Water: A critical introduction (Meehan et al., 2023)

Multiple reviews


Meehan, K.; Mirumachi, N.; Loftus, A. and Akhter, M. 2023. Water: A critical introduction. John Wiley & Sons. 304 p. ISBN: 978-1-119-31516-2, $38.95.


Reviewed by:

Alida Cantor, Associate Professor of Geography, Portland State University

Fillipo Menga, Associate Professor of Geography, University of Bergamo

Jessica Barnes, Associate Professor of Geography, University of South Carolina

The reviews by these three authors follow a book launch at the AAG, after which they decided to write this collective review.

Elliot Rooney Water Security & Sustainable Development Hub, Newcastle University (UK) and International Water Management Institute (Ethiopia)


Alida Cantor

For the past five years, I’ve taught a course on Water Resource Management for Portland State University’s Geography program. I aim to teach a class that is critical, timely, and engaged with both theory and real-world case studies. I typically avoid textbooks, leaning on a mix of academic articles, book chapters, news media, government and nonprofit websites, and other sources. Up until now, there has not been a good textbook for teaching my class. I have considered, and ultimately rejected, many “un-critical” introductions to water.  Water: A Critical Introduction is the book that might change that. 


Water: A Critical Introduction incorporates theory in a way that is smart, but not snobby. The authors strike a tricky balance: the book is unapologetically critical and academically grounded, yet simultaneously highly accessible. The text provides an introduction to important theoretical concepts such as the hydrosocial cycle, the Maltheusian myth, the production of scarcity, and relational thinking. Contemporary hydrosocial scholarship is described and discussed in an engaging way. 

The book deftly draws from examples and case studies from a broad range of places around the world. In my teaching, I tend to focus on the Western United States, where my own research is grounded. While I believe that it is important and useful to ground my teaching in a place that informs my research and that my students resonate strongly with, I want to avoid getting stuck in a single region. “Water: A Critical Introduction” avoids the trap of being ‘global’ in a hand-waving, generic sense. It is specific, detailed, and place based, and has helped me fill holes in my own knowledge of the nuances of water management around the world. 

It is easy, when teaching about environmental issues, to end up with a class full of students spiraling into despair. The book counteracts this tendency by emphasizing hope, struggle, and action. Throughout, the importance of getting involved in one’s own local community and doing something is emphasized. For example, the book describes students enacting bottled water bans on their own campuses. Emphasizing collective action is a powerful way to counteract this. The book ends with a discussion of “generative, resilient, and just futures” and discusses how critique fits into that vision. 

Finally, beyond the classroom, the book improves the legibility of “critical water studies” as a field. The field of hydrosocial studies and the political ecology of water is a robust and growing area of study, but it is also still somewhat niche within the broader landscape of water resource management. There is still plenty of water management scholarship and practice that is “un-critical”. This book helps to define the field, providing an identity and a sense of cohesiveness. It allows political ecologists and other critical environmental scholars to train our students in a way that feels more organized and less pieced-together. Ideally, this allows educators to train up a new cohort of critical water thinkers– not only academics, but future environmental managers, public agency staff, and members of the public who will frontload issues of power, justice, and critical socio-ecological ways of thinking.

Anyone who teaches water or environmental studies from a critical perspective (or wants to teach this way) is lucky to have this book as a resource. It is compelling, well written, and well researched. It provides a legible, coherent, and approachable way to teach water and hydrosocial studies from a critical point of view. I look forward to sharing this book with my students. 

Filippo Menga

I started working on the politics of freshwater resources fifteen years ago, in 2009. During this time, I have become familiar with the interdisciplinary field of study commonly – and often interchangeably – known as ‘water politics’, ‘water studies’, ‘critical water geography’, ‘transboundary water politics’, or ‘hydropolitics.’ And clearly, the field has significantly changed since I first entered it, even though certain things remain the same. Among them, there is the fact that it is still difficult to pin down water studies to any particular discipline. And yet, or better, indeed, water provides common ground and a platform where, say, political philosophers encounter hydrologists, environmental scientists, policy makers, geographers, archaeologists and more. As I wrote elsewhere, Antonio Gramsci can indeed embark on a Nile cruise, and he would have quite a few interesting things to say about that river during the journey (Fantini, Menga, &  Cascão, 2017).

