The hydrosocial cycle in rapidly urbanizing watersheds


Water is the essential resource of the 21st century where innovative water management strategies are needed to improve water security. This paper examines three case studies that exemplify the global water crisis, situated in rapidly urbanizing watersheds: Nairobi River Basin, Kenya; Citarum River Basin, Indonesia; and Addis Ababa River Basin, Ethiopia. Each of these watersheds are implementing large-scale water management strategies inclusive of local communities and regional governments to address water quality and waste management issues. The hydrosocial cycle (Linton, 2010) provides a framework to investigate the social, technical and physical aspects of water flows. Using the hydrosocial cycle as an organizing framework, these watersheds are examined to highlight how water security underpins water justice. The issues of gender and inequity are often overlooked in larger policy, development, and infrastructure discussions where technical requirements, restoration management, and engineering solutions obscure power inequities. Projects are compared to assess the implementation of the hydrosocial cycle through a discussion of social power and structure, technology and infrastructure, and the materiality of water in each location. This comparison reveals a dependence on large-scale technical projects with limited community engagement, and a need for science-based river restoration management. Recommendations are provided to improve and address holistic water management.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. AAU (Addis Ababa University), College of Natural Science, Center for Environmental Science (2016). Addis Ababa City Rivers Pollution and Sanitation Study. Addis Ababa: Draft Final Report

    Google Scholar 

  2. Bhardwaj G, Dunstan I (2019). How women are transforming Indonesia. Chatham House. 2019-05-20

  3. Bigas H (2013). Water Security & the Global Water Agenda: Analytical Brief. Tokyo: United Nations University

    Google Scholar 

  4. Budds J, Loftus A (2014). Water and hydropolitics. In: Desai V, R Potter R, eds. The Companion to Development Studies. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 365–369

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bukit N T (1995). Water quality conservation for the Citarum River in west Java. Water Sci Technol, 31(9): 1–10

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. CIA World Factbook: available at CIA website

  7. Clark J, Gurung P, Chapagain P, Regmi S, Bhusal J, Karpouzoglou T, Mao F, Dewulf A (2017). Water as “time-substance”:the hydrosocialities of climate change in Nepal. Ann Assoc Am Geogr, 107(6): 1351–1369

    Google Scholar 

  8. Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs (2018). Citarum River Restoration: progress to date. Report from Ministry for Maritime Affairs

  9. Cox D (2017). A river runs through it: the global movement to ‘daylight’ urban waterways. The Guardian

  10. Duffy C J (2017). The terrestrial hydrologic cycle: an historical sense of balance. WIREs Water, 4(4): e1216

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Ecuador Constitution (2008). The rights of Nature articles e in Ecuador’s Constitution. Available at Accessed 31 March 2020

  12. Florida R (2018). Just how much of the world is urban? CityLab

  13. Frazer L (2005). Paving paradise: the peril of imperious surfaces. Environmental Health Perspectives, 113(7): A456–A462

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Gardner T (2017). Addis has run out of space: Ethiopia’s radical redesign. The Guardian

  15. Hirji R, Davis R (2009). Environmental Flows in Water Resources Policies, Plans, and Projects: Findings and Recommendations. Washington D.C.: The World Bank

    Google Scholar 

  16. Hoekstra A (2011). The Water Footprint Assessment Manual: Setting the Global Standard. London: Earthscan

    Google Scholar 

  17. Imhoff M, Zhang P, Wolfe R, Bounoua L (2010). Remote sensing of urban heat island effect across biomes in the continental USA. Remote Sens Environ, 114(3): 504–513

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Integrated Water Resources Management in Action (2009). WWAP, DHI Water Policy, UNEP-DHI Centre for Water and Environment. Available at Accessed 20 March 2020

  19. Javorsky N (2019). Why women are key to managing the world’s water. City Lab. Available at City Lab website

  20. Jenkins M (2017). The impact of corruption on access to safe water and sanitation for people living in poverty. Anticorruption Resource Center

  21. Karterakis S, Karney B W, Singh B, Guergachi A (2007). The hydrologic cycle: a complex history with continuing pedagogical implications. Water Sci Technol Water Supply, 7(1): 23–31

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Kenya Water Resources Management Authority (2017). A brief on the Nairobi Basin Rehabilitation and Restoration Programme

  23. Krhoda G (2002). Nairobi river basin phase II: The monitoring and sampling strategy for Ngong/Montoine Rivers. Nairobi: Kenya Water Resources Management Authority Report

    Google Scholar 

  24. Lawford R, Unninayar, S (2017). Historical development of the global water cycle as a science framework. Oxford: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science

    Google Scholar 

  25. Linton J (2010). What Is Water? The History of a Modern Abstraction. Vancouver: UBC Press

    Google Scholar 

  26. Linton J, Budds J (2014). The hydrosocial cycle: defining and mobilizing a relational-dialectical approach to water. Geoforum, 57: 170–180

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Liveris A (2008). Running dry. The Economist

