The Ethics of Water Governance

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A review of: David Groenfeldt, Water Ethics: A Values Approach to Solving the Water Crisis. New York: Routledge, 2013, 216 pages.

The adoption of ethical water behavior favors long-term water governance structures for maintaining quality of life and environmental sustainability in the face of an ongoing crisis situation for water conservation and environmental degradation.“I use the term water ethics to denote the underlying principles influencing our own water behavior and our reaction to other people’s behaviors” (p. 1), states David Groenfeldt in his valuable, well-informed work on the natural resource upon which all life depends.

Groenfeldt, founder and director of the Water-Culture Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, lives just a stone’s throw awayfrom the Santa Fe River and the Rio Grande in the United States and has spent three decades specializing in sustainable water resources management issues. He weaves that extensive knowledge into Water Ethics: A Values Approach to Solving the Water Crisis, but the backbone of the book is his discussion of the ethical dimension of any water policy. Groenfeldt provides a clear understanding of values and principles at all levels in water decision-making processes. He gives information needed to build a strong awareness of and conscience for responsible water usage behavior in both the public and private sectors. He lays the foundation for developing objective and discerning ethical guidelines. It is Groenfeldt’s significant conviction that values guide behavior and decision-making processes.

But what does he call the principles prevailing in water issues? For Groenfeldt ethics alludes to a coherent system of values (p. 177): “an environmental ethic is built upon a set of values about how we ought to relate to nature in small, practical ways as well as big conceptual ways” (p. 3). Based on his broad experience examining the relationships between humans and their environment, Groenfeldt reminds us: “We can have beliefs about water that is sacred, or healing, or beautiful, or even dangerous, but those qualities are not ethics; rather, they are the basis for values which become organized into ethics” (p. 4). Moreover, “by becoming more aware of the ethical dynamics, our collective ethics around water will change for the better” (p. 6).

Assessing an Ethical Approach to Water Governance

Unfortunately, water management and governance are not always seen as requiring explicit attention to values and ethics. Groenfeldt’s erudite book can change that. He writes with fluency, humanity, and an engaged, contemporary understanding of how complex the topic of water can be. It’s a book that flows with the history of water use and control that has shaped our judgment.

Groenfeldt affirms that indigenous peoples’ standpoints on water ethics are important and that we can learn from them. “The indigenous communities are linked to their local waters in a symbiotic relationship; indigenous culture and spirituality depend upon the health of the water and watershed, while the environmental health of the water depends on the spiritual practices of the indigenous communities” (p. 138). Therefore, controversies or conflicts over water resource allocation and use arise, given the ethical diversity between indigenous peoples and modern society.

A governance structure based on a water ethic is needed to conduct a systematic management of all competing water users and political interests. Agricultural water use implies not only food security but also the need to adapt to water scarcity. “In many parts of the world,” Groenfeldt notes, “food is just as scarce as water, and the production and distribution of food pose huge logistical and developmental challenges” (p. 13). Water shortages often do not reflect inherent natural scarcity but rather poor water resources, management, and governance. Water governance emphasizes “how people make decisions about shared resources” (p. 106). This means, within an institutional and organizational framework, all stakeholders and political interests come into play in the decision-making processes to foster the sustainability of water resources. As a result, the framework of water governance connotes an ethical dimension.

Groenfeldt stresses the ways in which social values help to explain existing water policies: “Looking at water governance goals through the lens of ethics offers a way of understanding and explaining why things are the way they are—why a particular sort of governance regime, or particular management actions—have come about” (p. 108). For example, he discusses how ethical behavior in the use and management of water has emerged from the activities of local communities working to protect the Appalachian Mountain streams from the industrial processes of mountaintop removal coal mining (p. 109).

The outstanding but fragile domains of water governance are evoked throughout the book with great eloquence. Groenfeldt describes the domains of irrigation, urban water supply, and water basins within water governance, and he shows the inextricable connection between goals and process. “In each of these domains the process of governance is as important as the end result” (p. 132). Respectively, the goals are: “crop production, public health, and sustainable water ecosystems” (p. 112). In a water governance context, the author shows how “participation of irrigation users in managing the water and infrastructure of their system is important for social as well as economic reasons. Users’ management involvement can also play a role in urban water supply, but the bigger issue is the accountability and responsiveness of utility managers to social justice and to the environment” (p. 132).

Solving the Water Crisis Ethically

Reading Water Ethics, I felt concerned about the ethical responsibility we have, when making decisions about water resources, to act so that our needs are satisfied and to ensure that environmental needs are accomplished while maintaining sustainable economic growth. “Through working on the basis of ethical principles,” Groenfeldt writes, “we can forge enough solutions enough of the time that the water crisis we see today can recede like a mirage into the future, inspiring us to move forward” (p. 182). This book provides a helpful measure of such inspiration.

  • Luzma Fabiola Nava

    Luzma Fabiola Nava is currently a Research Scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). At IIASA, Luzma is working in the fields of adaptive water management and environmental governance.

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