Advanced introduction to water politics (Conca, 2021)

Peter. P. Mollinga


Conca, Ken. 2021. Advanced Introduction to Water Politics.  Elgar Advanced Introductions. Edward Elgar. ISBN 978 1 83910 205 9 (Hardback £85/paperback £16).


Peter P. Mollinga

SOAS University of London, UK;

To cite this review: Mollinga, P. (2022). Review of “Advanced Introduction to Water Politics”, Edward Elgar 2021, by K. Conca, Water Alternatives,



This journal, Water Alternatives, was established in 2008 to provide a platform for what is now often called critical water studies. In the past 14 years this epistemic field has slowly acquired some of the features of an epistemic community. One sign of epistemic fields consolidating is the publication of Manuals, Handbooks and Introductions – a current focus of many commercial publishers.

Conca’s Advanced Introduction to Water Politics follows an earlier edited volume contribution to this process (Conca and Weinthal, 2018). The series in which the present monograph is published aims to provide ‘accessible introductions for undergraduate and graduate students coming to the subject for the first time’.  In that Conca has eminently succeeded. This is a very readable book indeed, 118 text pages short, with very moderate referencing, without foot- or endnotes, while avoiding academic jargon by keeping theoretical frameworks implicit.

The book begins by asking what makes water political. The first chapter draws in the reader with an overview of the ‘elusive essence’ of water, and particularly a listing of the domains in which water is political: poverty and livelihoods, human rights and justice, water allocation and pricing, water infrastructure, river governance and diplomacy, water quality and ecosystem health, and climate change adaptation and resilience. Chapters 2 and 3 are thematic ‘what are the main problems’ chapters on, respectively, access to water and on the linkages between water, food and energy. The three layers of analysis in chapter 2 – infrastructure, policies, and history & political economy – work really well to map the complexities of access relations. The chapter concludes with a useful discussion of the limitations of rights-based approaches. The chapter on water-food-energy linkages focuses on large dams (with detailed discussion of the 2000 World Commission of Dams report) and on fracking. The emphasis on fracking (and the corporate sector) suggests a North American bias in the book (see below). What is missing in this chapter is, surprisingly, the over-extraction of groundwater in PR China and India, a big theme in water-food-energy analyses. Put differently – the discussion focuses on energy production rather than consumption. The chapter concludes by arguing for shifting (mainstream) water analysis from a (silo-ed) focus on ‘watersheds’ to one of ‘problemsheds’ given the complex connections and challenges that present themselves. Chapters 4 to 7 are thematic chapters with a more analytical focus – how to make sense of water situations. Chapter 4 on the ‘strange economics of water’ does an excellent job in nuancing the often overly simplistic statements and debates on pricing, privatisation/private sector participation and the role of the state. I missed a discussion on financialisation.  The chapter concludes by observing that the issue of pricing water for equity/justice is unresolved. The environmental chapter 5 focuses on pollution, conservation and climate change, aptly summarising the huge challenges in these three areas, including discussion of the experiences with environmental flows and riverine rights initiatives. Climate change is the central theme in this chapter, which ends with a list of governance challenges related to that. Chapter 6 and 7 on governing water and international conflict and cooperation respectively are home turf for Conca as a scholar of the global politics of water. The policy notions of IWRM and adaptation are central to the discussion in chapter 6. Gender dimensions are mentioned (the Dublin Principles are reproduced on p.78), but their discussion remains subdued, as elsewhere in the book. There is not a single reference to or mentioning of the masculinity that so characterises the water sector. Chapter 6 concludes with an informative discussion of participation/participatory processes in the water sector. Chapter 7 very effectively nuances simplistic thinking on (international) water conflict and cooperation. It unpacks the notion of ‘water wars’, has a useful descriptive account of international water law, and discusses national and local civil conflict around water more briefly. It uses the term ‘structural water violence’ on p.105 in the context of ethnic, religious, and racial minorities – an issue that perhaps would have deserved more discussion (beyond the Flint, Michigan case example, which is used at several points in the book). Together with the access chapter, chapter 7 has the strongest ‘critical edge’ in its presentation of ways of thinking. Chapter 8 finally discusses the future, inviting us to be cautious about prediction, emphasising that also in mainstream circles ‘politics’ is now seen as central, and a list of things to expect by 2050 – basically directions for change: increased need for harvesting, storing and recycling water, a larger role of access to water in economic competition, more efforts to tap new sources, and the need to make managing flood risks a central component of urban and other planning. This chapter can be read as a focus on ‘politics’ providing a welcome antidote to the myths of ‘rational planning’; it includes a call for ‘transformative analysis’ and the hopeful note that ‘perhaps the greatest asset is water’s power to inspire’ (p.118).

