The field of “water sustainability” addresses the provision of water in relation to sustenance, health, collective life, distribution systems, political governance, and symbolic orders.  We focus on water as an instance and site of sustainable development, political ecology, and resource management but also as an object of historical inquiry, sociological investigation, and cultural interpretation.  Water sustainability thus brings together the textual readings of cultural studies and the quantitative approach of political science, the literary critic and the rational choice modeler in their shared study of the social, political, economic, and cultural frameworks through which water is provided, distributed, contested, and consumed.  

We concentrate on four key themes in the field:  Economic resources and human rights, water distribution and equity, the institutional economics and sociology of water, and debate and discourses of water sustainability.

The field thus engages a wide range of research methods. Since water is relatively new as an object of social science research, it is appropriate to pay close attention to the spatial, temporal and social scales of specific research topics. We seek student research projects that address water explicitly, though projects may emphasize different aspects (the physical materiality of water; its association with human and animal bodies and with plants; its use in economic production; its discursive and cultural representation; etc.).  Research topics may incorporate quantitative and qualitative research, though the specific combination will vary, and we will not exclude a priori proposals that rely exclusively on one or the other. The forms of evidence that students assemble may vary widely from case to case, and we will be attentive to the relations between evidence and research questions.


  • Steve Caton

    Professor, Harvard University, Social Anthropology

    Steven C. Caton is Professor of Contemporary Arab Studies and Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.  Professor Caton received a joint Ph.D. in anthropology and linguistics from the University of Chicago in 1984.  He has taught at The New School for Social Research and the University of California, Santa Cruz.  Professor Caton’s varied research interests include linguistics, cultural studies, gender, Yemeni poetics and politics, as well as the U.S. men’s movement, and he has published numerous articles and several books on these subjects, including Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation (Hill & Wang, 2005).  He currently works in the field of water politics in Yemen.
  • Benjamin S. Orlove

    Professor; Lecturer at Columbia, University of California, Davis, Environmental Science

    Benjamin S. Orlove is Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California, Davis and holds an adjunct appointment as Senior Research Scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and International Research Institute for Climate Prediction.  Professor Orlove received a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley in 1975.  His expertise is the sociocultural dimensions of climate and climate variation, especially with regards to El Niño events.  His research interests include traditional forms of forecasting among peasant and indigenous peoples, the use of forecasts in modern societies; and the influence of globalization on current responses to climate variability.  He is the author numerous articles on these topics as well as Lines in the Water: Nature and Culture at Lake Titicaca (Berkeley, 2002).


  • Virginia Claire Breedlove

    Johns Hopkins University, History

    Landscape and Livelihood in the Lake Chad Basin: A Social History of Environmental Change in Eastern Niger and Northeastern Nigeria Since 1968.
    Lake Chad, once an enormous inland sea, had a surface area of approximately 15,000 square miles before the 1968-1973 Sahelian drought. Since then, the lake has receded dramatically, now covering less than 500 square miles. While both geological and historical evidence demonstrate similarly large fluctuations in the size of the lake over the past 8000 years, the impact of such profound environmental changes on communities in the Chad Basin remains relatively poorly understood. In addition to dramatic environmental transformation, this historically important space of social, economic, and political interaction has undergone significant political change in the past half-century with the establishment of four post-colonial nation-states (Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon) whose borders meet at the Lake and the multi-national Lake Chad Basin Commission. In my dissertation, I plan to use archival and ethnographic research in eastern Niger and northeastern Nigeria to explore the relationships between these rapidly changing environmental and political conditions and the ways in which individuals combine different types of income-generating activity to make a living in the Chad Basin.
  • Christopher City

    Clark University, Geography

    Constructing Drought: Law, Land Use, and Water Sustainability
    This proposal seeks to examine socio-legal discourses of water sustainability in order to understand how the legal frameworks of water use and land use are contributing to an emerging hazard of “suburban drought” in the eastern United States. Suburban drought in water-rich environments is the result of a low-density, lawn-intensive “sprawl-like” pattern of development that contributes to unsustainable water use. Current land use and water laws are not well-coordinated with each other and each contributes to water-intensive patterns of development. As a consequence, suburban communities are unlikely to improve water sustainability without significant changes to land use and water law. The proposed research applies analytical approaches from legal and urban geography to address the role of the law in impairing or achieving water sustainability. Using metropolitan Boston as a case study, the project seeks to understand how law and the environment have contributed to the current water consumption landscape. The project further asks how the law has addressed and is currently addressing issues of sustainability in water and land use. This analysis is intended to lead to recommendations of how legal structures of water use and land use could be reconfigured to better achieve water sustainability.
  • Tessa Rose Farmer

