In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Water

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Watersheds and River Basins
  • Groundwater
  • Oceans and Fisheries
  • Water as a Human Right/Water and Development
  • Environmental History of Water
  • Hydrology and Policy Interface
  • Water Security and Risk Assessment
  • Water Conflict and Cooperation
  • Water Scarcity
  • Water as Hazard
  • Integrated Water Resource Management
  • Water Privatization
  • Water, Power, and the Politics of Scale
  • Waterscapes and Hybrid Networks
  • Transboundary Water Governance

Geography Water
Emma S. Norman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0063


Water is intrinsically multifaceted and multidisciplinary. Within geography, it spans both human and physical dimensions and is present in almost every subdiscipline of geography (e.g., political geography, feminist geography, urban geography). This article focuses primarily on human geography approaches to water, which includes topics such as management, meaning, power, and social relations. The topics focus largely on cultural, political, social, and economic issues pertaining to water. These interests, in turn, share boundaries with historians and other scholars outside geography, such as political science, history, and sociology. Water is a tremendous example of the reflexive nature between humans and the natural environment—the ongoing interplay between adaptation and change. Access to reliable freshwater sources is a basic human need, the availability of which has great influence on shaping cultures and influencing settlement patterns. However, universal access to clean drinking water has proven to be a difficult goal to meet, with more than one billion people estimated to have inadequate access to clean drinking water. In some cases, lack of water inspires innovative technology for communities to meet human needs (for example, complex irrigation systems and more-recent processes of salt reduction and reverse osmosis). However, these innovations are often limited to access to capital wealth. Weather patterns also affect human settlement and influence many dimensions of the development of cultures, economies, and religions. Adaptive frameworks (such as integrated water resource management and water security) have been developed to help understand, mitigate, and prepare for changing conditions associated with changing weather patterns and global climate change. In addition, issues of scale are inherently linked to water—because water is simultaneously a local resource as well as part of a global system. Scalar framings directly influence decisions about who governs water and how. The creation of boundaries—and associated administrative units—affects the governance of this shared resource (e.g., watershed boundaries, state boundaries, municipal boundaries) through complex historical-social processes. Framing issues related to water as hybrid, hydro-social processes, or as part of a network, helps to understand the complex dynamics of power, economies, and social processes associated with human-environment relations.

Introductory Works

Understanding the basics of water issues requires a comprehensive look at how people and the environment interact and influence each other. Black and King 2009 provides a good introduction to the broad range of issues related to the complex and dynamic interaction of humans and water. Reports such as the Pacific Institute’s The World’s Water (Gleick 2012) and State of Freshwater Report (United Nations World Water Assessment Programme 2009, linked with the World Water Forum) provide excellent, up-to-date, and comprehensive reports on the state of the world’s water. Increasingly, scholars are committed to open-source resources, such as Water Alternatives (see Journals). Understanding water and its related issues also requires historical and geographical lenses. Linton 2010 and Solomon 2010 highlight the historical framing of water discourse as separate from, rather than connected with, social meaning, suggesting a need for reframing where the two are viewed as intertwined.

  • Black, Maggie, and Jannet King. The Atlas of Water: Mapping the World’s Most Critical Resource. 2d ed. London: Earthscan, 2009.

    The atlas provides a user-friendly, visual guide to the state of the world’s water. It explores the complex and dynamic interaction of humans with water, spatially and temporally, using a mix of graphics, maps, charts, and narrative.

  • Gleick, Peter H. The World’s Water 2011–2012: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2012.

    This biennial report provides a current and up-to-date overview of current global water issues, as well as suggestions for new techniques to move to sustainable water management. Published through the Pacific Institute, the staff publishes widely on issues related to water governance and policy.

  • Linton, Jamie. What Is Water? The History of a Modern Abstraction. Nature, History, Society. Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press, 2010.

    Explores how water has been constructed in modern discourse as a separate and scientific entity—as H2O—rather than as something with social meaning. Linton argues that part of the solution to our current water crisis is to reconfigure the concept of water to include social meaning at its foundation.

  • Solomon, Steven. Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization. New York: Harper Collins, 2010.

    A general overview provided in narrative style to account how water has shaped human society from the ancient past to the present.

  • United Nations World Water Assessment Programme. Water in a Changing World. United Nations World Water Development Report 3. Paris: UNESCO, 2009.

    The 2009 report is part a series of reports published every three years in conjunction with the World Water Forum. The reports provide an overall snapshot of the world’s freshwater resources and are written with the aim of providing decision makers the tools necessary to implement sustainable water practices and policies.

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