Water Ethics

Based on a brief and critical review on existing literature on water ethics and a reflection on the very subject of any water ethics, the basic approach will be developed and structured into a substantial and a procedural branch. The section is completed by considerations on the precondition of this approach being applicable.

Review of the Literature on Water Ethics

The body of literature on water ethics is rather small and heterogeneous in terms of the ethics approach chosen. A first bundle of papers take the value of water in different cultural and religious respects into consideration (e.g. Priscoli Delli et al. 2004; UNESCO 2011). Most of the pieces on water ethics explain the demand for developing and implementing such an ethics. High expectations are raised such as:

In short, we need a water ethic – a guide to tight conduct on the face of complex decisions about natural systems we do not and cannot fully understand (Postel 2010, p. 222).

Poul Harremoës (2002) expects that a water ethics – in his understanding a more responsible and reflected behaviour of water users orientated to the precautionary principle – would make over-regulation by the state unnecessary. Most of the approaches, however, assume in broader sense that a water ethics shall help to protect and conserve water systems as the basis of present – and even more – future life on Earth. The call for a new water ethics expresses far-ranging concerns about increasing degradation of water systems – and is an indicator of severe dissatisfaction with protection measures implemented so far and also with our decision-making capabilities on water issues today.

The largest part of water ethics until the present has been related to the field of environmental ethics. An early and influential work by the U.S. American ecologist Aldo Leopold (1949) postulating a “land ethic” was the point of departure. His motivation was to develop a new type of ethic, where the boundaries of the communities shall be extended from humans to include soils, waters, plants and animals (Priscoli Delli et al. 2004, p. 9). Armstrong (2006; 2009) used this postulate as template to develop a water ethic and reasoned:

A thing is right if it preserves or enhances the ability of the water within the ecosystem to sustain life; and wrong if it decreases that ability (Armstrong 2006, p. 13).

However, also the reference to life as such or to “each organism” might not be very helpful because measures usually support some forms of life but would threaten others. The life as such cannot be sustained – only specific forms of life (ecosystems, organisms etc.). Therefore, additional criteria would be required to allow for the determination of priorities. Armstrong, however, refuses to start this debate. This is indeed the most acrimonious question of any water ethics, which has to deal with such typical conflicts, ambiguities or even dilemmas. There is no simple way to “sustain life” but we have to ask questions such as “sustain what life under which circumstances and at what price?”

Some authors look for an overall answer to this question in the direction of ranking the value of the natural principally higher than the value of the artificial. Human intervention, in this perspective, only can diminish the value of nature. Even the image of nature restoration is bad because it is human intervention. Statements of the kind

The ethical principle of stewardship teaches respect for creation and moral responsibility for that creation. However, it also calls for wise use of creation and complete unwillingness to modify nature (Priscoli Delli et al. 2004, p. 16).

express a romantic picture and ignore completely that “complete unwillingness to modify nature” is a strange postulate looking at the reality of human intervention into nature. Instead of a “complete unwillingness to modify nature” we need the willingness to take responsibility for our modifications of nature and to act accordingly. The valid question of water ethics is not how to sustain life (Armstrong above) and to leave nature untouched but is for the responsibility of human intervention into water systems.

Also other work in the context of water ethics supports this “anthropocentric turn” and the rejection of romantic eco-belief. In particular, considerations of water systems under the postulate of sustainable development (e.g. Parodi 2008; Lehn and Parodi 2009) have unavoidably an anthropocentric focus because they are dealing with human needs today and in future (WCED 1987; Grunwald and Kopfmüller 2012). In order to avoid misunderstanding: “anthropocentric” in this sense does not imply taking the position of human dominion and complete control over nature. The point here only is that the sustainability focus on human needs rejects fundamental bio-centric positions (such as taken by Leopold 1949) and instead asks how to sustain ecosystems and their services and functions in order to sustain or improve the possibilities of meeting human needs today and in the future.

Some sets of ethical principles have been proposed for water ethics (Groenfeldt 2013). The UNESCO (2011, pp. 18ff) unfolds the normative dimension of water ethics along a number of principles stemming partially from law and partially from ethics:

• Principle of human dignity and the right to water

• Principle of equity in availability and applicability of water

• Principle of eco-centric ethics

• Principle of vicinity

• Principle of frugality

• Principle of transaction

• Principle of multiple and beneficial use of water

• Principle of mandatory application of quantity and quality measures

• Principle of compensation and user pays

• Principle of polluter pays

• Principle of participation

• Principle of equitable and reasonable utilisation

This list seems to be comprehensive but might be perceived as confusing and overladen. It could be used as a checklist to identify ethically relevant issues of a water challenge under consideration and might thus have a heuristic function. However, it is not clear in which way this list could be made operable to be used in processes of deliberation and decision-making. What is missing in this respect is a system of criteria of weighing these principles in case of conflict, and a procedural proposal how this could be done.

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