base and access to waterways also hinders
access to critically important First Foods. In addition, human-induced environ-
mental change has greatly compromised the health of ecosystems necessary to
support and sustain subsistence economies. In the Pacific Northwest of North
America, for example, the wild runs of culturally important species such as salmon
are facing extinction, shellfish beds are closed due to upstream nitrate and fecal
coliform pollutants associated with intensive agriculture practices and the phenol-
ogy of plants and animals are significantly out of synch.
This changing environment poses distinct threats to Indigenous Peoples’
ability to self-sustain and is a direct violation of Treaty rights. In many Tribes
and First Nations throughout North America, Tribal leaders were forced to give
up the majority of their land under the guise that their communities would
continue to have access to critically important fishing and hunting areas through
what is called “Usual and Accustomed”(U and A) areas. With changing
environmental conditions, these U and A areas may no longer house the
culturally important habitats the treaties are meant to protect.
In the lines that follow, I employ a narrative style consistent with Indigenous
Research Methodologies to explore the complexities of the shifting geopolitics of
water in the Salish Sea Basin. Here, the Lummi Nation—in a Battle of Little Big
Horn moment—stood up against a billion-dollar company that was trying to
build a large shipping terminal to transport coal to foreign markets. The North
Dakota Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Sacred Stone camp of water protec-
tors is another dramatic example of this growing resistance movement, resulting
from communities standing their ground and saying “no.”Acts of resistance
such as these—and the interaction between Indigenous communities, govern-
ment and industrial actors—are important facets of water geopolitics in the age
of the Anthropocene. These actions not only protect Indigenous communities
and their neighbours, but demonstrate the power of Indigenous leaders in taking
these Treaty rights and turning them into opportunities for change.
Our Treaty Rights are Not for Sale—No to the Coal Train
On May 9, 2016, in the crowded council chamber, Chairman Timothy Ballew,Jr.
of the Lummi Nation made a historic announcement. The room was abuzz with
the news, with a mixture of celebration and relief. They had done it.Theyhad
stopped the unstoppable.
What was announced that historic day was that after 4 years of strategizing and
fighting, the Lummi Nation —a small, but powerful fishing tribe located in Salish
Sea Basin of North America—had defeated a proposal to build a deep-water
shipping terminal on the sacred site of Cherry Point (Xwe’chieXen)inthetradi-
tional territory of the Lummi Nation. The proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal
(GPT) would have been the largest of its kind in North America. The terminal was
designed for large vessels to transport approximately 54 million metric tons per
year of coal to foreign markets such as China. The project was controversial for the
Lummi Nation (and other coastal Indigenous communities) as it would have
desecrated 1,500 acres of sacred land, compromised critically important coastal
salmon habitat and increase the risk of oil spills by increasing shipping traffic by
100-fold. In addition, the construction of new infrastructure to support increased
fossil fuel consumption is counter to many Indigenous leaders’commitment to
renewable and sustainable energy sources—particularly in light of the impacts of
sea-level rise on coastal communities.
For all of these reasons, the Lummi Nation Business Council, represented by
Chairman Ballew, firmly said “no”to the proposed shipping terminal, and other
Coast Salish leaders and environmental allies stood by them. The company—SSA
Marine—had hoped to win the Lummi community over through financial com-
pensation, indicating that they were “confident that they would be able to find a
‘win–win’solution through negotiation.”Lummi countered, however, that
“Treaty rights are non-negotiable,”“once you destroy a habitat, it is gone forever,”
and “there is no-where else.”
For the Lummi community, like other Coast Salish
Indigenous communities, this connection to place is also intrinsically linked to the
intricate waterways, to the freshwater and saltwater interchange that produces one
of the most ecologically rich estuarine systems in the world.
On a crisp November day in 2012, the Lummi Nation proclaimed that their treaty
rights were not for sale. They affirmed that building on the ancestral home of
Cherry Point is not an option and destroying fishing habitat would destroy their
culture. The Lummi Nation made a stand against corporate greed, unsustainable
energy and desecration of their sacred waters. In a powerful moment on the shores
16 A. CLARKE-SATHER ET AL.
for one million dollars with the word “non-negotiable”written across it, and
ceremoniously placed it on an open fire. As the cheque slowly burned, testimony
from elders spoke to the sacredness of this spot and the need to follow their
ancestors’wishes to protect this land and water for generations to come. With that
announcement came a battle to hold a line: to say, “enough is enough.”
