Special Issue: Modelling Water Worlds

Guest Editors: Rossella Alba, Tobias Krueger, Lieke Melsen, Jean Philippe Venot


Whether in research, policy, practice or daily life, it is currently hard to imagine an issue related to inland, coastal or ocean waters that is not influenced by models. Models are used to forecast floods and droughts, determine the dimensions of water infrastructures, optimise water resource operations, trace pollution sources, simulate human–water relations, and inform many other areas of science, policy and practice. Models thus help create water realities by informing policies, directing interventions, and shaping predictions of the future. Modelling is a world-making practice (Krueger & Alba, 2022).

‘Models’, here, generally means mathematical models that are implemented on a computer, keeping in mind that ‘conceptual models’ pervade almost all areas of scientific practice whether mathematised or not. Models have different purposes, including to formalise scientific understanding, conduct virtual experiments, make predictions, inform policy or practice, or bring stakeholders together (Hamilton et al., 2022).

Even if a model is not meant explicitly to inform policy or practice and even if it has not been designed to be interacted with by stakeholders, it can still influence the world in a number of ways. A model (re)produces discourses and imaginaries that shape how water can be thought of, talked about and interacted with. Through these influences – if not direct interventions – models and modelling can shape how much water is where and when, and what is its quality. Models can affect who suffers from too much or too little water and who gets just the right amount, and they can influence who gets dirty water and who gets enough clean water to allow for the enjoyment of good health and productive activities. Models, in this sense, are political (ter Horst et al., 2023). They give rise to questions such as:

  • Which water worlds does a model create and which does it foreclose
  • Which and whose concerns does a model make visible
  • How do choices on model structure, calibration, validation and data management shape outcomes
  • How is uncertainty handled, factored in, or overlooked
  • Which discourses and interventions does a model afford or foreclose

Answering these questions requires attention to the world of modelling. It calls for a focus on what is put in the model and what is left out, how this is done, and why. Those who commission models, those who make them, and those who use them have choices that are contingent not only on the world to be represented by the model but also on habits and disciplinary traditions and on the political economy of water research, policy and practice (Lane, 2014; Krueger et al., 2016; Melsen et al., 2018).

The political charge of models therefore entails an ethical responsibility to think hard about those choices and to consider who they make visible and who they do not. Those who commission, build and use models should carefully consider which discourses, policies and interventions the model supports and which it forecloses.

This Special Issue invites contributions that unpack the world of modelling water through:

  • Analysis and reflexion by those who commission, build and use models regarding the contingencies and political charge of models and modelling (see, for example, Sanz et al., 2019; Godinez-Madrigal et al., 2020)
  • Sociological and ethnographic analyses of modelling practices and their looping back onto the world (for example, Babel et al., 2019; Melsen, 2022)
  • Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaborations that unsettle entrenched workflows and imagine how modelling could be done differently (see Klein et al., 2024)

We are particularly interested in contributions that engage with emerging or hitherto underexplored fields of modelling, such as (but not limited to):

  • The view from practitioners (consultants, policymakers, activists, NGOs …)
  • Global hydrological models (for example, Gnann et al., 2023)
  • Machine learning applications in hydrology (for example, Nearing et al., 2021)
  • Counter-modelling as a form of resistance


While many model-related issues are not specific to water, we call for case studies, illustrations and reflections that, broadly speaking, pertain to and are anchored in the world of water sciences.

Please note that we will not consider papers that merely document the development of a model, its application to a particular problem or region, and its outcomes with or without stakeholders. The articles must be reflexive and must focus on unpacking the institutional, social or political dimensions of commissioning, developing or using models.

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 managing_editor@water-alternatives.org

Timeline for the Special Issue

Special issue announcement: 21 June 2024

Abstract submission deadline: 25 July 2024

Decision communicated to authors: 15 August 2024

Full paper submission deadline: 15 January 2025

Special Issue publication: 1st week June 2025


Babel, L., D. Vinck and D. Karssenberg (2019). "Decision-making in model construction: Unveiling habits." Environmental Modelling & Software 120: 104490.

Gnann, S., R. Reinecke, L. Stein, Y. Wada, W. Thiery, H. Müller Schmied, Y. Satoh, Y. Pokhrel, S. Ostberg, A. Koutroulis, N. Hanasaki, M. Grillakis, S. N. Gosling, P. Burek, M. F. P. Bierkens and T. Wagener (2023). "Functional relationships reveal differences in the water cycle representation of global water models." Nature Water 1(12): 1079-1090.

Godinez-Madrigal, J., N. Van Cauwenbergh and P. van der Zaag (2020). "Unraveling intractable water conflicts: the entanglement of science and politics in decision-making on large hydraulic infrastructure." Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 24(10): 4903-4921.

Hamilton, S. H., C. A. Pollino, D. S. Stratford, B. Fu and A. J. Jakeman (2022). "Fit-for-purpose environmental modeling: Targeting the intersection of usability, reliability and feasibility." Environmental Modelling & Software 148: 105278.

Klein, A., K. Unverzagt, R. Alba, J. F. Donges, T. Hertz, T. Krueger, E. Lindkvist, R. Martin, J. Niewoehner, H. Prawitz, M. Schlueter, L. Schwarz and N. Wijermans (2024). "From situated knowledges to situated modelling: a relational framework for simulation modelling." Ecosystems & People: https://doi.org/10.1080/26395916.2024.2361706.

Krueger, T., C. Maynard, G. Carr, A. Bruns, E. N. Mueller and S. Lane (2016). "A transdisciplinary account of water research." Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water 3: 369–389.

Krueger, T. and R. Alba (2022). "Ontological and epistemological commitments in interdisciplinary water research: Uncertainty as an entry point for reflexion." Frontiers in Water 4.

Lane, S. N. (2014). "Acting, predicting and intervening in a socio-hydrological world." Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 18(3): 927-952.

Melsen, L. A., J. Vos and R. Boelens (2018). "What is the role of the model in socio-hydrology? Discussion of “Prediction in a socio-hydrological world”." Hydrological Sciences Journal 63(9): 1435-1443.

Melsen, L. A. (2022). "It Takes a Village to Run a Model—The Social Practices of Hydrological Modeling." Water Resources Research 58(2): e2021WR030600.

Nearing, G. S., F. Kratzert, A. K. Sampson, C. S. Pelissier, D. Klotz, J. M. Frame, C. Prieto and H. V. Gupta (2021). "What Role Does Hydrological Science Play in the Age of Machine Learning?" Water Resources Research 57(3): e2020WR028091.

Sanz, D., J. Vos, F. Rambags, J. Hoogesteger, E. Cassiraga and J. J. Gómez-Alday (2019). "The social construction and consequences of groundwater modelling: insight from the Mancha Oriental aquifer, Spain." International Journal of Water Resources Development 35(5): 808-829.

ter Horst, R., R. Alba, J. Vos, M. Rusca, J. Godinez-Madrigal, L. V. Babel, G. J. Veldwisch, J. P. Venot, B. Bonté, D. W. Walker and T. Krueger (2023). "Making a case for power-sensitive water modelling: a literature review." Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. Discuss. 2023: 1-31.