Situating water ethics within the landscape

As climate change demands better water management, a need for an ethical approach

A water channel fed by a qanat, in Yazd, Iran
6 January 2020

By David Groenfeldt, director of the Water-Culture Institute and adjunct professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico 

Water, whether in the form of rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands, drainages, springs or groundwater, serves as a connective tissue knitting diverse landscape features into an interactive whole.

Like the landscape of which it forms a part, water is much more than a resource or production input.  Water is fundamental – think of the “water is life” rallying cry of water protectors around the world. Access to safe water, along with sanitation to keep the water safe, is recognized by the U.N. as a universal human right.

But neither slogans nor international law can enforce good behavior. In fact, even national laws protecting water quality can be ignored or revoked. Where can we look for protection of our irreplaceable water?

Ultimately, we need good laws and policies, but we also need something else: ethics, not only about respecting the rule of law, but also about the management of water.  The field of “water ethics” is developing a new narrative for how decisions about water should be made. In response to egregious injustices to the rights of Indigenous Peoples, future generations and aquatic biodiversity, and as a theme within the field of climate ethics, water ethics promotes moral judgements as a necessary input to sound water decisions.

Whether through developing a global water ethics charter or establishing a community of ethical water practice water ethics offers a systematic framework for assessing whether a proposed dam (for example) is a good idea or a bad one. It might be legal, and it might be economically viable, but is it desirable in terms of environmental impacts, opportunity cost, social justice, cultural sovereignty and governance accountability? From a landscape perspective, what are the potential ripple effects of a proposed hydro-electric dam, and could wind or solar power provide a better source of electricity? What is the “need” for storing water in the proposed reservoir? Could water-saving crops or agro-ecological practices reduce the agricultural water demand? Could water be diverted for irrigation rather than dammed, allowing the river to flow more naturally?

Just as water flows through and thereby connects the landscape, becoming aware of the types of value the water is providing, or potentially could provide, can help us see the ethical features of the larger landscape.

A village in Yazd Province, Iran. David Groenfeldt

A village in Yazd Province, Iran. David Groenfeldt

For what purposes – values – is water being used?  The value categories underpinning my own approach to water ethics are (1) environmental values, (2) economic values, (3) social values, (4) cultural values and (5) governance values. All these value categories are useful to particular stakeholders, but how are they balanced? Where are there conflicts or synergies? For example, the river needs enough of its own water to maintain ecological health, yet there are also many other demands ranging from irrigation to urban water supply to factories.

By looking for synergies between social values and environmental values (people enjoy recreational and aesthetic benefits from a healthy river), or cultural values (many cultures hold rivers to be sacred and the objects of veneration), there might be many parallel reasons for limiting the amount of water abstracted for irrigation or industry, particularly if these economic uses can be met indirectly through pumping groundwater, which is then replenished by the healthy river. Governance values come into play when decisions are being made about which values to prioritize and how to arrive at a consensus that is socially, culturally and environmentally just.

Ethically-oriented analysis can also be applied to economic sectors within the landscape context, such as agriculture or mining.  What values does society gain from the food produced or the practices used to produce that food? Could the natural resources of soil and water be used more beneficially? What standards should be applied? How is the land within the landscape, or the people residing within the landscape, or the businesses operating within the landscape contributing to the existential threat of climate change?  Depending on how agriculture is conducted, the landscape (soils, vegetation, crops, livestock) could serve as a net sink or net producer of greenhouse gasses.

Water ethics is not only about the utilitarian aim of producing more benefits for more people, however. It is about establishing a new and healthier relationship between humans and nature. By seeing the river as a relative and not simply a resource, a wider range of values can arise, values that offer correctives to the extractive behaviors that now threaten us with climate Armageddon. From recognizing a broader set of water and landscape values, to learning how to happily coexist with nature, ethics offers a corrective perspective that can save the planet, one landscape at a time.

The Rio Grande, near Albuquerque, New Mexico. David Groenfeldt

The Rio Grande, near Albuquerque, New Mexico. David Groenfeldt

For more information, contact David Groenfeldt at dgroenfeldt@waterculture.org


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