Chairman Ballew and other Coast Salish leaders banded together, citing the
treaty rights that their ancestors negotiated with the US government in 1855: The
Treaty of Point Elliot. This Treaty guaranteed that, in exchange for the millions of
acres that were relinquished to the settlers, the tribes would relocate to small parcels
of land so that their rights to harvest from the sea, rivers, shorelines and land would
be upheld. This treaty guaranteed their inherent right to self-determination, in
which fishing and harvesting is central to theirWayofLife.Specifically,Article1of
the Treaty relinquished millions of acres to settlers, Article 2 relocated Indigenous
Article 5 of the Point Elliot Treaty (which was upheld by Judge Boldt 100 years later
in U.S. vs. Washington State)thatpromises the right to harvest from the sea.
In essence, the Coast Salish peoples of the United States, like most Indigenous
Peoples throughout North America, were forced to cede the majority of their
territory to Newcomers. This cessation, however, came with the explicit promise
that the Indigenous people and their ancestors would be able to provide for
themselves and their families from the land and water—in a way that was con-
sistent with their belief systems. In these negotiations, however, the thought that
the fish—which were so incredibly bountiful—would no longer run was
unfathomable. In this emerging era of the Anthropocene, where development
and industrialization have destroyed habitat, warmed waters and melted ice, the
impacts for Indigenous communities who gave up so much for these rights is
Opportunities exist, however, to leverage these negotiated Treaty rights as a
way to continue to hold the line against continued development and indus-
trialization, to use these rights as a way to halt “business as usual”models and
envision more sustainable ways of life.
Building the proposed terminal would directly impact those rights—directly
impact the Lummi Peoples’ability to provide for themselves, their families and
those that would walk ahead of them. Destroying the habitat directly impacts a
way of life that is sacred to the Lummi community and other Coast Salish
So, we have a stand—a stand for the right to protect fish, to protect water
and its habitat. A stand against big business who blithely moved forward as if
it was a done deal. Yet, the small Coast Salish community, made up of 4,000
members, stopped it. They banned together and said no.
No more. Not again.
And, they won.
They won this battle.
Yet, the celebration was a cautious one. Not one hour after the announcement
was made were the Chairman and the Council back in their offices, strategizing
protection from the next affront to their land, their water, their Way of Life.
Holding the Line in the Age of the Anthropocene
The power of the Lummi community to hold this line is significant. For one, the
treaties signed in the 1850s with scores of tribes throughout the United States
(including the Lummi Nation and other Coast Salish tribes with the 1855 Point
Elliot Treaty) obligate the federal government to uphold their Treaty Trust
responsibilities. In general, these obligations have been systemically and egre-
giously ignored by the federal government. However, the civil rights American
Indian Movement of the 1960s, including the Fish-ins in Washington state, with
famed Indigenous rights activist, Billy Frank, Jr., brought about one of the most
powerful pieces of legislation for fishing rights to date–the Boldt Decision (fol-
lowed by the Raferdeee, and the Culvert cases). Second, Indigenous Peoples’
historically deep knowledge of and connection to the lands and waters they inhabit
make them well poised to make contributions to ecosystem protection.
In addition, as with the case of the Lummi People, with inherent rights—rights
to fish and harvest, and rights to water—comes the responsibility to protect. That
is, the codes and laws making up the societal fabric intrinsically protect these lands
and waters from over-extraction, over-harvesting and polluting. To do so would
not only impact “the environment,”but would impact their survival. Central to
this approach is the lack of distinction between “environment”and “humans”—
replaced by the recognition of a complex, synergistic inter-relationship.
are the concepts of relationality and reciprocity that illuminate the importance of
viewing simultaneously the rights to harvest as a responsibility to protect. This
perspective is one that, in the era of the Anthropocene, could be usefully adopted.
