Putting water security to work: Addressing global sustainable development challenges (Staddon and Scott, 2021)

Chyna Dixon

Desal Staddon, C. and Scott, C.A. (Eds). 2021. Putting water security to work: Addressing global sustainable development challenges. Routledge. ISBN: 9780367650193 (hardcover)/ ISBN 9781003127444 (ebook). 53 US$ (ebook)/160 US$(hardcover).

(URL:  https://www.routledge.com/Putting-Water-Security-to-Work-Addressing-Global-Sustainable-Development/Staddon-Scott/p/book/9780367650193)

Chyna Dixon

School of International Development, University of East Anglia, Norwich, United Kingdom; katherine.dixon@uea.ac.uk


To cite this Review: Dixon, K. 2022. Review of “Putting water security to work: Addressing global sustainable development challenges”, Routledge, 2021 by Chris Staddon and Christopher A. Scott, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/283-staddon


Putting Water Security to Work: Addressing Global Sustainable Development Challenges brings together a collection of authors committed to critically reformulating and reapplying the water security concept. Given water security’s growing adoption among policy makers and academics, it is imperative to understand the varied ways in which it is framed and enacted, and the resultant implications. The term has engendered a wide array of uses and meanings, ranging from neoliberal and militarized ‘securitization’ discourses, to an emphasis on harnessing the productive––and limiting the destructive––qualities of water (Grey and Sadoff, 2007). Attention to quantity and quality with an emphasis on provision and access is increasingly pronounced, while complexity-based approaches have come to operationalize critiques of previous Integrated Water Resources Management frameworks (Zeitoun et al., 2016). More contemporary scholarship critically engages with and expands such framings to incorporate culture, justice, and intersectionality, employing a relational approach that “recognizes and understands the wider interactions that take place between people and water” (page 80; see also Jepson et al., 2017 and Wutich et al., 2018).

This edited collection offers nine distinct explorations into water security in varying geopolitical and socioecological contexts, demonstrating water security’s place-specific nature, and its role in shaping global water futures. This volume draws upon an initial series of articles published in the International Journal of Water Resources Development and Water International, with the intention of reaching a broader readership. The book encourages us as readers to interrogate our own political ontologies of water security, including what ‘water’ means to us, while also addressing assumptions of who (and/or what) is seen to have agency or passivity.  The volume identifies and calls forward new dimensions of future water security research, while aiming to reposition current debates to incorporate “the multiple intersectionalities linked to effective hydrogovernmentality under competing challenges of climate change and social justice” (introduction, page 6).

Throughout the text, varying water security definitions are employed, demonstrating the concept’s breadth and malleability (see Zeitoun et al., 2016, for tabulated approaches). Despite these differentiations, several prominent themes emerge from the volume. These include transboundary and geopolitical negotiation, the role of locality and culture in understanding water security, the importance of space and scale, and––perhaps most saliently––the role of institutions in navigating water security.

The volume begins by calling attention to scale and power as missing links within conventional water security concepts. Wade (Chapter 2) approaches water security through a water justice matrix, which incorporates four critical elements: equity in distribution; recognition of community diversity; participation in decision-making; and understanding of power dynamics (Chapter 2, page 27). Integrating a water justice matrix into water security analysis helps to enable examination of differential experiences of water security at all scales, a theme highlighted throughout the text. Such a matrix complements Singh’s call to address resilience in water security (Chapter 3) and can be used to inform questions of benefit sharing, as exemplified by Nkhata’s investigation within the Zambezi River basin (Chapter 5).

Building upon such relational framings, Molden et al.’s analysis of the cultural dimensions of Kathmandu’s stone spout systems (Chapter 4) moves beyond techno-managerial, centralized frameworks for ‘efficient/modern’ water provision, and into the inherent cultural and political realms of pursuing household water security. The authors articulate the role of traditional water management institutions in producing ground-up community resilience, and thereby develop a water security approach that accounts not only for water supply, but also for community and cultural autonomy. The article dissolves the binary notion that culture exists in a domain separate from politics and governance, instead understanding culture as imbued in “the very meanings, mechanisms, and modalities of managing water” (Chapter 4, page 45). This cultural and political intertwining is due not least to the concomitant roles that systems of community water provisioning occupy, including as systems of hydraulic infrastructure, and as spaces of “social gathering, cultural identity, and worship” (Chapter 4, page 46). In this way, Kathmandu’s stone spouts mirror the sociocultural role of many community water institutions throughout the world, including acequias and qanats. Such an understanding expands and challenges normative water security viewpoints that are focused on the materiality of water itself (‘H2O’) and demonstrates instead that traditional water infrastructures can bolster water security through both material provisioning and sociopolitical resilience. Relatedly, Staddon et al. (Chapter 6) employ a hydrosocial approach to explore Domestic Rainwater Harvesting as a low-tech infrastructure to augment household level water security in central Uganda. Through this approach, the authors find that adoption of this newly introduced technology hinges largely on enrollment in a community or intermediary organization, underscoring the influence of institutions at multiple scales. The importance of institutions and decision making is pronounced throughout the volume. While unsurprising, the text would benefit from explicitly encouraging readers to look more closely into how, and by whom, institutions are formed, noting that the right to be involved in decision making is a core component of water security (Linton, 2010; and page 80 of this volume).

