Who governs the “in-between”? Climate change, beneficial flooding, and the everyday resourcefulness of local resource management in peri-urban Myanmar

March 22, 2016

Munk School of Global Affairs,

Climate change is having an impact on the severity and timing of river level fluctuations across Asia (Tanner et al 2009, Xu et al 2009, Palmer et al 2008, Dudgeon 2000). Flooding and flood-related disasters in mainland Southeast Asia make news around the world and are generating increasingly severe economic and political disruptions as they impact an urbanizing region. In Myanmar—a so called “water hotspot”—flooding is considered a crisis for state water management and governance, particularly in urban contexts. Moreover, in work on water and resilience, alongside an emphasis on ‘crisis’, we have seen water continually linked to scarcity and ‘disaster’ (Tanner et. al 2015, Mukheibir 2010). What these debates could better elucidate are the ways that everyday people work to address hydro-social practices in a changing climate, and the implications of this work for water management and social outcomes (Driscoll Derickson and MacKinnon 2015, MacKinnon Derickson 2013, ISET-I 2015).

One way that we can better understand the impacts of climate change on water and river fluctuations and take an approach that highlights the work of everyday people is to examine the impacts or changes to beneficial flooding and to its associated agro-ecological practices in mainland Southeast Asia, where the monsoon climate and regular flooding have been adapted by residents into local cultivation practices. In the places where flood-linked agriculture is practiced, the challenges and transformations posed by climate changes interact with both the current processes of urbanization and with historical and traditional technologies that have been developed to ‘harness’ river fluctuations. Riverbank gardening is one such hydro-social practice in Southeast Asia that produces food for/from both rural and urbanizing environments, and requires cultivators to understand and work around a river’s fluctuating water levels, the rise and fall of which shapes local ecologies, climate and the growing season.

This paper/presentation by Vanessa Lamb, UCRSEA Postdoctoral Fellow, investigated the practices of riverbank gardeners in urbanizing monsoon landscapes as one way to understand changes to beneficial flooding as related to both climate change and the multifaceted processes and impacts of urbanization. She drew on a framework that emphasizes the historical emergence of such practices, their contemporary challenges, and the role of everyday people in their management. Drawing three examples together, she argued that examination of these gardeners’ practices and strategies of ‘resourcefulness’ reveal the work of individuals and institutions governing overlooked in-between spaces—which might otherwise be described as ‘un-governed’ or ‘ungovernable’—in everyday practice. She argued that these spaces are being adaptively managed and governed by local residents, in connection with municipal (and other) authorities.

Vanessa is also an affiliated researcher with the York Centre for Asian Research, York University (Toronto, Canada). She worked and conducted research in Southeast Asia on natural resource access for the past 10 years. She completed her dissertation, Ecologies of Rule and Resistance, focused on the politics of ecological knowledge and development of the Salween River at York University’s Department of Geography. She was recently awarded an ASEAN-Canada Junior Fellowship for continued Research on water politics and transboundary environmental governance in Southeast Asia. She is also the lead PI for a new CGIAR WLE Greater Mekong project on water governance titled: Matching policies, institutions and practices of water governance in the Salween-Thanlwin-Nu River Basin: Towards inclusive, informed, and accountable water governance.

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