Why does IR shun global water governance?

25 October 2016, 0710 EDT

I’ve been invited to join the cast of guest bloggers here at Duck of Minerva, and as you may have expected, the first thing I thought of was “well, I’ve made it, and… now what am I supposed to blog about?” On my personal (yet research-focused) blog, I write about a very broad range of topics: academic writing, time management, literature reviews, surviving academia, and heck, even my own research! But here at the Duck of Minerva I wondered aloud whether I could bring more attention to research issues I’ve been concerned about that I haven’t seen resolved (don’t you worry, you may get an occasional blog post on tenure dossiers, or avoiding overwork). So here we go…

One of the issues I haven’t seen resolved anywhere in the literature is a lack of coherent focus on global water governance. Yes, you will see some scholarship on oceans as global commons, and a lot of literature on transboundary water governance and the geopolitics of shared water bodies. But so far, I haven’t seen a strong emphasis on the part of IR on global water governance. Even a cursory Google Scholar Search with the keywords “global water governance” yields treatments of water that are specific to certain geographical regions,  or the rise of the human right to water as a global norm (full disclosure: I’m working on this very topic right now), or the growing importance of water security as part of the global discourse. But I don’t see a mainstream body of work looking at water as a global issue (well, beyond obvious reads such as Ken Conca’s superb “Governing Water: Contentious Transnational Politics and Global Institution Building“).

This year, I organized a panel at ISA 2016 in Atlanta  on the global governance of water. Two years ago, I organized two panels, also on the global politics of water (at ISA  2015 in New Orleans) . And this year, I didn’t organize a panel. But I’ve just perused the programme International Studies Association forthcoming conference (to be held in Baltimore in 2017), and the one thing that surprised me this year was the lack of a global politics of water panel. I found a few papers on water scarcity, one or two on transboundary water governance, and a few country-specific papers. But only two panels with water in the title.  I found exactly two panels on water (don’t ask me how many panels are on climate!)

To me, this dearth of panels on water at ISA signals one of two (or more) things: (a) IR people aren’t really all that interested in water as a global issue or (b) to IR people, water as a research subject is primarily the focus of transboundary water governance analyses. There are so many things that one could study within the global water governance body of scholarship! The role of UN-Water (yes, there’s one article published on this, but it’s just one article); the rise of the human right to water as a global norm. A few people have made the link between water and climate change more explicit, but still, they make water a research issue that is subsumed within the global climate scholarship.

To be quite frank, I’d like to see more of a focus on water as a global issue. I don’t think we’re nearly close to solving the global water issue. The recent cases of drinking water contamination in Flint in the USA (also detected in several other cities, including Pittsburgh and Chicago) show that, though drinking water issues are subnational, the water crisis is global. We should probably be paying more attention to that.