However – and obviously I am biased here – it can also be argued that in the last few years the most original, exciting and generative scholarly approaches to water have come from geographers and/or geography departments. Initially, it was mostly International Relations scholars and economists who propelled the hydropolitics debate, often with a tendency towards environmental determinism. Today, this field of study remains vibrant and continues to evolve, largely due to the contributions of critical geographers. While we could speculate about why a particular country might – or might not – choose to engage in conflict with a neighboring nation, this kind of debate has become somewhat stagnant, and it is hard to notice any remarkable progress in this regard. Or we could turn to a large-n study or dataset to provide a grand explanation of all water-related events, with an empirical grounding often based on some complex modelling that systemically fails to address the peculiarities of individual settings and contexts. If that is what rocks your boat, then you are most likely not going to be interested in Water: A Critical Introduction. But if you are more interested in those who raise questions rather than providing easy or shallow answers, then this is the book that you should read. 


Water: A Critical Introduction is the (text)book I wish had been available when I started my PhD. As the other contributors to this forum have noted, the book excels at introducing various and often intricate theories in an accessible manner. It captures the fundamental concerns related to water through a diverse array of specific case studies from around the world. The authors, all distinguished water scholars based at King’s College London, do not take water for granted. Throughout the book, water is dissected, diluted, mixed, consumed, and even ingested. Its central message underscores that water encompasses much more than its chemical formula, H2O. While this may seem evident to readers of Water Alternatives, it was not a straightforward concept for me at the outset of my research journey. I did come to this conclusion after years of reading and thinking about water. And over those years, my path as a researcher led me to meet and interact with all the authors of this book, whose work I admire and value. Much of their collective insights are now condensed within this volume, complemented by hundreds of pointers and bibliographic references for those inclined to delve deeper into the subject. If I were to recommend just one book on water to a student seeking an entry point into this field, this would be my first choice.

Jessica Barnes

I do not typically use textbooks in my teaching. I often find the coverage superficial and the text boring. While it is easy to base a lecture around a textbook chapter, I worry that students will find it repetitive listening to me talk about information that they have already read. At the same time, I recognize that for many students, especially in lower-level classes, readings from a textbook may work better than articles from academic journals, in which theoretical discussions and jargon can pose a barrier to comprehension and engagement. 


Water: A Critical Introduction confounded all my negative preconceptions. This book is not superficial. It raises deep political questions, introduces sophisticated terms, and pushes critical thinking. It is not at all boring. The writing is beautiful and the text brings in many interesting and relatable examples from around the world. The book would also be great to teach with, because it contains many things that an instructor could expand upon in a lecture, avoiding the potential pitfall of repetitiveness. 

Illustrative of the book’s pedagogical value, in chapter 1 on the hydrosocial cycle, the authors describe a classroom assignment in which students had to illustrate how water flows through the Coachella Valley in California, drawing on information from a news podcast. The book displays one student group’s diagram to give a sense of how this activity played out and the valuable discussion it generated. The text then invites readers to “put down this book and pick up a pen or pencil,” think of a place, and sketch the movement of water through that space, providing several questions to prompt readers’ thinking. This combination of teaching inspiration and thought experiment to engage readers working through the text on their own is very effective. 

The book covers a broad range of topics, drawing extensively on the critical water scholarship. Indeed, the numerous citations woven into the text, rather than just included as further reading at the end of each chapter, make this book stand apart from other environment related textbooks that I am familiar with. While this writing style at times makes the text a little dense, like a literature review, the integration of scholarly work adds depth and nuance to the narrative. I could imagine a lecture in which I would pick one or two scholars mentioned in a chapter and go into more detail about their work, or structure an activity around one of the cited articles. 

There are just a couple of places where the critical lens, which is a guiding frame of the book, falls away. In the discussion of virtual water, for example, I was struck by the lack of acknowledgement of the substantial critique this concept has generated (e.g. Warner and Johnson 2007; Barnes 2013; Wichelns 2015; Trottier and Perrier 2017). This is one of the rare moments where a concept is presented with little encouragement of readers to think critically about it, or about related ideas like the water footprint. It might be nice, for instance, to ask students to probe the value of notions like green, blue, and grey water – terms that I have always found not that intuitive or helpful; to ask them to reflect on what else is embedded in food that moves across borders as well as water, and what that might mean for the likelihood of virtual water ever informing policy in meaningful ways; or to interrogate what a water footprint tells us in terms of the imperative for action, compared to a carbon footprint. 

Overall, however, the book has many strengths, containing great critical questions, fascinating case studies, and pithy, engaging writing. I would highly recommend this book to anyone teaching a course on water, or larger classes on society and the environment who want to integrate a unit on water. This is the kind of book that both professors and students would really enjoy. 



