April 5, 2015

Towards a Water Ethics Manifesto

The original article is to be found on the following website and is posted here with the express agreement of the Praxis Center.

By Lucy Rodina

Is it ethical to let a river run dry?
Is it ethical to have clean drinking water in Vancouver and hundreds of boil water advisories in Indigenous communities all across Canada?
Is it ethical to take away water from rural areas to quench the thirst of ever growing cities?
Try to think about a river and ethics together. These two words do not fit together easily because we tend to separate the world of the “natural” from that of the “ethical.”

Dry land in Saskatchewan (Photo credit: Lucy Rodina)
We rarely ask ourselves these questions. Worse, we think it’s the philosopher’s job to figure out the ethics questions. Not true. Ethics is not abstract, not just an idea. We apply ethics everyday— from our personal choices to making decisions about the environment.

So what is environmental ethics? In short, it is derived from the human relationship with the natural environment. Broadly speaking, it is about deeply held values related to our connections with non-human beings and ecosystems. It goes without saying that different people and peoples hold different values and therefore convey and abide by very different ethics. Unfortunately, in environmental governance (i.e., the ways in which we manage natural resources, such as water, forests, fisheries, and the environment) we rarely acknowledge our own values, let alone critically engage with them. Instead, environmental planners and decision-makers often bury value judgments in the technical language of efficacy and expediency. A lack of critical engagement with ethics constitutes a major blind spot in environmental governance. As a result we fail to acknowledge that competing ethics can be sources of environmental and social injustice and conflict.

With 780 million people without access to clean water for drinking and domestic use and close to 2.5 billion people without access to adequate sanitation (most of whom live in aboriginal communities and impoverished rural and urban areas in the Global South) combined with population growth, urbanization and climate change, water access is indeed a complex problem. In conventional water management, economic and technical thinking have been the main drivers of decision-making and planning. As a result of relying too heavily on the productive uses of water, we have seen water grabbing, diversion, damming and displacement of peoples in the Global South and elsewhere.

Bagmati Rvier in Kathmandu, Nepal (Photo credit: Lucy Rodina)
Why do we value efficiency in water supply systems more than their impact on wildlife or marginalized peoples? Would we still build dams if we understood them to be unethical? This is not to say that we should not care about efficiency at all, but to question why we value economic and technical aspects more than other considerations.

Deciding where and how water should be allocated only based on economic and technical principles risks severely undermining the livelihoods and cultural, spiritual and environmental worldviews of those whose access to water is already precarious.

A Water Ethics Charter  


Rather than bemoan all problems, let me tell you about the Water Ethics Initiative – a relatively small, but committed movement (and by movement here I mean a loose network of scholars and practitioners working with water in various ways) advancing an ethics agenda for water management. The initiative is mostly led by the Water Ethics Network, which was established at the Water-Culture Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2010.
The Water Ethics Initiative builds on the work of a number of scholars and organizations (for example see the work of Groenfeldt, 2013; Groenfeldt & Schmidt, 2013; Schmidt & Peppard, 2014). One of the key objectives of the Initiative is to create a Water Ethics Charter— a consensus document outlining the guiding moral and ethical principles in water governance— to be endorsed by governments, NGOs, water stewardship organizations, Indigenous nations and companies.

Water taps in Nepal (Photo credit: Lucy Rodina)
The process of creating the Charter does not have a clear pre-determined water ethic in mind. Instead, through the deliberation process, the Initiative hopes to raise awareness around ethics, a far too mute aspect of water governance. The process of creating the Charter aims to build up a more grounded understanding of the values that do and those that should guide decision-making around water. An ethical framing of water governance, for example, could be significantly more attentive to questions of social and environmental justice as well as diverse cultural and spiritual beliefs around water. An ethics-based water paradigm could start by asking whose water we are talking about, who is involved in the governance process, and how burdens, benefits and responsibilities are shared among the community of water users.

Ethics in a classical sense refers to morals— and deeply held values—that determine which social practices are acceptable or unacceptable. Ethics offer a guide in deciding which actions to take (i.e. between two choices, the ethical one is more desirable). Traditionally, in Western industrialized contexts, we tend to think about morals only in reference to humans. Valuing nature, for example, happens in terms of its utility to society. In contrast, First Nations communities in British Columbia have had historically a rather different mentality around water and the biosphere in general—one more in tune with the various relationships between humans and nature and the obligations that arise from these deep interconnections.

