Just add water (Larson, 2020)

Bruce Lankford


Larson, R.B. 2020. Just add water. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 9780190948009. 288p., £25.99.

(URL:  https://global.oup.com/academic/product/just-add-water-9780190948009?cc=fr&lang=en&)

Bruce Lankford

School of International Development, University of East Anglia; B.Lankford@uea.ac.uk

To cite this review: Lankford, B. 2021. Review of "Just add water", Oxford University Press, 2020, by Rhett B. Larson, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/248-just-add



The book ‘Just Add Water’ is a passionately written, enjoyable book full of interesting angles and comments on water and related political and social dimensions. It is well-researched and has a wide bibliography. Larson has achieved something few of us do – to depart from a disciplinary training in water (he is a professor of law at Arizona State University) to write widely on water and water policy from markedly different perspectives. Each chapter is written more as a philosophical essay rather than as an academic treatise or thesis – which I think works well but does bring some gaps as I point out below. As the author himself writes in the foreword “It is difficult to write a broad book about such complex and technical issues that can engage both experts and the general public.” That said, of the two main readerships (experts and public) I would say it is written more for the latter since the expert would be looking for clearer guidance on the many debates on solutions to water security. The book is laid out in a set of eight chapters each examining the linkages between water security and a given topic. The list of chapters are: 1. Water Security and Climate Change; 2. Water Security and Public Health; 3. Water Security and Human Rights; 4. Water Security and Racial Discrimination; 5. Water Security and Gender Inequality; 6. Water Security and Armed Conflict; 7. Water Security and Mass Migration; 8. Water Security and Technological Innovation; Conclusion—Achieving Water Security.

My overall conclusion of the book is that it reminds readers of the very complicated nature and centrality of water in society but it is less specific and clear about the difference between water and water security. For example, in the “Introduction—Understanding Water Security”, Larson leads us to realise the special nature of water in society and on the planet but I felt I was reading about ‘water’ rather than ‘water security’. Without wanting to take anything away from ‘water’ or the author, the question is what extra does the phrase ‘water security’ bring to our knowledge and discussion?

While the book is an invitation to think differently about water, I found some of the writing too emphatic or didactic in places and perhaps too US-centric. For example, the reader is informed in Chapter 2 that “Climate change is obsolete because it has not resonated well enough with the general public to provoke the kind of immediate collective action needed to address the problem” or because the “second reason the climate change paradigm is obsolete is because it is incomplete. Climate change is not the main problem.” My two criticisms with this interpretation are that; a) it fails to see how rapidly climate change is escalating in people’s minds especially in different economic and geographic settings and; b) it seems to dismiss climate change rather than builds on it in order to reflect on water.

Another minor criticism is that the writing is interspersed with text which might work well in a classroom setting to animate teaching sessions but which does not convey sufficient academic weight in this kind of book. This happens when the reader’s attention is drawn to the author’s personal life. For example a section on ‘Natural Resource Policy Paradigms’ is illustrated by referring to shifts in his own teaching and education of his students and children. It also happens when reflections on water by martial arts proponent Bruce Lee are employed to conclude the book. While these might appeal to other readers, I feel these asides detract from important reflections contained in these and other sections.

My major criticism is that beyond the topics-approach to water security (i.e. human rights, gender, migration etc.), I cannot see how the book is guided by an author-derived conceptual framework to water security. This means that the book chapters are not coherently brought together by some over-arching guiding principles. It also means that the ‘solutions’ part of the book seem rather eclectic and anecdotal and thus to my mind the concluding chapter seems to fall short of the rider text given in the title of the book “Solving the World’s Problems Using Its Most Precious Resource”. Thus, when Larson adopts Bruce Lee’s exhortation “be water” to be a key sign-off of the book, why does this not guide the whole book as a conceptual idea?

Alongside missing a conceptual framework to water security, another approach to the book could have been to show that in each of the topics/chapters there is rich debate; meaning there are significant differences of opinion regarding phenomena, concepts, theory and solutions. For example in the chapter on technological innovation, while the author explains some of the obstacles to the question he poses “why the whole world does not simply follow the Israeli [water conservation] model for achieving water security?” he does not question the subject of water conservation and technology more deeply. He could have explored for example; a) whether efficient irrigation brings increases in water consumption – (see Grafton et al., 2018); b) the costs and externalities brought by Israel’s agricultural and water trajectories (for example, Trottier and Perrier, 2018); c) that irrigation efficiency is a boundary object through which many motives can be discerned (Lankford et al 2020) or d) the very social and non-technical nature of drip irrigation within agrarian change (Venot et al., 2017). These additional theory reflections would not have taken up much more space but would have enabled readers to further explore the complications of water and water security that Larson seeks to introduce us to.

Summarising, this is a book with wide scope and ambition and I can see it being used in different ways for example in sections for introductory teaching at University level, or as a rich mine of material for other academic writing (or perhaps even as the basis for an excellent documentary on water). I have not done the book justice in this short review and I congratulate Rhett Larson for his journey through water and for bringing the reader with him.


Grafton, R.Q.; Williams, J.; Perry, C.J.; Molle, F.; Ringler, C.; Steduto, P.; Udall, B.; Wheeler, S.A.; Wang, Y.; Garrick, D.; Allen, R.G. 2018. The paradox of irrigation efficiency. Science 361: 748-750.

Lankford, B.; Closas, A.; Dalton, J.; López Gunn, E .; Hess, T.; Knox, J.W.; van der Kooij, S.; Lautze, J.; Molden, D.; Orr, S.; Pittock, J.; Richter, B.; Riddell, P.J.; Scott, C.A.; Venot, J.P.; Vos, J. and Zwarteveen, M. 2020. A scale-based framework to understand the promises, pitfalls and paradoxes of irrigation efficiency to meet major water challenges. Global environmental change 65: 102182.

Trottier, J. and Perrier, J. 2018. Water driven Palestinian agricultural frontiers: the global ramifications of transforming local irrigation. Journal of Political Ecology 25: 292-311.

Venot, J.P., Kuper, M. and Zwarteveen, M. 2017. Drip irrigation for agriculture: untold stories of efficiency, innovation, and development. Routledge, Abingdon.

Additional Info

  • Authors: Rhett B. Larson
  • Year of publication: 2020
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Reviewer: Bruce Lankford
  • Subject: Water security
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English