Barnes, Jessica. 2013. "Water, Water Everywhere but Not a Drop to Drink: The False Promise of Virtual Water."  Critique of Anthropology 33 (4):369-387.

Fantini, Emanuele, Fillipo Menga, and Ana Elisa Cascão. 2017. “A conversation about Gramsci on the Nile.” Undisciplined Environments, https://undisciplinedenvironments.org/2017/12/21/a-conversation-about-gramsci-on-the-nile/

Trottier, Julie, and Jeanne Perrier. 2017. "Challenging the Coproduction of Virtual Water and Palestinian Agriculture."  Geoforum 87:85-94.

Warner, J, and Clare Johnson. 2007. "'Virtual Water' - Real People: Useful Concept or Prescriptive Tool?"  Water International 32 (2):63-77.

Wichelns, Dennis. 2015. "Virtual Water and Water Footprints: Overreaching into the Discourse on Sustainability, Efficiency, and Equity."  Water Alternatives 8:396-414.

Elliot Rooney

This is an excellent textbook or taught course accompaniment that will serve best at early undergraduate or late high school levels, to which audience it will serve as much as an introduction to the critical study of water as it will to the broad issues covered across nine chapters. Whilst the book walks the reader through the most prominent theoretical and empirical contributors to academic thinking on water and development, as well as adjacent fields, it also represents something of a greatest hits album, drawing from the highlights of the authors’ own work to date. In this, its authoritative tone and no-punches-held approach to topics, which are sometimes skirted around in more orthodox literature, is refreshing. It also therefore serves as a representative anchor in the critical water literature, that is useful for authors looking to concisely reference key concepts in the field.

The writing style is mostly very accessible, at all times relating key concepts to the materiality of water’s flow. The ‘Further Reading’ lists compiled at the end of each chapter, organised around sub-topics covered in the preceding text, are concise and brilliantly thought-out, and will allow junior readers to gradually build and deepen their understanding of topics, brick-by-brick.

The role of place-based activism is highlighted across geographies, and recognised as the catalyst for broader changes in norms and approaches to water and development. The chapter devoted to the issue of large dams does well to use this as one of the clearest and most visible manifestations of the hydrosocial cycle – and indeed as a teaching resource this is invaluable. Artifacts of the hydrosocial cycle are at times hard to identify, and starting with a scale this large is a useful precursor to working at smaller scales.

Where the first three chapters deal with concepts at a relatively broad level, the narrative style in Chapters 4 and 7 is denser, and some junior readers may find themselves disoriented in this step change. On the other hand, this could provide a welcome entry point to students from more traditionally quantitatively centred disciplines, such as engineering, natural sciences, and law, to critical perspectives on those fields and encouraging interdisciplinarity.

The section on privatisation, whilst well and broadly grounded, relies on what are by now fairly outdated, if staple, sources – this first edition will no doubt see revisions, and this is an area which could be injected with insights from more recent literature. For example, reference to an author “looking forward” is made in relation to their work from 2008 – a decade and a half ago at the time of this book’s publication.

The final chapter looks at the implementation of techno-fixes as water management interventions. This, again, may prove an effective entry point for students from engineering fields – although this is an audience that the book could perhaps have done better to explicitly engage overall, given the predominance of engineering thought leadership in the international water sector.

The book is not afraid to call out prominent actors by name and organisation – in particular in relation to the Human Right to Water and Sanitation (Chapter 8), in which tensions around the role of the private sector lobby at the UN are explored through the outputs of the two most recent UN Rapporteurs on the HRWS. This should serve as a good example to students in their future research and writing, where orthodox academia has at times tended to shy away from this sort of approach.

Overall, the book is a fantastic tool that will see best use in structured teaching environments. The extensive ‘Further Reading’ lists organised by topic at the end of each chapter allow readers to pursue particular interests further in their own time, as well as capturing the core critical arguments from the literature at the time of publication. The content and style of writing allow inexperienced readers to quickly get to the heart of topics with good empirical grounding. The use of diagrams, maps, and photos helps bring some of the case studies to life.


Additional Info

  • Authors: Katie Meehan, Naho Mirumachi, Alex Loftus and Majed Akhter
  • Year of publication: 2023
  • Publisher: John Wiley & Sons
  • Reviewer: Elliot Rooney
  • Subject: Political ecology, Water policy, Water politics, Hydrocracies, Water crisis, Privatisation, Water history
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English