The question then is how to enact these responsibilities with fragmented
governance structures and deeply politicized economic structures that externalize
costs to human and ecosystem health. In this complex and fragmented geopolitical
system, how are Indigenous Peoples able to carry out these responsibilities on the
slivers of land that are left, when the impacts to the ecosystems are occurring
largely from those that do not follow the same credo and ethics and when the
environment has changed so drastically around them? How can a seven-genera-
tion vision of planning be integrated into the mainstream government narrative of
4-year governance cycles, where jurisdictions are carved by and fragmented relics
of political battles of yesteryears: wherethewatersoftheSalishSeaareseveredat
the 49th parallel—as a result of the negotiations between the Crown and the
nascent governors of Washington Territory after a skirmish between British and
American soldiers over a pig in the contested space of San Juan Island.
18 A. CLARKE-SATHER ET AL.
In the age of the Anthropocene, where human impacts have damaged eco-
systems and waterways in an unprecedented way, we will need to look for new
ways of environmental governance. In this era, Treaty rights and Indigenous
Knowledge Systems have an incredibly important part to play. For those on the
parameters of this shift—for those watching the geopolitics of this battle, and
witnessing the heroism of those on the frontline of the social and environmental
justice movements, for those that are saying enough is enough—I encourage you
to also do your part; be part of the solution. Scholars and educators have a
responsibility to not just reflect, report and theorize; they have a responsibility to
consider how to amplify, to influence, to act, to support. If you do not accept the
responsibility for your own benefit, accept it for those that will come after you.
The Geopolitics of an Ice-Free Arctic
Scott R. Stephenson
One of the most striking developments of the Anthropocene is the changing
materiality of water, exemplified by the ongoing state change from an ice-covered
to a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean.
In addition to amplifying high-latitude
warming by lowering sea surface albedo, a younger, thinner and more dispersed
is fuelling speculation about the opening of shipping routes in the
coming decades, as well as enabling new geopolitical configurations of marine
accessibility and territoriality. Shipping along Russia’s Northern Sea Route (NSR)
began in the 1950s and continues today in support of mineral and oil and gas
while the Northwest Passage (NWP) through Canada’s Arctic archi-
pelago is increasingly becoming a destination for tourism.
Compared to these
routes, relatively little attention has been given to the possibility of shipping via the
so-called “trans-polar route”(TPR; alternatively, the trans-polar sea route or
North Pole route
) from the North Atlantic to the Bering Strait through the
central Arctic Ocean, passing over or near the North Pole. This route is the most
direct passage through the Arctic and is therefore the shortest possible marine link
between Europe and Asia. In a global economy often characterized by ever-
expanding networks of flows,
the TPR represents a potentially significant, if
seasonally limited, bridge for transport and trade.
The length advantage of the TPR and other Arctic routes implies significant
potential fuel and emissions savings over traditional shipping lanes through the
Suez and Panama Canals. Even though shipping is not among the sectors
targeted by the Paris Agreement, the shipping industry will have to significantly
reduce emissions in order to reach the Agreement’s goal of limiting warming to
1.5°–2° C above pre-industrial levels. Meeting the 2° C threshold would require
the shipping industry to reduce its emissions by 2.6% annually from 2020 to
2050, most likely through a variety of strategies such as efficient ship designs,
lower carbon fuels, operational practices and alternative routes.
As the shortest
of all Arctic routes, it is conceivable that the TPR will be promoted as a means of
mitigating the same climate-altering mechanisms that enabled its existence in
the first place. However, even after the Arctic transitions to a summer ice-free
state, considerable doubt remains over whether the fuel savings potential of the
route will outweigh the environmental risks. To date, no commercial voyages
have used the TPR due to its year-round ice cover and high incidence of
hazardous multi-year ice. Market opportunities in the central Arctic are non-
existent and the length of the navigation season will be highly uncertain for the
foreseeable future, limiting long-term economic planning.
While the central
Arctic basin is believed to contain significant quantities of oil and gas,
of extraction in the region are prohibitive, and states do not (yet) control access
to seabed resources beyond their 200-nm exclusive economic zones (EEZ).
Moreover, Arctic shipping will always pose environmental risks from oil spills,
which would be especially severe along the TPR due to extreme remoteness from
ports, search-and-rescue stations and other spill cleanup infrastructure.
