Water Ethics

December 12, 2013

David Groenfeldt is the founder and Director of the Water-Culture Institute, and an Adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. He will be participating in the Global Food Ethics international working group meeting scheduled to convene October 2014, a collaborative effort to identify the distinctively ethical disagreements that impede progress towards food security worldwide. Dr. Groenfeldt’s newly released book, Water Ethics: A Values Approach to Solving the Water Crisis, is the very first single-authored book-length examination of the ethics of water. We asked him some questions:

You are an anthropologist by training, what led you to work on the ethics of water?

Anthropologists are trained in the analysis of culture, which, as I define it, refers to the values that people hold and the meanings they ascribe to the world around them, so I was pre-programmed to explore the values and ethics underlying water decisions.  However, it took me a while to really engage with water as a topic.  My PhD research in India was on the cultural impacts of irrigation development, but when I found a job doing irrigation research, the interests of my employer (the International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka) were on the organizational dimensions of irrigation:  how farmers organized themselves to allocate irrigation water among themselves, and how they mobilized to clean and repair the canals, and settle disputes, etc.  Neither donor agencies who provided the research funds, nor the researchers themselves (including me) thought much about the internal thoughts of the farmers, much less the government policy-makers who were deciding on macro policies for irrigation and water resources management.

What led me from a focus on the social and institutional aspects of water management to more of a cultural or psychological interest was the gradual awareness that the preconceptions people hold about what water “is” — whether it’s sacred or just an economic resource, whether rivers have intrinsic rights to exist, etc. — those metaphysical concepts get expressed in very practical ways.  But the experience that provided my “ah-ha” moment was the nearly four years I served as Director of the Santa Fe Watershed Association in New Mexico.  I took the job because I wanted to challenge the local policy of impounding the entire flow of the small Santa Fe River in the city’s drinking supply reservoirs.  Sacrificing a river to provide an easy source of water for a growing city seemed short-sighted to me, and violates a fundamental principle of water ecology as well as environmental economics, that rivers are always more useful alive than dead.  I nominated our river for the “Most Endangered River” designation which the NGO, American Rivers, announces each year, and in 2007 we had that distinction.  That provided some useful publicity about the plight of our river, but did not solve the problem of the river being impounded.  It was through that experience that I came to the conclusion that the policy of impounding the river was rooted in the concept — the ethic — that water is most useful when it is taken out of nature and applied to some human purpose like drinking it, irrigating your garden, flushing your toilet, or as an input to agriculture or manufacturing.  Leaving the water in nature was seen as wasteful, and actually unethical.

The frustrations I had felt as an environmentalist, in not being “heard” by the local officials responsible for the policy of impoundment evaporated when I was able to look at the situation as an anthropologist.  Suddenly I could see it as an expression of cultural values (ethics).  That didn’t solve the problem of unsustainable water management, but at least I could identify the nature of the problem and start to look for solutions that would address the “real” problem of values, rather than the apparent problem that there wasn’t enough water.

What makes water an ethical issue?

You could just as well ask what makes water a technical issue.   The answer to both questions is the same:  We do; we project our concepts onto water.  If we want to take water out of the river and apply it to our crops as irrigation, we have created a technical challenge of figuring out a way to do that.  When we decide that the water in the river “should” be extracted and applied to crops, we are saying, implicitly at least, that it would be unethical not to do this; it would be a waste of a valuable resource.

There are actually two different kinds of ethical issues going on here.   Let me come back to the Santa Fe River example.   The local water managers, and indeed the state water laws accord priority to using water outside of the river rather than allowing the water to stay in the river.   The legal framework is itself a cultural expression of value and ethics.  Water that remains in the river can be claimed by anyone who can put that water to economic use, for example, to irrigated crops, or even a golf course.  That’s what the law says (in New Mexico) and the values expressed in those laws constitute an ethic about how water should be used.  That’s one level of ethics, taking the prevailing ethic as a given, the way an anthropologist is trained to document what the people in the local culture believe, without arguing with them about the wisdom of those beliefs.

The second level of water ethics goes beyond simply describing what the local people believe and enters the dangerous terrain of evaluating the wisdom of those prevailing beliefs and behaviors.  In water management the point of reference in determining whether the ethics are legitimate or not is the concept of sustainability.  Will impounding the river’s flow result in a sustainable supply of water into the indefinite future, or will denying the river of water lead to a destabilizing sequence of events that will undermine the watershed’s productivity?   There are good scientific reasons that maintaining a minimum environmental flow is mandated by law in most developed countries, so I feel quite confident that the prevailing ethics in Santa Fe, that says it’s desirable to impound the river, is a misguided and dysfunctional.  That ethic will not lead us down the road to sustainability but rather goes in the opposite direction.

Would you say that at the global level we have a water scarcity issue or a water gluttony issue?

Let me rephrase that question as,  “Is water scarce or are we gluttonous?”  In my view (and I must admit that I have difficulty imagining any other view), water is not being scarce or abundant; water simply “is”.  There is a lot of water on the planet and there is most certainly enough for everyone if we used water differently.  Does that mean we’re gluttonous?  I think it would be more accurate to say that we are disrespectful of water, both water as a substance, and water in its natural context of rivers, lakes, aquifers, and wetlands.  This is where ethics comes into play very directly.  If we were respectful of a river’s right to good health, then we would not dam the river just to provide an easy source of water.  We would look for other ways to get more water, for example, by reusing the water many times over before releasing it back to the river, or by using groundwater and rainwater as alternative sources, or by using technology that will allow us to use less water whether through technology or by changing our behaviors.

A good analogy is money.   Is money scarce or are we buying too much stuff?   Usually we look for ways to save more and also to spend less.  But the option of stealing money from someone else is considered an unethical solution to the problem of money scarcity.  Instead of stealing, we look for ways to earn more, even as we try to save more and spend less.  We get creative, because our ethics tell us that we cannot take the short-cut of stealing.  We need to apply similar ethics, and creativity, in addressing our shortage of water.

Since two-thirds of the world’s fresh water is used for agriculture, and most of this is for food production, many are inclined to believe that if water is used efficiently, it is used ethically. Is this problematic, and if so what are some alternatives for thinking about the ethics of water for agriculture?

The concept of efficiency can be very usefully applied to the ethics of agriculture, but we need to define efficiency in a way that goes beyond pure economics.  My former institute, the International Water Management Institute, has had a long-standing goal of “More crop per drop”.   That goal is certainly important, and particularly when people are going hungry for lack of food, but as a general goal for agriculture it is too limiting.  I would suggest something like “More value per drop” which then begs the question of what kind of value.  Are we interested in economic value only, or also environmental value and social value and cultural heritage value?   The question of what kind of agriculture we want to support is a huge question.  It becomes a water question when we consider that roughly 2/3 of the world’s freshwater use is for agriculture.  We should be concerned about what kind of agriculture we are supporting with that huge water investment.

In your book you dedicate a chapter to the ethics of water governance. Do you believe individual ownership of ground and surface water is ethically justifiable?

The important issue is not whether water is owned by individuals or communities, but whether and how the “property regime” for water serves the goals of water governance.  Values need to be established at the over-arching governance level and then it will become more evident whether a particular form of property rights is consistent with those values or not.


David Groenfeldt will present a seminar at The Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics on March 24, 2014 from 12:15-1:30 as part of our Bioethics Seminar Series.  Follow this link for more information, or join our mailing list to receive updates about our seminars in your inbox. Videos of our seminars are available on our Youtube channel.

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