The concern about unethical behaviour is evident in almost all walks of life. Consequently, one sees the word “ethics” attached to all sorts of things. However, sometimes it is difficult to understand what people mean by various expressions of ethics and the kind of behaviour they want to see. This seems to be the case with “water ethics”.

There is no need to explain the vital importance of the supply of clean water. Without it we die and with limited supply our lives are badly affected. With too much our houses and fields will be flooded. According to the Center for Humans and Nature,  it is important for everyone involved in water resource management and in public health to have a well-reasoned understanding of the moral values and obligations that correspond to the significance of water  to human life. But what are the ethical issues surrounding water? What is the appropriate ethical use of water to sustain and promote human and ecosystemic health?

The Center for Humans and Nature talks of ethical values of efficiency, equity, and stewardship that can form a basis of a set of ethical principles. It also refers to ethical ideals and obligations such as democratic governance rights, active participation, transparency, accountability, and public-private collaboration and partnership. As you may know the difficulty with ethics is translating the vague, good-sounding words into practice.

The Center attempts this translating with six  principles of water ethics which it claims are similar to those of UNESCO’s International Hydrology Programme (IHP) on the Ethics of the Uses of Fresh water, and also COMEST Sub-Commission on the Ethics of Fresh Water Use.

The principle of equal respect for human dignity – the meeting of basic needs and the promotion of human health and well-being.

The principle of equity and proportionality –  equity and proportionate response are required in the face of limited resources to give priority to the least well off, those most immediately at risk, and those who are made vulnerable by past discrimination, exclusion, and powerlessness.

The principle of solidarity – respect and equity should be pursued with a recognition of the limits of each individual’s ability to determine the conditions of their own lives and of our mutual interdependency, and reliance on outside support, care, and assistance.

The principle of the common good - the recognition of situations in which the pursuit of rational self-interest by each individual leads to outcomes that are irrational and harmful to the interests of all individuals involved..

The principle of right relationship or responsible stewardship - collective action in relationship to public health and water management.

The principle of inclusive and deliberative participation –  the mechanisms and institutions of democratic governance are selective and rely on bargaining and interest maximization strategies by powerful, well- organized, and well-represented groups and may  not be well suited to the protection, conservation, and equitable distribution of common goods.

What do these principles mean in practice?

These high-level princples should fine but I am still unsure what the authors want us to do. Unless they can  translate  further into practical on-the-ground examples of what is ethical and what is unethical in relation to water use, it is difficult to know what to do.


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