Conflicts over Access to Water and Land: Evolving Dimensions

Principal Supervisor:        Prof. Philippe Cullet, School of Law, SOAS University of London,

Co-Supervisor:       Dr Penny Vera-Sanso, Department of Geography, Birkbeck, University of London,

Project Description

Water is at the centre of conflicts in all parts of the world. One of the triggers for such conflicts is climate change whose range of impacts is fast increasing, including in particular rising water scarcity. Water scarcity does not just affect access to sufficient and safe water for domestic needs but impacts livelihoods in multiple ways. These impacts are experienced unequally: women, poor and stigmatised people suffer much more from water scarcity. This is at the root of multiple conflicts over water use. This project addresses water conflicts through the lens of water security, which offers an entry point to bridge the distinction between availability of water and access to water (Cullet, Bhullar & Koonan, 2021). Water security concerns access to water to fulfil each individual’s basic water needs, access for water-dependent livelihoods, as well as water for energy production and commercial activities. Water security from the local to the global level can only be achieved through cooperation. Yet this is increasingly difficult to secure as water scarcity intensifies. In India for example, climate change and farming practices have led to groundwater depletion that will be critical by 2025, reducing cropping intensity in the North-West and South of the country by 68% and nationally by 20%, which will have a knock-on impact on international food security (and prices) as India supplies 10% of global grain (Jain et al, 2021). This is not just a near-future concern, but an inter-sectoral concern as water scarcity cascades to food security issues and, with the affordability of both declining, to social justice and human development concerns as distributional conflicts rise and people move resources from education to basic life sustenance. The importance of ensuring access to sufficient water for all and to manage water equitably is now a key element of the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development 2030. Sustainable Development Goal 6 enjoins all countries to implement Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) at all levels, thereby emphasising the need to reconcile different priorities within the water sector and between the inter-dependent water, food and energy sectors. The international focus on IWRM and attempts to promote cooperation notwithstanding, local conflicts around access to water have been growing steadily in many parts of world.  In many countries, the primary issue is that access to water is legally linked to access to land. Since land ownership is increasingly skewed, this implies that a resource as vital as water is accessed preferentially by some based on property rights rather than need. One of the ways to address this conflict is to delink land and water rights (Cullet, 2014). This has the potential to offer better scope for managing water as a commons. Yet the direction of policy-making in recent years has often used delinking as a trigger for further commodification of water with the introduction of tradable water rights. This goes against the idea that water is a common pool resource. At present, in various countries, such as in India, the legal framework is out of step with current needs; it fails to recognise the various connections between access to water, access to land and the protection of watersheds. This is in itself a cause for conflicts. This project seeks to address the multiple aspects of water conflicts as they relate to land in developing countries. It will specifically address inequality and exclusion as elements that structure access to both land and water. This can be placed within the broader context of SDG 10, which now places inequality at the centre of debates on sustainable development. This project will also specifically emphasise impoverishment as a by-product of ‘development’ and the impacts that this has in terms of deepening existing inequalities, such as gender and social/caste inequalities. The project’s significance lies in its timeliness, its potential for a inter-disciplinary approach (through the project supervisors’ disciplinary attachments) and multi-scalar approach and its reception in policy and academic circles, due to the growing focus on both land and water in attempts to stave off the looming crises around food security, food sovereignty and environmental security if the potential for ‘water wars’ is not averted. At the international level, land grabbing has made headlines because land, with the water attached to it, is a precondition for ensuring availability of sufficient food for all, yet as water tables fall access to land is insufficient to guarantee subsistence.  As access to land and to water are further configured by the daily operation of structural inequalities, including those of age, gender and caste (Vera-Sanso, forthcoming), these larger crises are deepening social inequality. This three-year project seeks to make a contribution to a broader understanding of the links between land and water in an evolving water use and policy context. Within the broader framework envisaged here, the PhD candidate (for a PhD in Law at SOAS) may structure their research project to focus on one or more specific aspects, including: a) underlying legal concerns b) implementation issues or c) impacts on specific groups. This may be done through the lens of case studies, policy-making and implementation practices and impacts. The project will be based on desk-based research while also requiring extensive fieldwork since the topical issues considered here have not been considered sufficiently in the literature. India offers an appropriate basis for undertaking this study but other regions of the world such as Southern Africa may offer similar opportunities. A strategic dissemination strategy will be developed with the candidate, drawing on supervisor experience and contacts, to generate research impact and facilitate the PhD candidate’s career objectives.    

Key words

Water and environmental law and policy, land, conflicts, implementation, inequality, global South

Key References

Cullet, P (2014) Groundwater Law in India – Towards a Framework Ensuring Equitable Access and Aquifer Protection, Journal of Environmental Law, 26/1, 55-81 Cullet, P L. Bhullar & S. Koonan (forthcoming 2021) Water Security and International Law, Annual Review of Law and Social Science,17 Jain, M, Fishman, R, Mondal P et al (2021) Groundwater depletion will reduce cropping intensity in India, Science Advances, 7(9) Vera-Sanso P (forthcoming, 2022) Buttressing the Global Economy: Poverty, Age, Gender and Caste in Urban and Rural India, Policy Press: Bristol  

Further details about the project may be obtained from

Principal Supervisor:        Prof. Philippe Cullet, School of Law, SOAS University of London,

Co-Supervisor:       Dr Penny Vera-Sanso, Department of Geography, Birkbeck, University of London,

Further information about PhDs at SOAS is available from

SOAS Research Degrees page:


School of Law research degrees page: 

Application forms and details about how to apply are available from

Applicants should

  1. Apply for the MPhil/PhD Law (

Applicants must submit a COMPLETE on-line application for admission to the MPhil/PhD Law as soon as possible but no later than the scholarship deadline (23:59, 31 January 2022). 

A complete application for admission includes transcripts, an explanation of the grading system for any degrees obtained outside of the UK, two references, CV, research proposal and a personal statement. 

Please state in the application for admission that you wish to be considered for the Bloomsbury Colleges scholarship on ‘ Conflicts over Access to Water and Land: Evolving Dimensions’.  Your research proposal should take account of the project title and outline above, and indicate how you would aim to carry out the research. In your personal statement, please indicate why this project interests you, and in what ways you are qualified to undertake it.

For any queries regarding the programme application procedure, please see or email

STEP 2:  Apply for the scholarship

You must apply for this scholarship via the on-line scholarship application form.

Note that this scholarship is for a three-year period and covers home fees as well as a stipend.

For any queries regarding the studentship application procedure, please email