Water politics: Governance, justice and the right to water (Sultana and Loftus, 2019)

Cat Button and Elliot Rooney


Sultana, F. and Loftus, A. (Eds). 2019. Water politics: Governance, justice and the right to water. Routledge. ISBN 9781138320031 (paperback), 238p., £ 39.

(URL:  https://www.routledge.com/Water-Politics-Governance-Justice-and-the-Right-to-Water/Sultana-Loftus/p/book/9781138320031)

Cat Button and Elliot Rooney

UKRI–GCRF Water Security and Sustainable Development Hub, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University, United Kingdom; cat.button@newcastle.ac.uk and E.Rooney2@newcastle.ac.uk

To cite this review: To cite this Review: Button, C. and Rooney, E.  2021. Review of “Water Politics: Governance, Justice and the Right to Water", Routledge, 2020, by Farhana Sultana and Alex Loftus, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/251-justice



This book is a compelling and coherent read, especially for an edited collection. It presents and interrogates important arguments about water injustices and the right to water. It is very readable and is likely to open up politically engaged conversations around water issues amongst researchers from across disciplines.

In the decade since its recognition by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the Human Right to Water and Sanitation (“R2WS”) has been both problematised and celebrated. In 2012 the editors of this volume, Sultana and Loftus, produced an influential edited collection that provided a robust interrogation of the concept from a range of geographical standpoints and disciplines (Sultana & Loftus, 2012). This second book brings together many of the same authors who in parts reprise their arguments and in others develop fresh perspectives, alongside other key writers from the water sphere, albeit mostly Northern-based. The book already appears on student reading lists and has received much informal commendation.

Authors consider inter-related issues such as legitimacy, normativity, informality, ontology, inequality, coloniality, scale, race, and activism, along with implicit and explicit policy recommendations. Early chapters consider the R2WS at a broad conceptual level, recognising that there are immediate challenges with its interpretation and implementation stemming from the framing of the right itself. Schmidt (Chapter 2) observes that the R2WS is the only human right with normative content to its framing – around the notion of sufficiency – and that human rights in the first place are rooted in Western epistemology and ontology, all of which risk undermining the R2WS’s legitimacy. Zenner (Chapter 4) and Linton (Chapter 5) pick up on this as they note lingering colonial power relations and point to forms of political ontology as tools through which to advance more progressive framings that can draw on indigenous, spiritual, and relational modes of understanding water. Meehan (Chapter 3), through practice-focussed research methods, underscores the dialectical evolution of institutional formalisation as a function of social values and formal rules, at the local level – an observation later reiterated by Walnycki (Chapter 8).

Chapters in the central section look at state and institutional roles in water provision. Jepson, Wutrich and Harris (Chapter 7) draw on the capability approach to propose a right to water security that would encompass the enabling role of water in tackling broader social inequities, recasting the state as an enabler of hydrosocial relations more so than a water supplier. Walyncki (Chapter 8) demonstrates that the state-centrism of the R2WS produces unhelpful state/private binaries that overshadow the informality upon which much water security is predicated. Binaries between domestic and productive uses of water are challenged by Mehta and Langmeier (Chapter 6), who point to everyday rural practice to show the interconnectedness of the R2WS and the right to food, and identify further ground for invoking the capability approach. Pacheco-Vega (Chapter 9) notes that bottled water is sometimes used to satisfy the R2WS in humanitarian settings, but that this can risk threatening networked supply if long-term dependence displaces financial support to municipal approaches.

The final third of this edited collection includes focus on interventions and possible ways forward. Bieler (Chapter 10) cautions against overemphasising structural constraints on progressive action, and points to the need to understand the totality of all labour – both shop floor and domestic – in reproducing class inequalities. The same author calls for joint action between social movements and unions, something which has already been seen in successful struggles for water justice, as evidenced by van den Berge, Boelens and Vos (Chapter 12), who also celebrate the increased citizen awareness of water issues that this produced. McDonald (Chapter 11) recognises that “remunicipalisation” is not an inherently progressive move, with the political context a defining factor, and that some forms of progressive “remunicipalisation” are incompatible with the R2WS. Clark (Chapter 13) identifies particularly regressive practice on the part of municipalities that have been active in breaching the rights of Black citizens, a point reiterated by Bond (Chapter 14) in the context of sanitation interventions, pointing to ‘artificial scarcity’ created by poor policy. These points circle back to Schmidt’s (Chapter 2) earlier observation that the R2WS is both a positive and negative right as per traditional conceptions – requiring at times inaction, and at others action, on the part of duty-holders.

