February 27, 2016

How to Manage Water Under a Changing Climate: Think Ethically!

Water is life - critical for the survival of humans and ecosystems, and irreplaceable if lost. Climate change, combined with the effects of agriculture, industry and other ongoing human activities, poses tremendous risks to the viability of freshwater ecosystems and the sustainability of our watersheds. Also, climate change impacts are carried out primarily through the water cycle, affecting the timing, volume and variability of precipitation worldwide, causing drying of some regions, while increasing flood risks in others. Water is therefore absolutely key for both climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.

More importantly, however, managing water under a changing climate requires an ethical approach, because water is enmeshed in many normative aspects of human and ecosystem life. Water governance is a profoundly ethical problem on many levels. Making choices about water allocation, for instance, often involves balancing the needs of agriculture, industry, households and ecosystems. These choices also involve trade-offs between the needs and values of present generations versus future generations, between developed and developing countries, and between present and future ecosystems and non-human species.

Apart from water specifically, action on climate change in general also requires that we confront a number of important ethical challenges, including fairness and responsibility to mitigate and adapt among individuals, nations, generations and the Earth itself (see Gardiner, 2012). To date, these questions, however, have not been sufficiently addressed, and we continue to lack the decision tools to deal with inter-generational, intra-generation and environmental ethics. Developing such tools, and addressing these questions, is an urgent priority for navigating our future in a changing climate.

In last year’s 21st Conference of the Parties (or COP21), water has received a respectable amount of attention. Led by the International Network of Basin Organizations, the newly proposed ‘Paris Pact on Water and Climate Change Adaptationcommits to strengthening adaptation to climate change through cooperation, building sustainability and benefit-sharing at the basin level, considered to be the preferred governance unit for the integrated management of rivers, lakes and aquifers. While the Pact introduces a number of concrete and promising options for water management in the context of climate change, it remains silent on the topic of ethics.

For instance, by calling for basin-scale water management, the Pact would rewrite the ways in which we manage water – a process that will inevitably generate political and ethical conundrums. How will we reconcile different economic, cultural, spiritual and ecological values across the various communities in a basin? What mechanisms will be used to resolve conflicts, especially in places where water resources are relatively scarce? The Pact aims to increase water availability through efficiency and demand management – but for what purpose and for whom? Whose values will be prioritized in this process?

The bold outcome of the 2015 climate agreement is a big step in the right direction. However, beyond agreeing on the ambitious target of staying “well below 2 degrees Celsius”, successful climate action depends on our ability to figure out how to meet the goals and needs of ever-growing human populations in increasingly stressed watersheds while reducing emissions.

Ethics provides important analytical and decision tools that can help figure out how to meet our dual obligation to humans and to ecosystems to ensure that our precious water flows are preserved. By protecting the health of our watersheds, we protect ecosystems, landscapes, and species, at present and in the future. As climate change increasingly affects Earth systems, we need to think not only about water for humans, but also about water for the ecosystems that support life on Earth. To achieve our bold climate target in just and sustainable ways, we must finally start tackling the ethical dilemmas that climate change poses.

Acknowledgements: many thanks to Rom Bolliger and David Groenfeldt for the feedback on this post.


  1. The climatic changes have brought about drastic changes in the environmental conditions. This is resulting in water shortage and we need to think ethically now to use water.