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Responding to contemporary water problems requires attending to questions of value. How should we capture, store, or distribute water? At what cost? For whom?

Water Ethics Foundational Readings for Students and Professionals

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.

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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. 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".

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. 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. 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.

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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 , 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.

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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. 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.


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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.

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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.

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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 s 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 s. From the s 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.


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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. 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.

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Water Ethics: Foundational Readings for Students and Professionals

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