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Special Issue: The Politics of Water Quantification

Guest Editors: François Molle, Bruce Lankford, Rebecca Lave


'Modern water' is associated with various quantitative attributes that describe and quantify it in terms of volume/stock, discharge/flow, chemical or biological characteristics, and associated economic values, costs and benefits. Quantifying water is mediated by in-situ measurements, indicators, metrics, standards, categories, water-accounting procedures, models and simulations, projections, etc. and is generally seen – and branded – as a neutral and natural operation conducive to improved objective and rational decision-making (Porter, 1996). But the production, promotion and use of 'water numbers' actually conceal deeply political hypotheses, concepts, intents, fashions and processes. Whether embodied in indicators, thresholds, water accounting or virtual-flow analysis, cost/benefits or environmental flow analyses, water numbers contribute as much to the scientization of politics as to the politicization of science. Just like storylines, narratives and discourses, numbers do important political work, concealing complexity, 'rendering technical', selecting 'what counts', giving meaning to social and physical phenomena, rallying epistemic coalitions behind methods, numbers or sets of numbers, interpretations (Lankford, 2022), or offering a boundary concept/target around which negotiations may unfold.

This Special Issue reflects on the societal and environmental outcomes accomplished by addressing water as a quantifiable resource, and, conversely, what quantifying water does to society/environment and particular individuals or groups. We identify and call for contributions from social, natural and interdisciplinary scientists to one or more of six areas of reflexion (not excluding other relevant themes):

  • Environmental uncertainties as constraint and resource
  • The politics of water numbers and number narratives
  • Quantification and governance
  • Reductionist ontologies of quantified water
  • Water numeracy and selective ignorance
  • Datafication, control and commodification
  1. Environmental uncertainties

Water is a fluid, highly fluctuating, partly invisible element, which frequently eludes quantification efforts that are subject to significant uncertainties. While these uncertainties are partly derived from measurement itself and from the hydro-social complexity of the circulation of water in space and time, they also constitute both a constraint and a resource. Uncertainty contributes to ambiguity, a key element of political processes, but it can also be manufactured or preserved for opportunistic and strategic use by specific actors. Conversely, while competing representations and interpretations are never completely accurate, ‘different actors will try to represent interpretations as more certain than they are in order to justify their world views’ (Forsyth, 2015). Water metrics, whether hydraulic or economic, and their associated practices offer numerous situations to explore how uncertainties are dealt with and possibly put to use.

  1. The politics of water numbers and number narratives

'Water numbers' are produced by specific actors, knowledge-making practices, and webs of interests. They are often incorporated into 'number narratives' or justification discourses (Brooks, 2017) and as such contribute to policy-making and implementation processes. It is therefore important to understand water numbers’ production, circulation and contestation, particularly with respect to how they frame problems and solutions, favouring the consideration of what can be 'counted' to the detriment of other values, interests and individuals/groups (Tadaki and Sinner, 2014).

Although 'numbers' are frequently massaged and made compatible with plans and objectives ex-post, they are valued for their neutral, objective and rational gloss to legitimize political decisions (e.g. new infrastructure, drought or emergency measures, dam releases, and new policies). ‘Trust in numbers’ can be manufactured and instrumentalised to naturalize situations (e.g. water crisis, overallocation and mismanagement), depoliticize decisions or instantiate proof of 'improvement' or policy success (Porter, 1996; Rudebeck, 2019). Actors who have the technical, economic and political means to produce and disseminate numbers are in a position to define ‘truth’ and what counts. Hence, whether these numbers are accurate or true may be secondary to the role they play in making some futures more possible than others. Numbers can be produced with regard to local-scale projects (e.g. C/B analysis, eflows, fish catch, urban- or irrigation-scheme efficiency, etc.) but also, often in the form of indicators, as key elements of global/Earth science outputs (e.g. global water depletion, value of ecosystem services, percentage or 'free-flowing rivers', etc.), global policies, such as the SDGs, or national/international databases (e.g. FAO Aquastat).

