From “trust” to “trustworthiness”: Retheorizing dynamics of trust, distrust, and water security in North America

Nicole J. Wilson, Teresa Montoya, Yanna Lambrinidou, Leila M. Harris, Benjamin J. Pauli, Deborah McGregor, Robert J. Patrick, Silvia Gonzalez, Gregory Pierce, Amber Wutich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Assumptions of trust in water systems are widespread in higher-income countries, often linked to expectations of “modern water.” The current literature on water and trust also tends to reinforce a technoscientific approach, emphasizing the importance of aligning water user perceptions with expert assessments. Although such approaches can be useful to document instances of distrust, they often fail to explain why patterns differ over time, and across contexts and populations. Addressing these shortcomings, we offer a relational approach focused on the trustworthiness of hydro-social systems to contextualize water-trust dynamics in relation to broader practices and contexts. In doing so, we investigate three high-profile water crises in North America where examples of distrust are prevalent: Flint, Michigan; Kashechewan First Nation; and the Navajo Nation. Through our theoretical and empirical examination, we offer insights on these dynamics and find that distrust may at times be a warranted and understandable response to experiences of water insecurity and injustice. We examine the interconnected experiences of marginality and inequity, ontological and epistemological injustice, unequal governance and politics, and histories of water insecurity and harm as potential contributors to untrustworthiness in hydro-social systems. We close with recommendations for future directions to better understand water-trust dynamics and address water insecurity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)42-68
Number of pages27
JournalEnvironment and Planning E: Nature and Space
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2023


  • North America
  • Water insecurity
  • distrust
  • knowledge politics
  • race
  • settler-colonialism
  • social inequality
  • trust
  • trustworthiness
  • water governance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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