The elevated risk of an environmental disaster in ice-covered waters has led to
a somewhat unusual international governance regime for the Arctic Ocean. The
rules of marine territoriality established by the UN Convention on the Law of the
Sea (UNCLOS) apply to the Arctic, an ocean surrounded by five coastal states
(Canada, Greenland [Denmark], Norway, Russia and the US), such that in most
respects, the legal status of the Arctic Ocean has been considered the same as that
of any other marine area.
The exception lies in the so-called “ice clause”or
“Arctic exception”in Article 234, which grants Arctic coastal states the right to
enact non-discriminatory regulations for the purpose of “prevention, reduction
and control of marine pollution from vessels in ice-covered areas within the
limits of the EEZ, where particularly severe climatic conditions and the presence
of ice covering such areas for most of the year create obstructions or exception
Russia has interpreted this as an authorization to
require mandatory icebreaker escort along ice-covered sections of the NSR, with
attendant fees currently estimated at $800,000 in summer for an open-water
It may be argued that this interpretation amounts to an “imposition of a
system of expansive control”intended to extend a form of limited political
sovereignty beyond Russia’s territorial seas.
Indeed, the US contends that
such fees impinge on freedom of navigation and place Moscow in a position
to deny passage for political gain.
Nevertheless, all ships transiting the NSR to
date have agreed to Russia’s terms, and the issue has been largely ignored outside
the domain of political and legal scholars.
However, the opening of the TPR forces a rethinking of the legal landscape of
the Arctic Ocean with some interesting geopolitical implications. Unlike the
NSR and NWP, the majority of the TPR lies in international waters beyond state
territorial jurisdiction and economic control. By sailing through the central
Arctic, ships may circumvent the largely ice-covered coastal seas that provide
the legal basis for the Russian tariff regime. It is currently possible to access the
20 A. CLARKE-SATHER ET AL.
TPR without ever entering Russian territorial seas via the eastern Bering Strait
between the US mainland and Little Diomede Island, for as long as the US
continues to abide by UNCLOS.
As the global maritime shipping industry has
remained viable through intense cost concentration and razor-thin profit
avoidance of icebreaker fees could render cost-effective the diversion
of some summer bulk transit shipments from the NSR to the TPR. Such a
development would not go unnoticed in Moscow, as Russia’s robust investment
in new icebreakers—far more than any other Arctic nation—is predicated on
expected increases in icebreaker fee revenues fuelled by growth in traffic along
the NSR. While most NSR shipping at present is driven by domestic resource
development, Russia’s official state policy is to develop the NSR as an interna-
tional waterway serving both destinational and transit shipping demand in the
How might Russia respond to the prospect of losing “share”in the
emerging Arctic shipping market to new routes beyond its jurisdiction?
The answer will depend in part on the resolution of pending submissions to
the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). While the
US sits on the sidelines as a non-signatory to UNCLOS, Canada, Denmark,
Norway and Russia have submitted claims to extend the limit of their Arctic
continental shelves beyond 200 nautical miles (Article 76
). Of these, Russia’s
2015 claim is the largest, a 463,000 square-mile area encompassing the
Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges and the North Pole (Figure 1).
it is possible that Russia will view the CLCS recommendation as an authorization
of control over not only seabed resources but also access and environmental
protection of its outer continental shelf. Extended shelf claims are not part of a
coastal state’s EEZ, and therefore are not a zone within which the state could
enforce regulations under Article 234. However, Russia could assert that its
outer continental shelf is as deserving of the same protection as its EEZ,
particularly if it plans to exploit oil and gas resources in the area in the future.
An oil spill on ice along the TPR would likely enter Russia’s outer continental
shelf and EEZ carried by the Transpolar Drift Stream en route to the Fram
potentially inciting Russian icebreakers to interdict vessels deemed
unsuitable for unescorted operations in ice-covered waters. A similar scenario
could also result if Russia’s CLCS submission is rejected, though without a claim
to legitimacy on the basis of environmental stewardship.