    University of Texas at Austin, Anthropology

    Water and Oasis: Social Meanings and State Administration of Water in the Egyptian Oasis of Siwa
    Through attention to the Egyptian state’s politics of water management and distribution, this project will examine the production of new forms of citizenship and identity and local response to these specific policies. Water is a metaphor for life, a basic and irreplaceable biological necessity, and a site around which complex social relationships are formed. In a desert landscape, water is most apparent in its scarcity. The Egyptian Oasis of Siwa is a rare site of abundance situated in Egypt’s Western Desert, and water is its condition of possibility. The community of Amazigh, or Berber, who live in the Oasis generated customs to allocate water resources, as well as traditions of collective life that incorporated water into the symbolic order of the Oasis. These resources are finite underground reservoirs, and in recent decades the rate and types of use of these resources has increased dramatically as the Oasis has been increasing incorporated economically and administratively into the Egyptian state. Additionally, this project seeks to understand the ways in which Siwans themselves have managed, and still manage, water resources prior to the introduction of deep water drilling, bottled water factories, and desert land reclamation projects undertaken in the last few decades.
  • Angelia Haro

    Duke University, Cultural Anthropology

    Water and Promises of Utopia in Development Discourse and Practice
    I propose to do ethnographic research in three United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Millennium Villages in East Africa: Koraro, Ethiopia; Sauri, Kenya; and Ruhira, Uganda. Each of the villages has been chosen by the UN and other NGOs to rmeasure progress toward its Millennium Development Goals. Because water is one of the principle categories in the discourse of Millennial Development, this project focuses on water as the site where hope, friction, dialogue and imagination converge. Water, as the most basic need of human life, is woven into the fabric of all cultures, religions and societies in important ways. My own engagement takes up that thread and investigates the use of water as a utopian category, a site of the production of hope and future desires, in transnational and local contexts. I contend that hope and its framings must be investigated through its attachment to particular categories, like water, around competing understandings of the present’s possibilities coalesce. The question of water, as a galvanizing political and social problem, will be investigated both as an empirical development issue and as a category with signification and usage beyond the concrete. I will observe the deployment of utopian NGO discourse about water and the grassroots local translation or transformation of that desire in target communities.
  • Jessica Lage

    University of California, Berkeley, Geography

    The role of water in rural land-use transformations in Spain
    The importance of water in Spain—a central modernizing force and source of contestation for over a century—is reflected today in rural land-use transformations. Second-home development and rural tourism, and greenhouse production—representing decreasing and intensifying agricultural production, respectively—are transforming the Spanish countryside, and are linked in large part by water politics and management. The proposed research explores the interaction between water management politics and changes in production in rural areas, in particular as people experience them in daily lives and livelihoods. Spain’s geographic variability in water resources and the historic importance of agriculture and tourism to its economy, in combination with the country’s internal governance structure and rapid integration into the European Union (EU) economy makes this study of water management and land-use change informative to the EU-wide context of restructuring water policies and governance.
  • Hao T. Nguyen

    University of Hawaii, Urban Planning

    “The urbanization of water: Planning for adequate water services in cities of the developing world- Case study of Vietnam.”
    My research aims at examining the complexity and diversity of the demands for water and water distribution in urban setting of developing countries, through the case studies of the Vietnamese cities. ‘The urbanization of water’ is considered as the conceptual framework to look at the context and process in which water is urbanized, as well as which institution(s) manage the process. By applying urban planning perspectives on urbanization and political economy of water provision, the research will also examine types of water regime, water governance issues (the interplay among governance actors in water distribution, provision and management), and water uses of urban inhabitants and economic activities to comprehend how complex and diversified water distributions and demands for water are in order to attain policy implications in planning for better water supplies for urban populations in Vietnam. For data collection, the research uses mixed methodologies of focus group discussions, in-depth interviews, historical research, using archives, desk study, and questionnaire survey with short and close-ended questions. The author expects to present a new way of approaching and comprehending the urban crisis in water supplies through the cases studies of Vietnamese cities’ water distribution, provision and management.
  • Maya Peterson

    Harvard University, History

    An Environmental History of Central Asia in the Late-19th and Early-20th Centuries
    My dissertation will be an environmental history of Central Asia in the late imperial and early Soviet period (1860s-1940s). I plan to use natural resources, especially water, as a lens through which to study tsarist and Bolshevik administration of Central Asian lands and peoples and address larger questions of Russian history, empire, socialism, and modernity. By focusing on specific sites in the natural landscape – a river, a lake, a mountain – and specific projects to change that environment – the construction of a dam, the shift to cotton monoculture, the attempt to sedentarize the nomads – I will explore aspects of continuity and change in the nature of Russian versus Soviet rule in the Central Asian borderlands; how policies and policymaking with regard to Central Asia compared to policies for other parts of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union; how aspects of the Russian venture in Central Asia compare to characteristics of imperial rule in other empires, such as the British or the Qing; and how changes to the Central Asian environment shaped the encounter between Russians and Central Asians. Overall, I hope to contribute to the study of Soviet history, comparative studies of empires, and the developing subfield of environmental history.
  • Lisa Marie Pfeiffer

