In This Review

Hydropolitics in the Third World: Conflict and Cooperation in International River Basins

Hydropolitics in the Third World: Conflict and Cooperation in International River Basins
By Arun P. Elhance
309 pp, United States Institute of Peace Press, 1999
Purchase

Why Governments Waste Natural Resources: Policy Failures in Developing Countries

Why Governments Waste Natural Resources: Policy Failures in Developing Countries
By William Ascher
333 pp, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999
Purchase

In coming decades, fresh water is likely to become the scarcest resource in several parts of the world. From different perspectives, these two books examine resource management in developing countries. Elhance looks at six politically important river basins -- Parana, Nile, Jordan, Euphrates, Ganges, and Mekong -- all of which require international cooperation to exploit fully their benefits for irrigation, flood control, navigation, and electric power. He also examines the political and technical obstacles to cooperation among the great-river nations, offering hopeful judgments about the possibility for joint action in the future. But the book could have benefited from some discussion of rivers where effective international cooperation has been achieved, such as the Rhine, Danube, and St. Lawrence.

Ascher asks a different question: Why have developing countries so often badly managed natural resources? He draws on numerous case studies, including not only water management (Mexico) but also oil (five countries), copper (Chile and India), and forests and timber (seven countries). Although Asher acknowledges that ignorance about resource management has played some role, he argues persuasively that policymakers too often have sought objectives that they knew their finance ministries, their publics, and even the international community would oppose if pursued directly through the national budget. Thus governments often wasted resources deliberately to divert resource rents to other purposes, such as aircraft production in Indonesia, usually through related public companies. Ascher concludes that if such countries want to improve resource management, they must confront directly these other objectives by either subordinating them to efficient resource management or achieving them in some other way.