One effect of the R2WS is to create a formal link between geographies and communities across the planet. The case studies throughout the volume serve to demonstrate this potential, yet at the same time they make explicit the flaws in a rights-based approach with little overarching structure to enable effective enforcement at the same broad scale, and built out of an ontological normativity that privileges certain ways of relating to water over others. Mehta and Langmeier (Chapter 6) note that the mandate of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the R2WS – who contributes the foreword to the volume – does not include monitoring violations of the right, as it does for example in the case of the Right to Food. Five of the fourteen chapters reference Angel & Loftus’ 2019 political ecology analysis of the ways in which water justice struggles configure themselves “within-against-and-beyond the human right to water” and notions of the state. Understanding the state as a set of social relations, of everyday practices, rather than as a thing, opens space for challenging the foundations of the state and thus an entry point to undermining the normativity of, for example, the R2WS. In this way resistance to ontological normativity expressed with some success by indigenous groups  who have been able to press for the granting of legal personhood to a river for protection in line with non-Western cosmology (Chapter 4).  Could the R2WS one day evolve to explicitly incorporate multiple and diverse worldviews about rights at its core?

The power of human imagination and our capacity for practical innovation is a thread running through all the contributions. Many of the contributions foreground community-based innovation, and others recognise the ways in which framing successes as functions of the R2WS can help disparate groups relate their struggles for water justice to one another across geographies and temporalities. Much thinking, especially in the development space, concerns itself with ‘scaling up’ – but, in the case of the R2WS, the volume makes clear we should be attentive to processes of scaling in both directions. Meehan (Chapter 3) observes that practical solutions are rarely discussed at the global human rights table, and that innovation is most often born out of local practice.

The discord between local realities and broad scale rights-based approaches is observed by Bond (Chapter 14) – South Africa’s first real test of its vanguard constitutional right to water, the well-known Mazibuko case, showed that the country’s highest court was hamstrung in its ability to enforce pro-poor public policy. Illustrating the breadth of institutional arrangements invoked at these scales, van den Berge, Boelens and Vos (Chapter 12) identify successful activism in Europe that targeted the EU’s legislature, rather than its judiciary. Similar challenges must be anticipated with the implementation of the R2WS in other settings, in which lesson-learning from legislative, executive, and judiciary experiences worldwide will be vital to ensure progressivity. The book is a valuable step in this direction, although further engagement with broader rights-based concepts such as the right to the city, touched on by Clark (Chapter 13), will also be useful. Chapters show the relational nature of any right to water, and a more concentrated focus on the agency of water users in broader decision-making processes would foreground this.

The geographical distribution in case study locations in the chapters is impressively broad, although the MENA region and East Asia are less well-represented than others. It would be interesting to explore the interactions between water-related articulations of Islamic jurisprudence, and the Western-rooted R2WS. Beyond wider regional focus, future volumes might benefit from case studies that consider the particular challenges in implementation of the R2WS in the many water-stressed conflict and post-conflict settings across the globe (the predecessor volume touched on these but lessons from the intervening experience would be welcome).

Overall, this is an impressive edited volume that does well to incorporate substantive recent developments in theoretical and empirical research. Of particular note, given recent global attention to water’s multiple values, is the inclusion of frameworks such as political ontology that might allow researchers and practitioners to grapple with broader notions of values, than are encapsulated by the R2WS at present. It remains to be seen whether the right’s normative framing continues to act as a barrier to these translating these academic approaches into sustainable governance institutions and interventions.


Angel, J. and Loftus, A. 2019. With-against-and-beyond the human right to water. Geoforum 98 (2019): 206–213.

Sultana, F. and Loftus, A. 2012. The Right to Water: Politics, Governance and Social Struggles. London: Routledge.

Additional Info

  • Authors: Farhana Sultana and Alex Loftus
  • Year of publication: 2019
  • Publisher: Routledge
  • Reviewer: Cat Button and Elliot Rooney
  • Subject: Water governance, Water politics
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English