  Communal water tap in Cape Town slum (Photo credit: Lucy Rodina)
With the rise of environmental ethics in philosophy, scholars started talking about nature’s intrinsic value and questioned the lack of moral considerations for non-human species and ecosystems. Today, many, including myself, argue that we have numerous reasons to start thinking more comprehensively about ethics in environmental governance. One reason is the fact that the ways we manage or intervene in ecosystems often have serious ethical implications that are explicitly related to social an environmental justice. For instance, a decision to increase water supply through dam building has oftentimes led to displacement of people, dramatically altering watercourses, destroying fish habitats and other ecosystems.

Re-thinking Our Relationship to Water 


A few powerful lessons have already emerged from the work of the Water Ethics Initiative. First, fairness, justice and equity are important dimensions of water governance. This of course is not new, but few water policies score very well on these points. Second, there are many moral worldviews (western, Indigenous, cultural and spiritual) that pertain to water and the biosphere in general. Many of them are incommensurable. This challenges the possibility to arrive at “mutually agreed upon” water ethics and raises the need for place-based approaches to thinking about ethics. Third, a number of water experts and practitioners are highlighting the need to think about water as a complex social-ecological system (in other words, seeing nature and society as highly interlinked) and argue for embedding our ethical worldview in this systems understanding. And lastly, water ethics, and environmental ethics in general, should start from a (re)thinking of our relationship with the ecological world around us.

Clearly, coming up with a Water Ethics Charter poses a number of conceptual and practical challenges: how to reconcile diverse and often incommensurable values? How to conceptualize ethics within an understanding of water and society as interlinked? One thing is clear, a deceptively value-neutral technical or economic way of thinking about water, or other elements of the natural environment for that matter, misses a set of important social and ecological relationships around it. We need to expand our understanding of the water cycle to account for power, culture, and politics. In simple words: water does not exist only naturally. It has a social and a political life, permeated by power dynamics and often injustice.

Social and environmental (in)justice are highly interlinked processes. We see this in the inequitable distribution of pollution and “clean” environmental spaces between richer and poorer populations. Power relations and inequality do not only affect society. Instead, power relations also affect different kinds of environments, prioritizing sites for conservation and contributing to environmental degradation to maintain the interests of social elites to the detriment of marginalized, impoverished and racialized populations— and to the detriment of ecosystems themselves. In other words, social injustice is often played out through the ecosystem.

An understanding that ecosystems have political lives can take us a long way. As water is simultaneously material and political (Bakker, 2012), so are other ecosystems, natural resources, or ecosystem services. This can help us start seeing that power relations are internal to social-ecological systems, not external. Employing ethics could help explicitly and directly address the social and environmental justice implications of decisions in environmental governance. This is not just wishful thinking. We have already made tremendous progress over the past centuries in extending our ethical boundaries beyond personal self-interest. Historically, we have seen progress in adopting ethical principles of fairness, solidarity, and equity in social systems that we could perhaps draw from to apply to ecological systems. However, we have had much less success in adopting a more ethical relationship with the surrounding environment.

This new water ethic should move beyond human relationships between individuals. It should involve responsibilities and obligations among communities and nations, between humans and non-human species and ecosystems, and between present and future generations. We can start by first asking whether a decision we make around water is ethical. We can start by evaluating the outcomes of water policies in terms of how ethical they are. We can also collectively work towards building a shared vision for more ethical water governance.

Lyudmila (Lucy) Rodina is a PhD student, working with Leila Harris, at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES) and a Liu Scholar at the Liu Institute for Global Issues. In her research, Lucy explores the intersection of water governance and climate change in urban contexts using a social-ecological systems approach. Lucy is a Steering Committee member of the International Development Research Network at UBC and a member of the EDGES research collaborative and the Program on Water Governance. She is also a social media intern for the Water Ethics Network.


  1. I am very impressed after reading this article because you pointed out a very critical topic with some great research. This is what water ethics is all about and how we are dealing with it. thanks for sharing this. Cheers!

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