Managing (Unconventional) Water: Essays on Expert Knowledge, Media Framings, and Stakeholder Debates


Weinthal, Erika

Patel, Ekta




Environmental Policy


Ensuring access to adequate quantities of water for basic needs remains a fundamental goal and challenge in many world regions amid the ongoing climate crisis. Yet the uncertainties with existing water supplies coupled with management challenges and rising water demand have shifted attention towards unconventional water sources. Unconventional waters are alternative water sources obtained by using technologies, such as desalination, to transform previously untapped water into drinking water. While desalination is touted as a technical ‘solution’ to alleviate freshwater scarcity by policymakers, businesses, and the public alike, its high financial costs, intensive energy needs, local community impact, and harm to marine life, as well as other yet unseen effects, make it socially, economically, environmentally, and politically contentious. Before the shift towards unconventional waters, and desalination in particular, extends further, it is imperative for informed policymaking to understand how these water options emerge and what constitutes the knowledge base on them.

This dissertation examines how water management is shaped at the level of international organizations and what information on desalination is shared and debated across two other policy-relevant settings: the global media and a local community. It focuses on these three different settings to capture wide information streams that individually and collectively generate some of the corpus of knowledge on water management and desalination. The first chapter examines UN-Water, the coordinating body on international water policy for the UN system, and how it uses expert knowledge to shape the global water agenda, including the foundations upon which unconventional waters become part of this agenda. The second chapter applies automated content analysis to global news media coverage to examine which framings related to desalination’s adaptive and maladaptive features are most prevalent and in what combinations. The third chapter presents a discourse analysis of stakeholder statements and official deliberations tied to the Huntington Beach desalination facility in southern California, which was ultimately denied, to reveal the key storylines that arise both in favor of and in opposition to desalination during permitting debates. This dissertation’s key findings highlight the significance of expert knowledge in shaping global water policy, biases in the current information landscape of desalination as a climate adaptation strategy, and the opportunities for engaging with diverse stakeholders for collaborative decision-making on water management options like desalination.



Environmental studies


Political science


Public policy


Managing (Unconventional) Water: Essays on Expert Knowledge, Media Framings, and Stakeholder Debates