The content, focus and style of any book is situated knowledge, to use Donna Haraway’s phrase. Part of that situatedness is that Conca is a USA-based Professor of International Relations, with a focus on global water and environmental governance and politics (f.i. Conca, 2006; Park et al., 2008). This clearly shines through in the volume – the detailed discussions on international water law and global water governance approaches and institutions, including a regular reference to the World Commission on Dams testify to his expertise. For a development scholar like myself there is a relative abundance of US examples in the book. While this makes the point that water politics is as contentious in the North as it is in the South, and similarly associated with multifarious and stark inequalities, I could not help being left with the feeling that the global South, and particularly global Southern authors, do not get adequate space. The reference list of the book is very strongly dominated by publications of international organisations and Northern authors. The rich English language literature on water conflict, governance and politics in (South) Asia is, for instance, virtually absent in the reference list, and regions like China and Central Asia-Caucasus-eastern part of Europe receive very limited attention.

A question that repeatedly sprang to mind while reading was whether it matters that this book has been titled as an introduction to ‘water politics’ rather than to the  ‘politics of water’. Put differently, is this an introduction to water governance that goes by the title of water politics, having a bias towards ‘big P’ politics, that is, ‘official’ politics at different levels of the polity, rather than ‘small p’ politics, including the everyday politics of water (use, management and governance)? And how does it capture the various dimensions and forms of the politics of water as these are documented in (critical) water studies?

The underlying issue, from my perspective, is how the book frames, treats and selects the social relations of power inherent to water use, management and governance. When the leading idea for critical water studies is that water is inherently political, which clearly is Conca’s starting point also (see p.3 ‘water is fundamentally political’), the unravelling of that inherence requires the specification of how different forms of social power are at work in water situations. The critical water studies literature has more to offer in this respect than is incorporated in this book, geographically, as suggested already, but also thematically and analytically. Thematically, apart from the themes of groundwater over-extraction and financialisation, I missed the politics of water knowledge, now hinted at but only very briefly discussed, the cultural politics/performative dimension of water, in urban situations notably, and desalination as a rising and contested area of policy and investment attention.  Analytically, sometimes the text’s phrasing is somewhat euphemistic, indirect or imprecise. For example, the ‘misallocation of resources’ on p.17 seems to refer to corruption; the ‘global debt crisis’ is the structural adjustment policies of the era discussed, which some would put under the ‘structural violence’ rubric; the water prices subsidising agriculture on p.30 are mentioned without reference to the secular decline of the terms of trade for agriculture and the cheap food policy/urban bias associated with this; the ‘longstanding concerns’ (p.63) of borrower countries that made the World Bank scrap/devolve its safeguard system for project screening merits further unpacking; ‘powerful actors with historic use-rights’ (p.80) in South Africa are primarily white farmers; the possibility that ‘transboundary water law’ has been ‘handed down’ to countries in the global South  from other parts of the world (p.102) deserves more critical analysis.

In terms of conceptual precision, power relations are a quality of the ‘complex maze of laws, institutions and social structures’ (p.3) not, in my view, as suggested by Conca, something separate from these, and the global trade of food does not  move vast amounts of water between countries ‘just as rivers move great quantities of water across borders’ (p.27). In terms of the implicitly mobilised theoretical frameworks, the concept of ‘advocacy coalitions’ pops up for instance, but relatively little attention is devoted to social movements and civil society action, apart from the examples of resistance against water privatisation and large dams. These two are obviously highly significant both practically and analytically, but they are also the standard case examples in discussion on water politics. Social and public action regarding water has a much broader spectrum.

This book remains, notwithstanding these critical notes, a masterful and very welcome introduction to water politics.  It can serve very well as a set reading for particularly, I would suggest, BA/BSc level courses on water governance and water politics, and for such courses in MA/MSc programmes outside the natural resources-water-development sphere.


Conca, K.  (2006). Governing water: contentious transnational politics and global institution building.  MIT Press.

Park, J.: Conca, K. & Finger, M. (2008). The crisis of global environmental governance: Towards a new political economy of sustainability. Routledge.

Conca, K. & Weinthal, E. (Eds.). (2018). The Oxford handbook of water politics and policy. Oxford University Press.


Additional Info

  • Authors: Ken Conca
  • Year of publication: 2021
  • Publisher: Edward Elgar Publishing
  • Reviewer: Peter P. Mollinga
  • Subject: Water policy, Water governance, Transboundary waters, Water politics, Environment, Sustainability
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English