Such an expansionist interpretation of UNCLOS would surely be contested by
other Arctic states, though it would not be the first time that expansionist ideas
have been considered in Russia’s maritime Arctic. In 1926, the Soviet Union
issued a decree declaring all land situated within a sector bounded by baselines
drawn from its easternmost and westernmost Arctic coastlines and the North
Pole to be territory of the USSR. This so-called “sectoral”concept derived its
legitimacy from an extension of the contiguity principle, by which states may
claim sovereignty over proximate waters within their “region of attraction,”and
the principle of effective occupation, by which activities such as marine patrols,
aviation and building settlements and infrastructure effectively amount to deli-
mitation of territory.
While such broad claims were largely limited to doctrinal
debates and rarely implemented in practice,
they were never officially rejected
even after accession to UNCLOS. Therefore, Russia’s official position on the
sector concept remains unclear.
In any case, the emergence of the
Anthropocene and attendant material transition from ice to water are enabling
latent, nationalistic understandings of marine territoriality to achieve new rele-
vance, with opportunities for such doctrines to be entrained into law. Should the
sectoral concept reemerge in mainstream political discourse, it could call into
question the stability of existing geopolitical agreements, foreshadowing a pos-
sible renegotiation of the extent of transnational Arctic governance.
If the purpose of the 1926 decree was to prevent foreign intrusions in the
Soviet Arctic, its practical implementation was rendered somewhat trivial by the
Figure 1. Russian maritime boundaries and continental shelf claims (adapted with permission
from IBRU, 2015
22 A. CLARKE-SATHER ET AL.
persistence of ice. For centuries, Russia has been able to rely on sea ice as a
natural barrier to help control activity along its northern coast. With this barrier
diminishing for increasingly longer periods of time each year, Russia may begin
to perceive attempts by other countries to operate independently outside of its
traditional area of jurisdiction—the NSR—as a challenge to its sovereignty and
control over marine space.
If Russia were to begin maritime interdictions, it is
the best equipped of the Arctic states to do so. Russia’s military assets are the
largest in the Arctic and have grownin recent years with the rebuilding of several
Cold War-era bases and 10 air-defence radar stations along the NSR, as well as
three new nuclear-powered and four diesel-powered icebreakers, reflecting a
strategic naval orientation toward the Arctic.
It should be noted that this
pattern of militarization has followed increases in trade and investment in
nonmilitary infrastructure in the region, suggesting that economic interests are
driving the militarization rather than classical expansionism.
Russia has not signalled anyintention to formally break with UNCLOS, and thus
far has acted in accordance with its provisions with the possible exception of its
contested interpretation of Article 234.
Maritime interdictions would likely
have a destabilizing effect on Arctic security, harming Russia’s ambitions to
develop resources and promote shipping along the NSR. Nonetheless, the open-
ing of the TPR and resolution of CLCS claims could serve as a test of Russia’s
commitment to existing international law.
Any attempt to circumvent UNCLOS in the Arctic would be new geopo-
litical territory. If Russia adopts an aggressive or expansionist posture in the
central Arctic, our understanding of the region must shift from an arena in
which all actors abide by international rules to one which, while not neces-
sarily poised for violent conflict, runs the risk of reverting to tensions not
seen since the Cold War. In any case, the changing physical landscape of the
Arctic forces a re-examination of whether the tenets of UNCLOS, as written,
are sufficient to establish long-term marine governance in the age of the
Anthropocene. What it means for an ocean to be legally “ice-covered”will be
in flux as the ice recedes, and Article 234 will likely be interpreted broadly in
order to maximize state control over Arctic EEZs. For the foreseeable future,
however, it is likely that any voyage of the TPR will require icebreaker
Regardless of who “owns”the North Pole decades from now, a
Russian ship might take them there.
Afton Clarke-Sather http://orcid.org/0000-0002-5428-9415
1. M. Zeitoun and J. Warner, ‘Hydro-Hegemony –a Framework for Analysis of Trans-
Boundary Water Conflicts’,Water Policy 8 (2006) p. 435; C. Sneddon and C. Fox,
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Political Geography 25 (2006) p. 181; E.S. Norman, Governing Transboundary Waters
(New York: Routledge 2014); E.S. Norman and K. Bakker, ‘Transgressing Scales: Water
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24 A. CLARKE-SATHER ET AL.
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28 A. CLARKE-SATHER ET AL.