    University of California, Davis, Agriculture and Resource Economics

    Sustainability, Equity, and Growth: The Role of Water Markets in Mexico
    Climate change, population growth, and migration are likely to induce extreme shifts in water management around the world. Mexico is often considered to be at the forefront of institutional change, and has made significant progress in decentralizing the management of water resources, water rights administration, development of a comprehensive legal system, and encouraging informal water markets. However, Mexico continues to struggle with the problems of over-concession, inefficient use, and unsustainable extraction. Rural agricultural producers lie at the heart of the problem; they use 78% of the total water extracted, pay nearly nothing for its use, but depend on it for their livelihood. Water markets may be an efficient way to redistribute water and to signal its scarcity, but what effect will they have on poverty, inequality, economic growth, and the sustainability of Mexico’s water resources? Empirical estimation of regional water demand elasticities, efficiency gains from trading, potential agricultural productivity gains, and the effects of institutional changes are important indicators for policy makers, but have never been estimated in Mexico, despite the efforts by policy makers to manage water use. By using nationally representative rural household data, supplemented with urban water demand data, these questions will begin to be answered.
  • Neil J. Pischner

    Rutgers University, Comparative Literature

    Andean Oral Traditions as Cultural Response to Climate Changes
    How do Andean oral traditions narrate and influence cultural response to climate change? This project analyzes how a Southern Peruvian Quechua community’s oral traditions respond to water shortage and other consequences of climate change. For example, do stories and songs share ecological knowledge such as information about drought-resistant crops or include Western scientific views of why springs are drying up? Do spoken-word spiritual interventions attempt to restore sacred glaciers or harmonize precipitation patterns? Is there a resurgence of myths, stories and songs that encode social memory of past droughts while recounting strategies of successful response or morals of failure to adapt? Understanding how gender, social-economic, and generational categories rely on old and new oral traditions foregrounds community voices in informing policy-making and interdisciplinary research on cultural response to global warming.
  • Julio C. Postigo

    University of California, Davis, Geography

    Andean herders' responses to changing water availability
    Herders in the Peruvian Andes must cope with shifts in the availability of water and water-related resources caused by climate change. An important effect of climate change is glacier retreat which increases runoff, moisture, bare soil and shifts pasture locations. My dissertation investigates Andean herders’ responses to these environmental disturbances, and to related changing social, economic and political conditions including the increasing density of humans. Factors that shape herders’ responses are local socioeconomic institutions that manage water, pasture, and herds. This project addresses crucial issues in the study of water sustainability, particularly the impacts of and responses to climate change; the interactions of local and national legal and administrative systems; the execution of research that benefits local communities and to policy makers; and the development of methodologies that address the physical, economic, and social impacts of water. Combining methods from the social science and Geographic Information Sciences, data collected in-situ and from remote sensors, a multiscale approach (household-community-region), and a multitemporal framework (colonial period, 1969–2008, and seasons of 2007–08) I will be able to model and predict future landscape scenarios and responses to changes in water availability
  • Sandra Ruckstuhl

    George Mason University, Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution

    Socio-political Dynamics of Water Security: Understanding Institutions and Incentives for Improved Conflict Prevention and Sustainability
    Considering the global significance of and linkages between human security, water management and environmental conflict, my research analyzes the incentives and norms that underlie and engender environmental management regimes. By conducting a comparative study of the structures of formal and informal water management institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Israel/Palestine, I intend to generate an understanding of the political economies and political ecologies that govern water management in these contexts. With a deeper understanding of the dynamics of ecological conflict, we can enhance environmental governance and conflict resolution capacities to encourage peacebuilding and inter-communal development. My summer research program will focus specifically on developing my knowledge of the social and political aspects of water management in Bosnia and Herzegovina. While in the field I will explore the work of environmental management institutions, conduct interviews with key stakeholders, and visit ecological sites, which will in turn help me to develop (1) a broad understanding of key water resources sites and issues in BiH, and (2) a preliminary map of Bosnia's water management stakeholders. This information will inform the ultimate structure of the case for my dissertation, and will contribute to the framing of my comparative analysis.
  • Sarah Pence Wise

    Rutgers University, Anthropology

    Fluid Boundaries: Marine Protected Areas and Shifting Perceptions of Seascapes
    Focusing on a newly proposed Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Andros Island, Bahamas, my research will examine how existing water tenure systems vary significantly from the many ways ownership is understood, practiced, and talked about under emerging conservation ideologies. Situated within the 100,000 miles of ocean and 700 cays comprising the Bahamas archipelago lies Andros, an island described as more sea than land. The people of Andros have a reputation throughout the Bahamas as exceptional seafarers and fishers. Access to and ownership of waterways and fishing grounds are managed and protected though long-standing oral tenure institutions. Recently, The Nature Conservancy proposed an MPA in Andros. Like many conservation projects, this MPA challenges how local people perceive their marine environment and the various ways people view and claim ownership rights. MPAs are promoted in the Caribbean, and elsewhere, as effective conservation policy tools, able to address issues of declining fish stocks and marine degradation while simultaneously improving social welfare through poverty alleviation and capacity building. Protected Area policy tends to use market-oriented language, focusing on the expansion of economic opportunity as incentive to comply with conservation. These approaches ignore the multiple ways people think and speak about water resources.