Approaching water security in terms of resource use, Scott et al. (Chapter 7) adopt an adaptive management perspective, positioning the security and supply of water resources as a defining component of the food-water-energy nexus. Recognizing the inextricable linkages within––and current challenges to––this contemporarily industrialized nexus, the authors call for an integration of earth systems resilience perspectives, which they understand as inviting a ‘soft path approach’ towards water security. Such a path reduces the emphasis on infrastructural solutions and instead promotes interdisciplinary planning and systems resilience thinking. This approach complements complexity-based framings within the text, yet shies away from direct engagement with relational-justice perspectives that reformulate and value ‘non-productive’ and non-consumptive water uses.

Both Albrecht et al.’s case study of transboundary water security in the arid Americas (Chapter 8) and Brooks and Trottier’s work on ‘de-nationalization and de-securitization within the Israeli-Palestinian case’ (Chapter 9) engage with water security through complexity informed frameworks. These chapters underscore the notion that water sharing across jurisdictional boundaries requires sharing not only in the material realities of water itself, but also sharing in the governance, decision-making, and ontological formulation of what water ‘security’ means. Here, I would add that any analysis of transboundary water sharing necessitates explicit attention to asymmetrical systems of power, ranging from overt military occupation to uneven and exploitative economic development.

Presenting five case studies throughout the Americas, Albrecht et al. demonstrate that “invariably, the presence of borders compromises water security in arid regions” (page 140), while also highlighting the power of transboundary research collaborations and social movements to inform hydropolicy across jurisdictional boundaries (page 143). The authors focus less on prescriptive definitions of water security, and instead recognize that water security is best understood by how those on the ground engage with and define it––from global to individual scales. Albrecht et al. deploy water security as a prism through which the multiple attributes of transboundary water issues can be unstitched, bringing forward the unique and complex nature of place-based approaches. Brooks and Trottier build upon this notion, emphasizing the non-static nature of water, and thereby the importance of adaptive flexibility in institutional arrangements that guarantee equal standing in water sharing negotiations and framings. While Brooks and Trottier lean towards a more formal institutional approach, both articles remind the reader that viable water security frameworks require context-specific governance and attention to social power.

While many authors reference the importance of addressing hydrosocial aspects of water security (see, for instance, chapters 2, 4, 6), the text would benefit from a deeper application of this concept. The influence of sociopolitical relations on water access and provision is explored throughout the text; however, a more robust and bi-directional application of hydrosocial framings would also help to illuminate water’s role and agency in shaping social relations. Moreover, hydrosocial framings support the reader to examine the ways in which power is both embedded in, and pursued through, water (Budds et al. 2014, 168). Lastly, a more direct inquiry into the ways in which water scarcity is produced (both materially and discursively) would enhance the reader’s understanding of the multi-dimensional and context specific nature in which water security is pursued (see, for instance, Mehta, 2003).

Putting Water Security to Work skillfully brings together a wide array of insight to form a comprehensive text showcasing the state of water security research in the last decade. While salient themes emerge in each case study, and while the articles serve to supplement one another, the text would have benefited from a stronger connecting thread weaving each chapter together. Additionally, a concluding chapter would help the reader to synthesize the disparate contributions and would reinforce and clarify the overall aim of the volume.

As the impacts of global political-economic and climatic change increase, this volume presents a needed overview of water security’s many framings and applications; yet, while the editors provided an introductory chapter outlining the purpose of the text and water security’s linkages to contemporary challenges such as Covid-19, and social movements such as Black Lives Matter, the subsequent chapters would have benefitted from revision or reflection to better situate them within today’s political landscape, and to account for the years of research following initial publication. This open-endedness and absence of final synthesis at times left the volume without a clearly defined forward direction. Despite these limitations, the text is a timely and worthy read for any reader interested in better understanding the past decade of water security research and practice. In this way, the volume indeed brings us closer to understanding “water’s socio-natural and emancipatory realities” (page 5).


Budds, J., Linton, J. and McDonnell, R., 2014. The hydrosocial cycle. Geoforum57, pp.167- 169.

Grey, D. and Sadoff, C.W., 2007. Sink or swim? Water security for growth and development.

Water policy 9(6): 545-571.

Jepson, W., Budds, J., Eichelberger, L., Harris, L., Norman, E., O'Reilly, K., Pearson, A., Shah, S., Shinn, J., Staddon, C. and Stoler, J., 2017. Advancing human capabilities for water security: A relational approach. Water Security 1: 46-52.

Linton, J., 2010. What is water?: The history of a modern abstraction. UBC press.

Mehta, L., 2003. Contexts and constructions of water scarcity. Economic and political weekly, pp.5066 5072.

Wutich, A., Budds, J., Jepson, W., Harris, L.M., Adams, E., Brewis, A., Cronk, L., DeMyers, C., Maes, K., Marley, T. and Miller, J., 2018. Household water sharing: A review of water gifts, exchanges, and transfers across cultures. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water 5(6):  p.e1309.

Zeitoun, M., Lankford, B., Krueger, T., Forsyth, T., Carter, R., Hoekstra, A.Y., Taylor, R., Varis, O., Cleaver, F., Boelens, R. and Swatuk, L., 2016. Reductionist and integrative research approaches to complex water security policy challenges. Global Environmental Change 39: 143-154.


Additional Info

  • Authors: Chris Staddon and Christopher A. Scott
  • Year of publication: 2021
  • Publisher: Routledge
  • Reviewer: Chyna Dixon
  • Subject: Water policy, Water security
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English