Water, sustainable development and social sustainability

Sustainable development is a key concept in water governance. The overarching framework of global water governance, Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) embraces three basic criteria for water management systems that are closely connected to the mainstream definition of sustainable development in terms of its three pillars (social, economic and environmental).

These IWRM criteria are: social equity (ensuring access for all users to an adequate quantity and quality of water), economic efficiency (bringing the greatest benefit to the greatest number of users possible with the available financial and water resources), and ecological sustainability (ensuring the functioning of ecosystems) (see, for example, Lenton and Muller, 2009). It is recognised, however, that a relatively strong emphasis has been placed on economic efficiency and that there is a need for placing more weight on social equity and environmental sustainability. The 2015 WWDR states that ‘the social equity goal is often given less priority when water allocation decisions are made’ (WWDR, 2015, p. 21).

That the social dimension is not given due attention as compared to the other pillars of sustainable development has also been recognised in relation to the embracing of sustainability in general (see Holden, 2012, p. 528). Also in the academic water literature, an explicit focus on social sustainability is rare (for this argument see also Hellberg, 2017). This, despite all indicators pointing to the important role of social relationships and institutions regarding conflicts over water, as argued above.

Overall, social sustainability is the one pillar of sustainable development that is the least defined and understood and there is, in the academic literature, a large disagreement about the objectives of social sustainability (Omann and Spangenberg, 2002; Littig and Griejller, 2005; Dempsey et al., 2011; Holden, 2012). There is no common definition of the concepts but it commonly includes indicators and themes such as quality of life, equity, inclusion, access, a future focus and participatory process (Holden, 2012, based on Partridge, 2005). Such mentioned indicators involve a focus on betterment of conditions of an individual. However, in many understandings of social sustainability there is also a focus on the idea that to create social sustainability there is a need for social integration and a reduction of social and spatial fragmentation (see, for example, Stren and Polese, 2000; Dempsey et ah, 2011) and which hence focus not solely on the individual level but on the relationship between individuals and populations in a given society. It is on the last-mentioned factors that the subsequent part of the chapter places its focus because of the relational nature of water conflicts.

Sustainable development, different populations and conflict

Tying back to the beginning of this chapter, where Malthus stipulations around the population-resource nexus was presented, it was acknowledged how different populations were understood in relation to their ability to turn abundance into future sustainability or whether they would instead immediately make use of all existing resources and thereby stimulate population growth which, in turn, would need to be ‘checked’ by ‘misery and vice’ (Malthus, 1798). Such notions of different populations have persisted in environmental policy discourse especially through the way that poverty has been seen in relation to resource use and environmental effects.

The discourse of sustainable development has portrayed the relationship between poverty and environmental effects as a ‘downward spiral.’ According to this spiral the poor put pressure on resources and the environmental degradation that follows these pressures in turn leads to increasing poverty (Scherr, 2000, p. 481). The Brundland report used strong language to describe the poverty—environment relationships, arguing that ‘the poor and hungry will often destroy the immediate environment in order to survive’ (WCED, 1987, chapter 1, paragraph 8) and that poverty thereby is a major global scourge which will make the world ‘prone to ecological and other catastrophes’ (WCED, 1987, From One Earth to One World, paragraph 27). In economic terms these dynamics are described in terms of the poor ‘operat[ingj with a higher rate of time preference’ (Moseley, 2001) compared to wealthier individuals, which means that it is assumed that the poor are preoccupied with surviving the present rather than saving for the future and because of this exploit the environment, while the wealthier are assumed to be able to invest in the environment. In such descriptions the poor lack agency to act differently due to the lack of alternatives.

Even though research has shown that these assumptions are far from what happens in real life and that the poor do take measures to guard against future scarcities (Moseley, 2001; see also Scherr, 2000; Templeton and Scherr, 1999), these ideas still remain in global policy documents. In the water context, for example, the WWDR 2015 stipulated that:

The relation between water and poverty is a two-way street. Poverty itself can have negative effects on the management of water resources and services. The desperation and limitations arising from poverty can be a driver of pollution and unsustainable use of water resources. Poverty can also render existing investments in water less efficient, since households and communities often find it difficult to finance, operate and maintain infrastructure such as rural water pumps. This poses a serious threat to long-term development and poverty reduction. (WWDR, 2015, p. 20, my italics).

The report further states that: ‘As populations increase and ecosystem services decline, the risk of resource conflicts rises especially where tensions already exist along ethnic or socio-economic lines [...] Ecosystem degradation and climate change have significant potential to increase these tensions.’ (ibid.).

The way that environmental discourse has framed conflicts in relation to resource use and the environment makes us see particular forms of conflicts as in this quote, in relation to populations who rely on local resources for their livelihood. In the quote, an imbalance between resources (for example sendees) and the population is stipulated in a local/regional context, which relates directly to a (neo-) Malthusian view of the relationship between populations and resources.

