The global water crises: a cross-national analysis of metabolic rift theory



Unchecked consumption, extraction, and growth have resulted in severe damage to ecological systems. Fresh water issues constitute one of the great challenges for political ecologists. On the one hand, there is a human health and development crisis and over 700 million people still lack access to clean, safe drinking water. On the other hand, there is a growing environmental water crisis regarding water scarcity, water stress, and freshwater resource depletion. This analysis utilizes metabolic rift theory to demonstrate the disruptive consequences that human development and agriculture have on the water cycle. I use two-way fixed effects longitudinal regression for 176 nations from 1970-2015 to test how agriculture, capital, international aid, governance, and civil society are associated with two important water indicators: access to water and water stress. I find that agriculture is associated with higher levels of water stress and higher levels of water access. Higher GDP per capita and international aid increase water access but have no significant relationship with water stress. Additionally, international non-governmental organizations and environmental treaty ratifications are associated with decreased water stress, but also decreased water access. Therefore, I find that the disruptive processes of capital and development have differential impacts on these two interrelated water outcomes. This political ecological analysis suggests that simple solutions that address water access or water stress alone, without considering the interrelated aspects of global water issues, may inadvertently influence other facets of the world's growing water concerns. Furthermore, agriculture and development create an ever-growing metabolic rift in the processes that allow fresh water to replenish itself, leading to future global issues of water access and stress.

Keywords: metabolic rift, water access, water stress, international aid, agriculture, development

How to Cite: Hargrove, A. (2021) “The global water crises: a cross-national analysis of metabolic rift theory”, Journal of Political Ecology. 28(1). doi: