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Water Ethics: Foundational Readings for Students and Professionals

Water Ethics: Foundational Readings for Students and Professionals

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Having manipulated water for irrigation, energy, and burgeoning urban centers, humans are facing the reality that although fresh water is renewable, it is as finite as any other resource. Countries, states, and cities are now scrambling to develop an intelligent, well-informed approach to mitigate the growing global water crisis. Water Ethics is based on the belief that responding to contemporary water problems requires attending to questions of value and culture. How should we capture, store, and distribute water? At what cost? For whom? How do we reconcile water's dual roles as a practical resource and spiritual symbol?  
According to the editors of this collection of foundational essays, questions surrounding water are inherently ethical. Peter Brown and Jeremy Schmidt contend that all approaches to managing water, no matter how grounded in empirical data, involve value judgments and cultural assumptions. Each of the six sections of the book discuses a different approach to thinking about the relationship between water and humanity, from utilitarianism to eco-feminism to religious beliefs, including Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. Contributors range from Bartholemew, Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church to Nobel Laureate economist Elinor Ostrom and water policy expert Sandra Postel. Each section is framed by an original introductory essay written by the editors. 
Water Ethics will help readers understand how various moral perspectives, even when unstated, have guided and will continue to guide water policy around the globe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781597265645
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 02/08/2010
Edition description: 1
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Peter G. Brown is a Professor in the Departments of Natural Resource Sciences, Geography, and School of the Environment at McGill University. He is author of Restoring the Public Trust and The Commonwealth of Life: Economics for a Flourishing Earth, and coauthor of Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy.

Jeremy J. Schmidtis aPhD candidate and Trudeau Scholar in the Department of Geography at the University of Western Ontario.

Read an Excerpt

Water Ethics

Foundational Readings for Students and Professionals

By Peter G. Brown, Jeremy J. Schmidt


Copyright © 2010 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-876-9


Water Ethics and Water Management

Jeremy J. Schmidt

WATER IS ESSENTIAL FOR LIFE, yet we have no systematic way to think about its value. For years water was considered as renewable as sunlight or wind, and the potential for its development seemed limitless. Now, having manipulated water for irrigation, energy, and burgeoning urban centers, we face the reality that although freshwater is renewable, it is as finite as many other resources. It is now imperative to develop a cogent, grounded approach toward water management to curtail the growing, global water crisis.

The lack of such a strategy for managing water has meant that it is often used callously, carelessly, and without regard to ethical concerns. For instance, over the last fifty years 3,300 dams in India have inundated vast land areas and displaced an estimated 40 million people. In Australia, the effects of severe drought have been exacerbated by reliance on infrastructure designed to increase water supply. Between 1975 and 1997, Perth received 14% less rainfall than the 20th century average but saw a 48% reduction in reservoir levels. From 1998 to 2006 rainfall managed just 48% of the 20th century average and reservoir levels dropped by 66%. In both cases, entire watersheds have been manipulated based on beliefs regarding what ought to be done with water. Yet both instances failed to follow these manipulations through to their normative consequences for, respectively, displaced people or long-term sustainability.

Responding to contemporary water problems requires attending to questions of value. How should we capture, store, or distribute water? At what cost? For whom? And for how long? Further, these questions are inherently ethical because, as with any essential resource, determining a fair and just distribution of water has direct effects on human and nonhuman lives and the systems that sustain them. Despite the layered, interwoven nature of water use decisions and ethical values, moral questions have received comparatively little attention in the decision-making frameworks that dominate water policy and management. As such, this book looks explicitly at ethical issues regarding water. It begins by clarifying the connection between water and ethics, and showing how ethical considerations are unavoidable in water management decisions. This introduction ends by outlining the book's structure, content, and rationale for a systematic evaluation of water's value. The principal purpose of the book is to provide an overview of the emerging field of water ethics by drawing on representative points of view regarding ethical issues with respect to water.

What Is a Water Ethic?

Ethics deals with problems that arise in disagreements regarding what ought to be done.

These disagreements may arise in at least three areas:

1. Claims about facts or states of affairs, such as those about adequate water quantity or quality—because we need to know what we mean by "adequate"

2. Claims about correctly ordered social relationships, such as whether water should be allocated according to economics or on the basis of factors such as human rights or rights to property or healthy ecosystems

3. Claims about personal experiences, such as water's significance to people of a particular culture or belief.

Given water's pervasiveness and its necessity for life, these three types of disagreements often overlap; one person may float a gift down a river, believing it to be part of healthy spiritual and biophysical renewal. Another may view this same act as pollution. Thus a water ethic is best defined broadly, as a normative framework guiding actions that affect water.

The last two decades have witnessed a global movement by water policy experts to connect ethics and water. In 1997, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO's) World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) initiated investigations into the use of freshwater. The subsequent COMEST report was organized around three themes: (1) a sense of shared purpose and harmony with nature, (2) a balance between traditional human values and technological innovation, and (3) harmony between "the sacred and utilitarian in water, between the rational and the emotional." In 2004, UNESCO published a series of fourteen essays that were initially produced to provide input into the 3rd World Water Forum in Kyoto in 2003. The overview essay for this "Water and Ethics" series argues that two central problems confront a water ethic: (1) finding an appropriate scale for an ethic and (2) respecting value differences among individuals, groups, and society. In 2007, the 3rd Marcelino Botin Foundation Water Workshop was held in Santander (Spain) where water experts focused on the manifold ways in which ethics and water are critically linked to issues of water management, economics, and poverty (among others).

The rise of ethical discourse in global water policy networks has already led to a key debate regarding how a water ethic fits with other normative claims. From one perspective, a water ethic may be viewed as another aspect of existing concerns over the value of nature or regulating best management practices in natural resource policy. In this case, establishing a water ethic is similar to debates in environmental philosophy and applied ethics insofar as the aim is to provide an evaluative framework that prescribes correct behavior. An alternate view argues that the long history of religious myths, legal mores, and social institutions means that a water ethic does not fit well within the neatly defined categories used in other debates or disciplines. To date, global policy discourse on water ethics takes the latter view. For instance, the COMEST report appeals to several principles that often compete with one another in environmental philosophy such as intrinsic value, equality, the common good, stewardship, and economic pricing. It is difficult to predict how, or whether, this debate will be resolved but here it is worthwhile to note the divergent and influential sources of the water ethics discourse in order to understand some of the different perspectives of water policy experts, academics, and philosophers.

Regardless of whether we think of a water ethic as its own distinctive area of concern or as an instance of more general debates, our water use decisions have real consequences for both human and nonhuman lives. And if we are to support our decisions we must offer reasons. One logical question may arise: If we have good reasons for our water use decisions, is it possible to avoid talking about ethics altogether? The next section shows why ethical judgments are unavoidable, even when we have well-developed, rational frameworks for water use decisions.

Ethics and Water Management

The field of water and environmental management is concerned with the actual decisions made regarding resource allocation and use. Hence resource managers seek to understand the characteristics of particular problems in order to clearly define what may count as a solution. By looking within this process, it is evident that water management frameworks unavoidably make a number of ethical judgments. So, while this section focuses on the concepts of integrated water resources management and adaptive management, it is important to bear in mind that any decision-making framework requires value judgments regarding how to define and resolve problems. It should be noted that the management approaches discussed here are not the only ones that exist, nor are they necessarily the best ones. Rather, they were chosen because they are extremely influential conceptual frameworks and because their underlying concepts offer interesting examples of how rational decision making, in itself, does not obviate the need for ethical judgment.

Integrated Water Resources Management

The concept of integrated water resources management (IWRM) dominates the global discourse in water management. Though its precursors extend back centuries, the modern history of IWRM has been traced to Spain, where in the 1920s water managers began using river basins as the natural unit for decisions. Similarly, North American water managers increasingly promoted the coordinated development of water projects for multiple uses through institutions such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was created in the 1930s. From the 1960s onward, increasing attention was given to the social and environmental consequences of water development, with a push to manage both within a single system of decision making. As IWRM ascended to a global policy phenomenon in the 20th century, it developed three core agendas: (1) the integration of "cross-sectoral" concerns from agriculture, industry, and urban uses; (2) the evaluation of water's full ecological, economic, and social value; and (3) the promotion of decision making at scales appropriate to coordination and resolution of water-related concerns. Given IWRM's wide ambit, defining it in succinct terms has proven problematic. Nonetheless, an oft-cited definition was offered by the Global Water Partnership's Technical Advisory Committee, which defines IWRM as,

a process which promotes the co-ordinated development and management of water, land and related resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.

Ethical Judgments in IWRM

Defining the normative position of IWRM began in 1977 at the United Nations Conference on Water in Mar del Plata. There, policy experts argued that explicitly normative attitudes were responsible for the undervalued, fragmented approach to water management. They held that these attitudes were regarded as antiquated, subjective, and (thereby) incapable of meeting the demands of industrial society. Accordingly, IWRM practitioners made the first order of business the establishment of objective facts and a rational planning framework the two pillars for correcting the inequitable distribution of water.

However, IWRM's attempt to provide an impartial description of the type of management needed to meet water demands harbors implicit ethical content. For instance, the evaluation of the world's water as "inequitably distributed" is itself an evaluative standard. Inequitable based on what? Is it the human settlement pattern that is the problem? or the distribution of water on Earth? Without asking these questions a new agenda was established for integrating different water uses such that the greatest benefits could be achieved for industrial society. Thus, despite the pretense of objectivity, IWRM makes normative judgments about facts and the current state of affairs in global water distribution.

IWRM also makes judgments about correctly ordered social relationships. At a second conference in Dublin in 1992, water experts met to prepare a statement in preparation for the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. The principles of the Dublin Statement read as follows:

1. Freshwater is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development, and the environment.

2. Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners, and policy makers at all levels.