In effect, this has meant that different populations are viewed and governed differently within the frames of sustainable development. This naturalises differences in resource access between different communities and is in this way productive of a distinction between local and global populations. In turn, such a way of describing conflicts: that they are the results of water problems (scarcity, pollution, etc.) and subsequent negative effects on ecosystem services masks other types of conflicts. Such conflicts include those related to the global production system, which allocate different structural positions to different sectors and actors. It also masks conflicts regarding the distribution between different households.

Addressing the social sustainability of water management systems: a factor in creating water security

In order to understand water conflicts, both those which escalate into violent ones and those which remain silent but which nevertheless deserve attention, we need to address the social sustainability of water management systems. What this means is that we need to scrutinise the way that populations and their relationship to resources are constructed, hence what is deemed ‘adequate quantities’ for different populations. We, furthermore, need to understand that the way that different communities and individuals understand their situation is relative to others. We, therefore, also need to look into the relationships between different actors, sectors and populations in terms of their resource use and access.

In terms of social sustainability, this means that an approach that focuses solely on the betterment of individual life conditions is not enough to address (social) sustainability. Rather, addressing the social sustainability of water management systems and thereby the conflicts involved in water allocation requires that we, to a larger extent, focus on asymmetries in resource distribution and access to decision-making processes both in history and the present, and what the implications are of current decisions in water allocation for the relationship between different areas, populations and individuals.

Applying this way of reasoning also to the concept of water security, it means that in order to create preconditions for a ‘climate of peace and political stability’ (see definition of water security in United Nations University, 2013, p. 1), we need to place focus not only on ‘the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water’ (ibid.) but also on the effects on the relationships between different populations as regards to their access and use as well as the unevenness of which these populations face risks in relation to water quantity and quality.

This means that we need to take seriously that water scarcity, rather than being merely a natural phenomenon, should be viewed as a result of the political economy and the subsequent decisions taken in the allocation of water. Or to put it in Loftus’ words:

Evacuating the politics from the distribution of water can quickly slip into

environmental determinism leading to poverty and water insecurity being viewed as a result of fate of one’s birthplace rather than the outcome of a

set of social relations that can be transformed (Loftus, 2015, p. 354).

Thus, the water scarcities and the conflicts experienced today are highly connected to economic and political structures which place different actors at different structural positions through which some actors can pursue their interest and some cannot. As these conflicts are highly asymmetrical these conflicts are often silent and will to a large extent go under the radar in policy understandings of what a resource conflict is.


The chapter has argued that within a sustainable development discourse, different populations are viewed and governed differently in relation to their resource use. The way that this discourse portrays poor populations as unable to live sustainably while wealthier populations are seen as able to invest in the future. This way of viewing different populations within the frames of sustainable development discourse, in turn, has the effect that inequalities in water use and access are neutralised and masks conflicts that are created by various economic interests and inequalities in water access.

Learning from research that has placed emphasis on power relationships and inequitable distribution of water, this chapter has therefore argued that in order to address water conflicts there is a need to broaden the view of the water disputes that is recognised in global water policy. In order to do so we need to place focus on power regarding resource distribution and the relationships between different actors and users in terms of water use and access as well as the political economy of water scarcities. In contrast to the way that global policy often depicts the risks of resource conflicts as related to increasing pressures on local resources because of an imbalance between resources and populations, such a broadened view opens up for seeing structural inequalities between different sectors’ actors and uses as a central factor in relation to water conflicts.

In order to better capture the dynamics in relation to the competition between different water users and actors, a focus on social sustainability which takes into account the relationship between different populations in a given society has been proposed. In terms of water security, a central concept in relation to water governance in general, and that of water conflicts in particular, such an approach involves an additional focus being placed on the relationship between populations — as well as between different actors - and on the unevenness of how different populations are experiencing risks in relation to water.


  • 1 The SDG indicator 6.4.2: ‘Level of water stress: freshwater withdrawal as a proportion of available freshwater resources’ builds on the MDG indicator 7.5 measure, but also takes into account, apart from measuring the pressure on water resources from agriculture, municipalities and industries, environmental water requirements (UNSD, 2016, p. 19). These environmental water requirements ‘are established in order to protect the basic environmental services of freshwater ecosystems’ (ibid.). In the metadata for the SDGs, it is, however, acknowledged that there are no universally accepted thresholds for assessing sustainability of water withdrawals (ibid., p. 21).
  • 2 The specific fonn of power exercised at the level of the population Foucault tenns biopower.
  • 3 Funder et al. also argue that in order to address the situation of the poorest in terms of water, there is also a need to put efforts into reducing inequalities and supporting the livelihoods of the poor beyond issues that are directly related to water as it is inequalities and structural dependencies that limit space for action for the poorest.


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