Transdisciplinary Challenge Award: 2011


Escaping Flatland: (Re-)Writing the Histories, Geographies, and Borderland Ecologies of Water

Manu Sobti (Architecture and Urban Planning)

Timothy J. Ehlinger (Biological Sciences)

Ryan B. Holifield (Geography)

$300,000 in total funding, over two years

In the management of freshwater ecosystems, international borders and subnational boundaries present peculiar problems. Throughout the 20th century it was felt that addressing complex issues such as water sharing, contamination, invasive species, habitat degradation, and natural hazards could be handled simply by the sciences. As we are discovering in the 21st century though, these scientific concerns are further complicated by the very distinctive histories, cultural traditions, economic valuations, and institutional structures for decision-making on either side of the border--subject areas that typically fall under the purview of the humanities and social sciences.

Drawing upon research from multiple case study sites, Sobti, Ehlinger, and Holifield are proposing a unique framework for the comparative analysis of international borders/subnational boundaries and their relationships to freshwater ecosystems, especially highlighting the scenarios of conflict created through such interactions. Their case studies include the Amu Darya (Oxus) River that runs along the borders of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan; the Lower Danube River as it empties into the Black Sea; and the Milwaukee River as it flows into Lake Michigan.

Transdisciplinary Challenge Awardees 2011

(l to r) Tim Ehlinger, Manu Sobti, Ryan Holifield   Photo: Troye Fox

The Amu Darya, coincident with a portion of the ancient Silk Road trade route, has a long history as a contentious borderland. As the river stretches 4,000 miles to the Aral Sea, its crossing points became places where people settled, property was traded, and wealth generated, all fueling the fires of conflict. Even today the river is a site of contention: over the last forty years an extensive network of dams was built on the river for irrigation and flood control, yet the damming has caused the Aral Sea to shrink quite dramatically, threating its entire ecosystem.

Given the propitious timing of the award, the team will be able to analyze the current implementation of European Union (EU) policy concerning protection of biodiversity in the Lower Danube, particularly through the restoration of the sturgeon. In the EU, management of the river among multiple political entities involves much more of a mutual sharing of information rather than the establishing of compulsory legal processes. The team will be especially interested in how science-based evidence about the sturgeon population will be incorporated into the discussions.

In the case of the Milwaukee River, the team will be able to analyze recent enforcements of the Clean Water Act and the implementation of a Total Maximum Daily Load in the watershed by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District.

Although different kinds of boundaries--national, state or provincial, municipal, jurisdictional--influence the different ways stakeholders participate in governance issues, the research team plans to propose a common set of features that can serve as a model for understanding other types of conflicts along borderlands. By uniting the disciplinary tools of the humanities and social sciences with the perspectives of watershed ecology, they hope to develop new paradigms for developing knowledge-based decision support for environmental governance.

In June 2012, the research team presented some of their hypotheses and preliminary findings at the Borderscapes III conference in Trieste, Italy, as well as some of their other research on the Savannah River, dividing Georgia and South Carolina, and the St. Marys River, linking Lake Superior and Lake Huron and forming an international boundary between the United States and Canada. The team will also be presenting their research to the UWM community in Spring 2013.

"A Model for Managing Resources across Borders," UWM feature story

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