3. Women play a central role in the provision, management, and safeguarding of water.

4. Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good.

In these four principles it is evident that correctly ordered relationships involve numerous factors such as economics, gender, development, and participation. Yet it is not clear how value neutral (if at all) any of these categories are. We may ask, Development for whom? Which women play a central role in safeguarding water? Why does water have an economic value in all of its competing uses? Could it not also have spiritual or social value? Here we see that the attempt to establish value neutral principles does not escape making certain moral judgments regarding water. Importantly, and as works in this volume show, these principles themselves rely on their fit with scientific, legal, and ethical norms for their plausibility.

Problems with the Ethic of IWRM

It is clear that IWRM makes certain ethical judgments about the world's water and how social relationships should be ordered. These judgments may be critically assessed from several vantage points. First, we may disagree with how the world's water resources are connected with ethical obligations. The claimed "inequitable distributions" may in fact not be the central problem; perhaps it is the location or relative water demand of certain types of human societies. Second, we may contest definitions of correctly ordered social relationships, such as those of economics, for failing to give place and weight to other forms of social order such as community-based management. Third, we may question how well modern ideas of human equality and market transactions fit with the long-established customs of religions such as Islam, Hinduism, or Christianity.

Consequently, though integration may appear a neutral term, there are in fact numerous ethical judgments within IWRM. Defenses of these judgments, however, are in short supply within IWRM theory, which has yet to offer substantive justification for its ethical assumptions.

Adaptive Management

While IWRM dominates global water discourse, the concept of adaptive management is gaining prominence in North America and on the world stage. Born out of insights from ecology in the 1970s, adaptive management theorists were very concerned with the top-down, command-and-control style of environmental governance at the time. A cause for concern was the underlying assumption of stability in early water management and environmental regulation. For instance, the large projects that reengineered entire watersheds for flood control or irrigation were criticized because they assumed that the natural variations of rivers, such as 50- or 100-year floods, were predictable and stable. In fact, claimed adaptive managers, ecological systems are in constant flux, and polices that encourage human control over nature are more susceptible to changing environmental conditions.

In adaptive management, assumptions of stability are replaced with an attitude that management practices are experimental attempts to learn about evolving social and ecological systems. Working from the idea of change, the key to success in adaptive management is the preservation of relationships, and the processes, functions, and feedbacks in social and ecological systems that support complexity and which increase the system's ability to absorb and recover from disturbances. This is what is referred to as resilience. By increasing resilience, managers attempt to adapt to change and to strengthen relationships that are of particular value, such as those enabled by freshwater.

Understanding and increasing resilience also reduces the chance that surprise events and disturbances, such as flash floods or forest fires, will overwhelm the adaptive capacity of ecological systems. In less resilient systems these disturbances could flip entire systems and radically reorient the relationships therein. For example, increasing amounts of phosphorous in a lake could flip it into a process of eutrophication. Likewise, deforestation could change a rain forest to a savanna. Once systems move from one state to another, there is no guarantee that the original conditions, or even other forms of complex living systems, can be regained.


Excerpted from Water Ethics by Peter G. Brown, Jeremy J. Schmidt. Copyright © 2010 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

PART I. Introduction
Chapter 1. Water Ethics and Water Management
PART II. Dominion and the Human Claim to Water
Chapter 2. Editors’ Introduction
Chapter 3. Byzantine Heritage
Chapter 4. Water Ethics Perspectives in the Arab Region 
Chapter 5. Which Rights Are Right? Water Rights, Culture, and Underlying Values
Chapter 6. Women, Water, Energy: An Ecofeminist Approach
PART III. Utilitarianism
Chapter 7. Editors’ Introduction
Chapter 8. Water as a Resource
Chapter 9. Priming the Invisible Pump
Chapter 10. Surface Water and Groundwater Regulation and Use: An Ethical Perspective
Chapter 11. Community Rights and the Privatization of Water
Chapter 12. A Basis for Environmental Ethics
PART IV. Water as a Community Resource
Chapter 13. Editors’ Introduction
Chapter 14. Water Rights in the Commons
Chapter 15. Encounters with the Moral Economy of Water: General Principles for Successfully Managing the Commons
Chapter 16. The Legal Status of Water in Quebec
Chapter 17. The Rebirth of Environmentalism as Pragmatic, Adaptive Management
PART V. Water: Life’s Common Wealth
Chapter 18. Editors’ Introduction
Chapter 19. Are There Any Natural Resources?
Chapter 20. The Missing Piece: A Water Ethic
Chapter 21. Fish First! The Changing Ethics of Ecosystem Management
PART VI. Ethics in Complex Systems
Chapter 22. Editors’ Introduction
Chapter 23. Ecohydrosolidarity: A New Ethics for Stewardship of Value-Adding Rainfall
Chapter 24. An Ethic of Compassionate Retreat

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