Governing More than Blue Water: A Challenge for Global Justice
ARIADNA ROMANS I TORRENT | OPINION PIECE
The Graduate Inequality Review, Volume II (July 2023)
Water constitutes one of the most important resources for humanity, serving a range of purposes including drinking, agriculture, and commerce. For this reason, water is essential for human survival. However, water access is not always granted equally to everyone around the globe. This poses significant challenges, especially for countries in the Global South, impeding their social and economic development.
In the past, unequal access to water caused many conflicts over the resource. According to Angelakis et al. (2021), ever since prehistoric times, water conflicts resulted in a wide range of violence and tensions, causing political, economic, and social confrontations. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes, “water-related risks are projected to increase with every degree of global warming, and more vulnerable and exposed regions and peoples are projected to face greater risks” (IPCC, 2022). Following these predictions, natural disasters will be expected to increase on a global scale, and there is a fear they will change our water ecosystems in the upcoming future (Angelakis et al.,2021).
In the past, water governance systems have been used to tackle water conflicts, dating back nearly 5,000 years (Della Penna & Gupta, 2009). Water governance, as understood here, refers to the definition provided by Pahl-Wostl (2015b, p.26):
Water governance is the social function that regulates development and management of water resources and provisions of water services at different levels of society and guiding the resource towards a desirable state and away from an undesirable state. A water governance system is the interconnected ensemble of political, social, economic and administrative elements that performs the function of water governance. These elements embrace institutions as well as actors and their interactions.
However, water governance has not always been carried out using a sustainable and inclusive approach. Power inequalities and environmental challenges make resource access difficult for many populations. Misgovernance of water perpetuates power inequalities and leads to inequitable access to water for some populations. As stated previously, because water is a resource needed for human survival, it must be governed in a sustainable and inclusive way, ensuring everyone can access quality water.
According to Liu et al. (2017), “water scarcity has become a major constraint to socio-economic development and a threat to livelihood in increasing parts of the world” (p.545). Scholarly literature on water scarcity has attracted much political and public attention since the late 1980s, focusing primarily on issues such as water availability and water access. This objective has also been reflected in some of the most important collective data and strategy efforts, such as the IPCC report or the 6th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). The latter focuses primarily on ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. However, other issues such as water quality, green water, globalization, water scarcity assessment, virtual water or environmental flow requirements (Liu et al., 2017) have not received the necessary attention. The authors claim that there is an urgent need for integrated approaches that can capture the “multi-faceted nature of water scarcity” (Liu et al., 2017) and include other perspectives in the comprehension of the way water alterations shape human realities.
We can see that water scarcity is presented as a global and natural phenomenon. Water scarcity that limits access to safe water for drinking has been and is the issue that receives the most attention in the development field. Based on alarming estimations such as the fact that “roughly half of the world's 8 billion people are estimated to experience severe water scarcity for at least some part of the year due to climatic and non-climatic factors” (IPCC, 2022), a lot of international effort has been put on tackling the problem of water precarity. However, despite being presented as a global and natural phenomenon that that poses a threat to humanity, not everyone faces the same threats (Zwarteveen and Boelens, 2014).
Water security is pointed out as a critical aspect for reaching the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The IPCC report stresses that if we limit warming to 1.5ºC, we will reduce water-related risks. Hence, achieving the Paris Agreement objectives would not only improve our climate resilience, but also address current and future water conflicts. But in order to accomplish these aims, we cannot be content with merely addressing the issue of drinking water access. Instead, we must comprehend the complexity of water as a vital resource for life to provide solutions that are suitable for it.
WATER AS AN UNJUST HUMAN-DISTRIBUTED RESOURCE
Despite considering water as a crucial resource for human survival, the process of globalization and the implementation of the neoliberal economic paradigm has helped some powerful actors accumulate water resources and benefits at the expense of less powerful groups (Zwarteveen and Boelens, 2014). This unequal distribution is not only the cause of open water conflicts, but also drives high-stress situations for vulnerable communities who suffer in silence the consequences of climate-related struggles (Zwarteveen and Boelens, 2014).
Not everyone has the same access to decision-making processes on water around the world and, in most countries, the allocation of water rights is highly unsymmetrical, influenced by discrimination based on gender, race, age or abilities, which increase the vulnerability of affected communities (Joy et al., 2014). Therefore, water governance becomes a useful tool for the analysis of political, economic, social and ecological structures that interact in water-related problems. Thus, it is not only the technical efforts that must be reviewed to guarantee a better and fairer provision of water, but also the political, economic and social structures that are involved in the process of how water reaches citizens, promoting a new way of understanding while transforming society (Perreault, 2014). Because of this, I support the view of scholars like Joy et al. (2014), who contend that in order to recognize water issues as social justice issues, we must re-politicize water itself and change the way we think about water resources, governance, and law.
WATER AS A MISUNDERSTOOD AND MISMANAGED RESOURCE
We usually assume water is seen as a resource that enables life, but for some cultures, it is more than that. As stated by Hossain (2015), water is considered a purifier in most religions and faiths. Water has been understood in different stages of human history as heritage, a sacred commodity, a political good, a human right, a hydrological entity or even as a security issue (Gupta and Pahl-Wostl, 2013). In recent years, Indigenous communities have declared some bodies of water legal entities with rights (Bieluk, 2020).
A few decades ago, Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) was established as the best process to enhance and coordinate the development and management of water. It was claimed that it would promote social welfare and equity without compromising vital ecosystems and their sustainability (Biswas, 2008). However, although being a novel approach to thinking about water, this reading still had significant flaws. For this reason, scholars like Sneddon and Fox (2007) defended solutions for water crises that rely on the combination of three issues: the tendencies of economic markets, processes or deliberation and public participation and engineering solutions. This was one of the first times in academia where an approach went that further than the technical solutions was proposed. Far from the conception of water infrastructure as objective and rational, these authors pointed out the necessity to comprehend them as deeply connected to cultural realities and political confections (Roth, Boelens, and Zwarteveen, 2005).
Despite the popularity of IWRM in water governance (Biswas, 2008) and the focus it puts on democracy and sustainability, a growing body of political ecology and water justice studies have shown that it is usually used to hide or sanction processes of dispossession and accumulation of water resources (Zwarteveen and Boelens, 2014). Its track record of implementing water policies and managing initiatives has been dismal, showing that conceptual attraction is not enough to transform water governance (Biswas, 2008). What is then needed to acknowledge is that a broader understanding of water is needed beyond the conception of water as an asset for human survival. The well-being of the environment can guide a conception of water as an intrinsically connected resource to our planet.
WATER AS A MULTICOLOUR RESOURCE
Traditionally, water has been divided into different colours (blue, green, grey) according to its origin and use. Blue water stands for surface water, including streams, rivers, lakes, ponds and ditches, as well as groundwater captured in aquifers underneath the earth’s surface (te Wierik et al., 2020). This type of water is becoming increasingly scarce because of its fundamental role in human activities. This includes agriculture (about 70% of blue water is extracted for agricultural purposes), household use, or use in industries (Foley et al., 2011 and te Wierik et al., 2020). A less-known water typology is green water, which refers to the water available to plants in unsaturated soil. This typology of water is increasingly appropriated for agricultural production at the cost of green water-dependent natural ecosystems (Schyns et al., 2019). According to te Wierik et al. (2020), green water remains absent from the water governance agenda, usually governed in an indirect way through agricultural or nature and biodiversity policy. The main difference we can find between blue water and green water is that the former can be extracted and transported for domestic, agricultural, and industrial activities, while the second is indissolubly attached to the land (Dell’Angelo, 2017). For this reason, every land grab is, at the same time, a green water grab, and becomes a ‘blue water grab’ when land is irrigated (te Wierik et al., 2020).
Another water typology that is often overlooked is atmospheric water. This refers to the water that condenses in the atmosphere and falls to the Earth's surface as precipitation, after which it can be available for use (te Wierik et al., 2020). Some authors also refer to this type of water as rainbow water (Van Noordwijk et al., 2014 at te Wierik et al., 2020). Despite this last resource not being governed per se, some literature insists on its capacity to be governed and develop water technologies that can affect both spatial and temporal precipitation patterns (te Wierik et al., 2020). Apart from these three categories, there are also other even more marginal colour categories such as grey water, and black water or sewage water (Liu et al., 2017), which receive even less attention but show how only focusing on blue water misses the holistic governance of the resource.
Despite a lack of consensus, there have been multiple concepts put forward in the last few decades on how to govern blue water and its related problems, mainly focusing on water scarcity related to drinking. However, according to te Wierik et al. (2020), a more robust literature on how to govern green and atmospheric water is lacking. According to the authors, “neglecting the need for explicit governance of green and atmospheric water could create new forms of ’water grabbing’ that would impact water availability beyond the basin scale” (te Wierik et al., 2020). One of their motives is that the governance of these water resources could lead to new innovative solutions for governing water-related issues, as well as promoting innovative initiatives to achieve goals such as global access to drinking water. Moreover, the consequences of such a change would extend beyond water, reshaping our entire connection with the natural resources we rely on for survival.
WATER AS A CONNECTED RESOURCE
As stated by Vargas (2006), the crisis of water is the crisis of life. Water is a crucial resource for life, livelihoods, the environment, and development (Joy et al., 2014). Its fluid shape makes it different from other resources (Sneddon et al., 2002). Its use, control, and management are a complex inquiry that calls for technological, social, and political management and governance (Mosse 2003; Roth and Vincent, 2012). So, it is safe to say that power dynamics and socio-political processes have a significant impact on water control.
The universality of problems related to water emphasises the need for global water governance schemes (Gupta and Pahl-Wostl, 2013). However, there are some important dysfunctionalities in the current global governance structures, such as the lack of leadership, the compartmentalisation of issues, and the deficiency of interdepartmental dialogue, as well as the divergent interests of different actors of the inexistence of biding common norms in a global perspective (Gupta and Pahl-Wostl, 2013). If it is true that water needs to be understood from a broader perspective, a practical approach is still needed to ensure the supply and fair allocation of water resources (Lebel, Garden and Imamura, 2005).
The case of water grabbing is a perfect illustration of this need for a more holistic governing of water. Water grabbing is defined by Franco et al. (2014) as those situations where powerful actors reallocate or take control of water resources for their own benefit at the expense of local users or the ecosystems where their livelihoods are based. Water grabbing is not an isolated conflict but has strong and deep connections with other forms of resource injustices. Land grabbing, for instance, is the most correlated case with water grabbing, as water acts both as a driver and a target in the first practice (Franco et al., 2014). Due to their negative effects on local communities, vulnerable Indigenous peoples, and the environment, water and land grabbing are seen as threats to sustainable development. These practices' multilevel affections lead to the recognition of these issues as both a global and local challenge (Dell’Angelo, 2017).
There are some theories of economic development, such as neoliberalism, that invoke the construction of hydraulic infrastructure such as dams, canals, or water reservoirs as a means for better access to the use of water in sectors such as agriculture. The environmental impacts of these interventions can be huge and irreversible in some cases, becoming impediments to sustainable development (Dell’Angelo, 2018). This case exposes the fact that the shocks between the contrasting visions of development (those supportive of capitalist restructuring of global agriculture versus those who stand for small-scale farming, subsistence and the need for land redistribution) in the water field need to converge and expand their understanding of water in order to find solutions for its biggest challenges.
Sustainable development is key for organizing global governance. According to Dell’Angelo et al. (2017), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) “project an outline for a globally shared trajectory and vision for society” as the harmonisation of the economic, social and environmental aspects of the development agenda. Despite their limitations, SDGs are therefore a useful framework for considering the dimensions in which such problems could be evaluated. For this reason, authors such as Dell’Angelo et al. (2017) and Franco et al. (2014) support the idea that land and water grabbing need to be mainstreamed into the global sustainability agenda.
An alternative framework for water governance is needed. Water governance needs to acknowledge the “dangers of large-scale land-based investments for inclusive development, and to protect all water users and informal systems of water management” (Franco et al., 2014). The emerging ‘right to water’ and ‘water as a human right’ approaches can provide an alternative framework from which to explore a new conception and relationship with water.
GOVERNING MORE THAN BLUE WATER: A CHALLENGE FOR GLOBAL JUSTICE
In recent years, climate change issues have received an unprecedented level of attention in the global political agenda. However, even when progress is made, it often lacks a holistic perspective to tackle problems such as water scarcity. Moreover, measures promoted by institutions and global governing bodies disavow effective political action. Acknowledging that development must include ecological and social considerations (Pouw and Gupta, 2017), a holistic approach that involves all typologies of water governance is best suited to address water scarcity and its associated problems.
The goals of water-secure, sustainable, and inclusive development can be achieved if accompanied by strong political and institutional support. To ensure that water issues are tackled comprehensively, there is a need to understand both the implications of water as a global resource and its social and political aspects. Water scarcity is not only an environmental problem caused by human action but a challenge that needs to be addressed holistically if we want to solve its impacts on the development agenda.
The neoliberal and engineering notion of water has given way to an understanding of water as a global issue that demands attention from a political standpoint. In recent years, the emergence of a ‘global human right to water’ (Gleik, 2007 in Joy et al., 2014) pluralises the previous conceptions of water rights and has the potential to influence water policies and politics. However, this should not be conceived as a final point, but rather as a starting one. Despite its promising results, Sultana and Loftus (2015) already exposed a relevant matter: the right to water has a shifting meaning that can be interpreted differently by various stakeholders, ranging from multinational water companies to Global South activists. This lack of consensus can be debilitating for transformational action. For this reason, the right to water needs to ensure genuine political activity. As Sultana and Loftus (2015) stress, the concept of the right to water must be filled with real political objectives and strategies. We need to overcome the current stage of technocrats seeking to write their own script on the problem to a broader understanding of water conflicts from its cultural, political, and material dimensions (Joy et al., 2014).
Despite the unavoidable challenge that water scarcity poses to the availability and accessibility of drinking water around the globe, this is not the only issue at hand. Water injustices also find their origin in political, economic, and social causes. In the context of the climate crisis, water governance should move beyond drinking water and include all colours and stages of water. The urgency for a broader systemic understanding of the water cycle will be key not only for governing water scarcity but also for tackling the problems it raises in the field of development.