Political Ecology in Action: Water and People

Two girls fetch water with buckets from a dirty river

Political ecology is a framework or conceptual approach for understanding socio-environmental interactions and system dynamics. Key issues within the field focus on power, “who wins and who loses” based on decision making, and how we consider humans in the context of environments and their geographies and cultures. This lesson serves to help participants put the more conceptual and theoretical topics covered in the SESYNC lesson: “Introduction to Political Ecology,” into practical thinking. We use issues at the intersection of water and communities to illustrate how political ecology frameworks can help provide insights into the origins, dynamics, and inequities associated with socio-environmental problems.

Assumed Prior Knowledge
This lesson is geared toward students or participants with little or no social science background.
Learning Objectives
  • Be able to define and explain how political ecology perspectives can help illuminate the complex dynamics associated with a specific environmental issue.
  • Be able to provide specific examples of how a political ecology lens can help identify factors driving water resource decisions as well as the consequences of those decisions. 
Key Terms/Concepts
surface (horizontal) and groundwater (vertical) flows; spatial inequity; Gini coefficient; socio-hydrologic system
The “Hook” (suggestions for quickly engaging students)
  1. Show students this short video about a day in the life of Aysha, a young woman from Ethiopia, created by UNICEF (scroll down in the story just a little to see the video link). Ask the learners to write down 2 or 3 factors that may influence why Ayasha has this daily routine.


  2. Ask the students to study the map from in Figure 1. from Geographies of insecure water access and the housing–water nexus in US cities by Meehan et al. and speculate on what factors best correlate to areas with high rates of unplumbed households. 


    plumed households in the US
Teaching Assignments

The following are suggested assignments/exercises that may be used prior to or following the instructor’s presentations or discussion sessions.

  1. If the SESYNC lesson: “Introduction to Political Ecology” was not completed prior to this lesson, the instructor should consider going through the PowerPoint and associated prompts in that lesson. This will provide context and grounding for the rest of this lesson.


  2. Have participants read one (or more) of the following articles. Then ask them to participate in a discussion and/or provide written responses to the questions/prompts provided. If the Introduction to Political Ecology lesson had been completed in full, you may also wish to ask them to connect the ideas in the reading to what was covered in that lesson. Note: if all students are to read the same article, we suggest Arango et al. (2022).  If students read different articles, provide some outlet for summarizing the contents of all articles as they represent diverse approaches to studying relationships with water that could all be considered political ecology. Students who read the same article may process/discuss as a group, then present; or groups/pairs may mix students who read different articles and then compare. Students do not need to comprehensively understand all articles to meet the learning goals.


    Cole, S. 2017. Water worries: An intersectional feminist political ecology of tourism and water in Labuan Bajo, Indonesia. Annals of Tourism Res 67: 14-24. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2017.07.018


     Delgado-Ramos, G. C. 2015. Water and the political ecology of urban metabolism: the case of Mexico City. Journal of Political Ecology 22(1), p.98-114. doi: https://doi.org/10.2458/v22i1.21080


     Mathevet et al. 2015. Using historical political ecology to understand the present: water, reeds, and biodiversity in the Camargue Biosphere Reserve, southern France. Ecology and Society 20(4):17.   http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-07787-200417


    Arango et al. 2022. Murky waters: the impact of privatizing water use on environmental degradation and the exclusion of local communities in the Caribbean. Int’l J Water Resour Dev 38(1):152-172.   https://doi.org/10.1080/07900627.2021.1931052


    Potential prompts:

    • Would you consider this a work of political ecology? Why or why not?

    • How was this work concerned with “winners” and “losers,” or other questions of power? How were “winners” and “losers” related to water?

    • What kinds of data or information did the authors use? Did this data or information allow them to answer their research questions?

    • The article investigated the relationship between people and water. How did the research goals, author priorities, methods, and conclusions compare to biophysical science approaches to studying water (hydrology, aquatic ecology, etc.)?

    • Where was the ecology in the political ecology of this work? What were the connections to ecological or environmental sciences or knowledge? Do you see possibilities for deeper engagement between the scholarship in the article and environmental/ecological scientists?


  3. Present an overview of how the study of water problems has shifted over time (and will likely continue to change).  Historically, “traditional” hydrologic and engineering (technological) approaches to water problems were the norm with more recent “green infrastructure” approaches in the last few decades. But today, some hydrologists are embracing the need to integrate social dynamics while some social science scholars are challenging assumptions fundamental to the questions of: what is water? And what are water problems? To inform the overview, the following will help:


    • Recent efforts to integrate people and social dynamics into our understanding of water resource issues are represented in the socio-hydrology work by Di Baldassarre et al., 2015; the SESYNC "What is Socio-Hydrology?" explainer article; and SESYNC video, "Socio-Hydrology: Including Human Behavior in Flood Risk Models," by Knighton, Hondula, and Palmer. Socio-hydrology has conceptualized people and social forces as key influencers on water flows, which is to say that they are considered just as important as “natural” hydrologic processes like evapotranspiration or runoff within this framework. This empowers practitioners to approach problems with the foresight that an understanding of both the physical water cycle and its political and economic determinants and consequences (e.g. virtual water) may be necessary to produce a more wholistic solution.

    • Scholars who fundamental contest traditional understandings of water see “water” as a fragmented site for social relations. In this view, water is not a unitary object that can be understood by different means, but a socially produced subject, distinctly produced in historical instances and in turn influencing social relationships and possibilities. Work building on these conceptualizations of hydro-social cycling (Linton and Budds, 2014; Swyngedouw, 2009) has led to new approaches to understanding relationships between people and water. Examples include studies of water insecurity and crisis that emphasize political struggles for water rights over “naturalized” discourses of scarcity (Loftus, 2015) and studies of water security/insecurity that explore embodiment to understand social inequality and new “everyday” dimensions of water insecurity shaped by gendered and racialized social relations (Truelove, 2019).

Background Information for the Instructor
  1. Franco-Torres, M., Rogers, B. C., & Harder, R. (2021). Articulating the new urban water paradigm. Critical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology51(23), 2777-2823. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10643389.2020.1803686


  2. Di Baldassarre, G., Viglione, A., Carr, G., Kuil, L., Yan, K., Brandimarte, L., & Blöschl, G. (2015). Debates—Perspectives on socio‐hydrology: Capturing feedbacks between physical and social processes. Water Resources Research, 51(6), 4770-4781. https://doi.org/10.1002/2014WR016416.


  3. Linton, J., & Budds, J. (2014). The hydrosocial cycle: Defining and mobilizing a relational-dialectical approach to water. Geoforum, 57, 170-180. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2013.10.008. 


  4. Loftus, A. (2015). Water (in) security: securing the right to water. The Geographical Journal, 181(4), 350-356. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12079.


  5. Swyngedouw, E. (2009). The political economy and political ecology of the hydro‐social cycle. Journal of contemporary water research & education, 142(1), 56-60. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1936-704X.2009.00054.x.


  6. Truelove, Y. (2019). Rethinking water insecurity, inequality and infrastructure through an embodied urban political ecology. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water, 6(3), e1342. https://doi.org/10.1002/wat2.1342.


  7. European Network of Political Ecology. (2014). What is Political Ecology? [video]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLVE69QZt5w.   Brief interviews with researchers associated with the European Network of Political Ecology describing the breadth of research questions and problems related to political ecology. 12 min.