  28. Loecke TD, Burgin AJ, Riveros-Iregui DA, Ward AS, Davis SA, St. Clair MA (2017). Weather whiplash in agricultural regions drives deterioration of water quality. Biogeochemistry, 133 (1):7–15

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Washington DC: Island Press

    Google Scholar 

  30. Milly PCD, Betancourt J, Falkenmark M, Hirsch RM, Kundzewicz ZW, Lettenmaier DP, Stouffer RJ (2008). Stationarity is dead: Whither water management? Science 319: 573–574

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Ministry of Water, Irrigation, and Energy (2019). Addis Ababa Master Plan

  32. MOWA(Ministry of Women’s Affairs (2006). National action plan for gender equality. Addis Ababa

  33. Nace R (1975). The hydrological cycle: historical evolution of the concept. Water Int, 1(1): 15–21

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Nyika J (2017). Situational analysis of Nairobi River Basin (NRB). Water Practice and Technology, 12(3): 589–603

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Patrick M (2014). The cycles and spirals of justice in water — allocation decision making. Water Int, 39(1): 63–80

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Reality Check Team (2019). Nairobi water: what’s behind severe shortages?Available at BBC website

  37. Presidential Regulation Number 15 (2018). Available at

  38. Sever C (2005). Gender and water: mainstreaming gender equality in water, hygiene and sanitation interventions. Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation

  39. Shiklomanov I A (1993). World Freshwater Resources. In: Gleick, P.H. ed. Water in Crisis. NY: Oxford University Press, 13–24

    Google Scholar 

  40. Shores A, Johnson H, Fugate D, Laituri M (2019). Networks ofneed: a geospatial analysis of secondary cities. Applied Network Science, 4 (1): 109

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Sivapalan M, Konar M, Srinivasan V, Chhatre A, Wutich A, Scott C A, Wescoat J L, Rodriguez-Iturbe I (2014). Socio-hydrology: use-inspired water sustainability science for the Anthropocene. Earths Futur, 2(4): 225–230

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Sultana F (2018). Water justice: why it matters and how to achieve it. Water Int, 43(4): 483–493

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Srinivasan V, Lambin E F, Gorelick S M, Thompson B H, Rozelle S (2012). The nature and causes of the global water crisis: syndromes from a meta-analysis of coupled human-water studies. Water Resour Res, 48(10): W10516

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Tanasescu M. (2017). When a river is a person: from Ecuador to New Zealand nature gets its day in court. The Conversation

  45. Tarahita D, Rakhmat MZ (2018). Indonesia’s Citarum: the world’s most polluted river. The Diplomat

  46. Taylor P L, Sonnenfeld D A (2017). Water crises and institutions: inventing and reinventing governance in an era of uncertainty. Soc Nat Resour, 30(4): 395–403

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Thompson K, O’Dell K, Syed S, Kemp H (2017). Thirsty for change: the untapped potential of women in urban water management. Deloitte Rev, 20: 154–167

    Google Scholar 

  48. Thornthwaite, C W (1948). An approach toward a rational classification of climate. Geographical Review, 38 (1):55–94

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Transparency International (2008). Global Corruption Report: Corruption in the Water Sector. Berlin: Cambridge University Press

    Google Scholar 

  50. UNDP (2006). Human Development Report 2006 — Beyond Scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis. London: Palgrave Macmillan

    Google Scholar 

  51. US-GWS (Global Water Strategy) (2017). US Government Global Water Strategy Available at USAID website

  52. Woldemanuel M (2020). Urban Issues in Rapidly Growing Cities: Planning for Development in Addis Ababa. New York: Routledge

    Google Scholar 

  53. World Economic Council (2019). The Global Risks Report 2019. 14th ed. Geneva: World Economic Forum

    Google Scholar 

  54. Wurbs R A (1994). Computer models for water resources planning and management. US Army Corps of Engineer. IWR Report 94-NDS-7

  55. Yeh P F J, Wu C (2018). Recent acceleration of the terrestrial hydrologic cycle in the US Midwest. J Geophys Res D Atmospheres, 123(6): 2993–3008

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This research was made possible by the US Global Water Partnership. The author recognizes the numerous individuals who have participated and implemented these projects in Kenya, Indonesia, and Ethiopia. The author appreciates comments received from two anonymous reviewers. This manuscript reflects the views of the author.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Melinda Laituri.

Additional information

Author Biography

Dr Melinda Laituri received her Ph.D from the University of Arizona, USA, in geography in 1993. She received her MA from California State University, Chico, in geography in 1985. She earned her BA from the University of California, Berkeley in 1979.

She is a professor of geography in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability at Colorado State University and is the Director of the Geospatial Centroid at CSU that provides support for geospatial research and teaching across the university. She conducts research on geospatial applications related to water resources, disaster management, and urban areas in the Global South. She works with indigenous communities around the world on participatory mapping and natural resource management.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Laituri, M. The hydrosocial cycle in rapidly urbanizing watersheds. Front. Earth Sci. (2020).

Download citation


  • hydrosocial cycle
  • urban watersheds
  • water security
  • Citarum River Basin
  • Addis Ababa Basin
  • Nairobi River Basin