If numbers and 'number narratives' matter in the legitimation of dominant discourses and interests, there is also a need to examine 'number counternarratives', whereby NGOs, academics or coalition of actors join to produce alternative numbers and 'truths' (e.g. ‘Thai Baan’ research in Thailand, Soppecom in India).

  1. Water quantification and governance

Thus, more broadly, water quantification is associated with governance. It may promote an ideology of control, thereby endowing those promising to overcome scarcity, uncertainty or inefficiency and ensure ‘water security’ (such as engineers, scientists, hydrocrats and construction companies) with social power. This can enforce ‘a culture of domination, control and alienation’ (Parrinello et al., 2020). But the preoccupation with full knowledge and control is difficult to align not just with water’s capriciousness and lack of predictability, but also with the pragmatic, contested and often messy ways in which actual decisions about water are made.

With their implicit emphasis on ‘governing by numbers’ (Shore and Wright, 2015), New Public Management and other control and auditing approaches contribute to the prevalence of the languages of management, accounting and regulation, and in a distinct preference for quantification and efficiency, something that Turnhout (2018) calls measurementality. What is the role of numbers, indicators, ranking, benchmarking, models or water-accounting procedures in water governance? Who develops, promotes or benefits from these technologies? What kind of subjects do they produce and what strategies do they elicit in response? Do water accounts promote or demote performative norms (e.g more, higher, better efficiency, resilience, sustainability, equity, etc.) that subsequently mask other concerns?

  1. Reductionist ontologies

While number narratives simplify reality and are selective in what is counted 'in' and 'out', the representations of nature attached to quantification, and categories and classification systems more deeply, ‘foreground specific elements of nature while silencing or ignoring others’ (Turnhout, 2008). In other words, the metrics, standards, categories and concepts through which we apprehend the world filter and sideline certain actors, rationales, values or alternative ontologies. Neoliberal regimes of quantification, for example, favour 'economisation', where ‘individuals, activities and organisations are constituted or framed as economic actors and entities’ (Mennicken and Espeland, 2019). Quantification typically promotes 'modern water' –which is stripped of historical, geographical, sensorial, affective or spiritual particularities (Vogt, 2021). Ontologically, how is water comprehended in ways that shape its hydrological quantification? And, conversely, how does hydrological numeracy shape conceptions of water? ‘Seeing water as stocks and/or flows’, ‘advancing the river basin as the natural balancing unit’ and ‘arguing that the conservation of mass must be respected’ are examples of the co-construction of water and its quantification.

Within this fourth theme we also encourage contributions that engage with how water and hydrology are modelled and are rendered, or abstracted, into models. Models, self-contained metaphors for a real-world richness that can never be fully captured, usually support dominant narratives and follow disciplinary or professional fashions that would benefit from fresh inspection.  One example is the critiqued levelled at the dominance of the hydrological cycle (Farnum et al., 2018).  

  1. Critical water numeracy

'Water numeracy' refers to the technical capacity to understand or use water accounting and operationalise other metrics, and the associated assumptions, scope, computations and policy advice. Thus, critical water numeracy foregrounds concerns about whether and how precepts, abstractions, computations, scales, boundaries and variables are used (or not) in water accounting and more generally in policies that define objectives, justifications or achievements based on water quantification. 'Selective ignorance' of specific complexities or elements of the water cycle is also common. Epistemologically and methodologically, how are water accounts, budgets and indicators evidenced and formulated? How is scale taken into consideration and accommodated? What omissions, shortcuts and elisions are commonly employed? How are statistical errors and error bars employed to mask deep uncertainty leading to unwise policy (Puy et al., 2022).  Are critical water studies insufficiently ‘numerically grounded’, dissociating critical/social science water studies from an understanding of/insight in hydraulic and hydrological dynamics?

How is water numeracy experienced and theorised in different disciplines (farming, hydrology, economics, engineering)? And what strengths and weaknesses are built into their world views? Can water numeracy contribute to social and environmental justice, and improve outcomes for people and nature, or is numeracy’s utility limited by the political forces that shape water distribution.

  1. Datafication

Datafication is often rooted in an ideology that sees the collection of data as a way to represent and capture both physical processes and social life, often with a view to/hope of controlling them. The ubiquitous mantra 'you can't manage what you can't measure' is often implicitly a promise that more data will necessarily beget better management. But datafication is also a means for national administrations (and international bodies) to secure budgets and to be seen ‘doing something’ to solve water problems by deploying (and displaying) huge means to generate data, databases, web-based maps, etc. With the rise of satellite imagery, global connectivity, and the Internet of Things, datafication seems to be accelerating.  It is spurring calls to build global water data-sets and institutions deemed to be necessary to build global water governance, suggesting that control and sound decision making will be made possible at that level. Datafication is also about the commodification of data; that remotely sensed ‘proof’ of a problem fixed is likely more investor-facing than it is problem-facing. However, datafication especially that rapidly gleaned via satellite imaging, usually involves the omission and/or elision of a rich underlying ‘hidden iceberg’ of resource relations, and management-relevant and people-centred field data, to say nothing of stochastic uncertainties and non-equilibrium disconnects between an actual catchment and its digital twin. Is datafication therefore a reflection of regulatory and measurement failure?  Are glossy global-scale datafication websites glossing over the micro and meso-scales? Is datafication a cul-de-sac or a stepping stone to a water secure future guided by machine competency? 


Types of articles

We welcome the submission of abstracts by authors intending to write full papers or shorter Viewpoints. See our general guidelines.

Send your abstract (300 words or more) to 

Timeline for the Special Issue

Special issue announcement: 20th March 2023

Abstract submission deadline: 5th May 2023 [abstracts can still be sent until the end of May]

Decision communicated to authors: 31st May 2023

Full paper submission deadline:  15th January 2024

Special Issue publication: 1st week June 2024
(Papers are however made available on line whenever completed)



Brooks, E. 2017. Number narratives: Abundance, scarcity, and sustainability in a California water world. Science as Culture, 26(1), 32-55.

Farnum, R.L., Macdougall, R., Thompson, C. 2018. Re-envisioning the hydro cycle: The hydrosocial spiral as a participatory toolbox for water education and management. Water, Creativity and Meaning, 138-156.

Forsyth, T. 2015. Integrating science and politics in political ecology. In The international handbook of political ecology (pp. 103-116). Edward Elgar Publishing.

Lankford, B.A. 2022. Irrigated agriculture: more than ‘big water’ and ‘accountants will [not] save the world’. Water International 47, 1155-1164.

Mennicken, A., & Espeland, W. N. 2019. What's new with numbers? Sociological approaches to the study of quantification. Annual Review of Sociology, 45, 223-245.

Parrinello, G., Benson, E. S., & von Hardenberg, W. G. 2020. Estimated truths: water, science, and the politics of approximation. Journal of Historical Geography, 68, 3-10.

Porter, T. M. 1996. Trust in numbers. Princeton University Press.

Puy, A., Sheikholeslami, R., Gupta, H.V., Hall, J.W., Lankford, B., Lo Piano, S., Meier, J., Pappenberger, F., Porporato, A., Vico, G., Saltelli, A. 2022. The delusive accuracy of global irrigation water withdrawal estimates. Nature communications 13, 3183.

Rudebeck, T. (2019). Corporations as custodians of the public good? Exploring the intersection of corporate water stewardship and global water governance. Springer.

Saltelli, A., Di Fiore, M., (2023) The politics of modelling. Numbers between science and policy, Oxford.

Shore, C., & Wright, S. 2015. Governing by numbers: audit culture, rankings and the new world order. Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale, 23(1), 22-28.

Sletto, B. 2008. The knowledge that counts: institutional identities, policy science, and the conflict over fire management in the Gran Sabana, Venezuela. World Development, 36(10), 1938-1955.

Tadaki, Marc, and Jim Sinner. 2014. "Measure, model, optimise: Understanding reductionist concepts of value in freshwater governance."  Geoforum 51:140-151.

Turnhout, E. 2018. The politics of environmental knowledge. Conservation and Society 16(3): 363-371.

Vogt, L. 2021. Water, modern and multiple: Enriching the idea of water through enumeration amidst water scarcity in Bengaluru. Water Alternatives 14(1): 97-116.