California is facing record drought, water restrictions, and threats of wildfires. The solution seems simple—just find more water through increased pumping or desalination—but these quick fixes ignore deeper questions about how we turn public necessities into commodities and determine who can lay claim to natural resources. These issues can lead to cultural conflict, but struggles for water can also renew solidarity across different social groups.

Sociological case studies remind us that professional environmental responsibilities to the land, its residents, owners, and governments change over time and through particular institutional cultures. Power and inequality shape who is exposed to environmental problems and how we address solutions.
Water conflicts also bring up commodification—the way we turn public necessities like water and health into market goods. Research on commodification examines everything from how the water industry actively competes with the tap to how insurance markets change the culture of life and death in the United States.
Water resources—even when scarce—do not inevitably lead to conflict. Environmental concern is not only high in affluent nations; even in places as tense as the Middle East, local activists regularly use the environment to bridge cultural, political, and religious tensions.

Rebecca Farnum is a 2012 EPA Marshall Scholar researching for a PhD in Geography at King’s College London, where she explores environmental conflict and cooperation around food and water resources in the Middle East and North Africa. She has an LLM in International Law on environmental and human rights law, an MSc in Water Security and International Development, and undergraduate degrees in anthropology, interdisciplinary humanities, international development, and international relations.