Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: David M. Kaplan

Water, Food, and Agriculture

Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6167-4_344-1


Water Resource Water Scarcity United Nations Environment Programme United Nations Development Programme Ethical Implication 
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Access to clean freshwater is becoming increasingly difficult for many people around the globe. The problem of water scarcity will require both local and global remedies and the implementation of permanent, long-term solutions. Ethical issues arise at the levels of both the crisis and its solutions. They also do not result only from the problem of water scarcity. All water use has impacts on humans and the environment that require ethical consideration. The first section of this entry summarizes the water crisis and reviews generally the ethical issues it entails. The second section briefly discusses several proposed solutions and their ethical implications. The third section examines the idea that there is a human right to water. The fourth and final section considers different water management paradigms and their approach to the ethical issues of water use.

The Water Crisis

Water is a truly renewable resource. The water humans consume today is the same water that was consumed by their biological ancestors over billions of years. Where the water has been located, and in what forms, has changed over these years, and it will continue to change, possibly in ways that are detrimental to human and other forms of life. Presently, freshwater makes up only 2.5 % of the world’s water. Almost 70 % of that water is frozen in glaciers; 30 % of it is located underground in aquifers (groundwater); this leaves a little more than 1 % in permafrost, lakes, rivers, biological organisms, and the atmosphere.

Despite these percentages, the total amount of water available for direct consumption or use in agriculture and industry is abundant, but it is not equally distributed around the globe. Around two-thirds of the world’s population live in places that receive just one-fourth of the annual precipitation, around four billion people (Pennington and Cech 2010, p. 2). Pressure on water sources is increasing due to population and economic growth, climate change, and poor management of water resources and services.

What is an impending water crisis for most is a present reality for many others. Approximately 1.1 billion people do not have access to clean drinking water. The water they can access requires great expenditures of time and energy in order to retrieve. This task usually falls upon women and children, and it can occupy up to 4 hours of their day. The result is that adult women are prevented from engaging in more productive labor and children lose those hours that could have been spent in school (or simply enjoying childhood). Both factors are forestalling economic development in water-poor regions. It is estimated that in sub-Saharan Africa, 5 % of GDP, or $28.4 billion, is lost annually because of inadequate water and sanitation services. People living in poverty in water-poor regions – most of whom only survive on less than $2 a day – bear most of these costs (United Nations Development Programme 2006, p. 6).

Water scarcity is a function of both quantity and quality. Water pollutants – naturally occurring and anthropogenic – include microbial pathogens, sediment, chemical toxic substances, heavy metals, and excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous. Some of these pollutants can directly affect sources of drinking water, for example, by entering groundwater. Others can have deleterious effects on the environment, some of which can also result in decreased water quality, for example, by damaging wetlands that act as natural filtration systems for water. In water-poor regions, water scarcity is typically exacerbated by inadequate sanitation, which can introduce microbial and other pollutants into water sources. 2.6 billion people worldwide do not have access to basic sanitation (UNESCO 2012, p. 65). Approximately 80 % of the world’s wastewater flows untreated into rivers, lakes, and other sources of drinking water (with higher percentages in developing countries). The world’s rapidly growing cities are major point-source polluters. For example, Jakarta, a city of nine million, treats less than 3 % of its wastewater (UNESCO 2012, p. 66). An estimated three million people – mostly children – die annually in developing countries from waterborne illnesses (United Nations Environment Programme 2007, p. 13). Half of all the people in these countries at any time are suffering from illnesses caused by deficiencies in sanitation and water quality (United Nations Development Programme 2006, p. 6).

Water for domestic use, such as for drinking, makes up only a small portion of water use. Worldwide, 70 % of water use is for agriculture (it is closer to 80 % in developing countries, with industry and agriculture consuming more equal amounts of water in developed nations, and domestic use still the smaller percentage) (United Nations Development Programme 2006, p. 138). Increased agricultural and industrial uses of water are making the highest demands on water resources. Economic growth, and not only a growing world population, is responsible for the increasing demand on water resources. Whereas over the last hundred years the population has increased fourfold, the demand for water has increased sevenfold (United Nations Development Programme 2006, p. 137). An improving worldwide economy is resulting in a greater demand for water-intensive food products, such as meat and dairy (e.g., it takes 3,500 L of water to produce 1 kg of rice, but it takes 15,000 L of water to produce 1 kg of beef). Industrial demands for water also increase with an improving economy, including energy production, which relies heavily on water. Agriculture and industry are also major contributors to water-source pollution, which can impact water quality.

Some of these increasing water demands caused by economic growth are met by transfers in “virtual water,” which are products that consume water at the place from which they are exported. For example, developed and BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) nations are buying farmland in regions like Africa to produce agricultural products for import. While this practice is relieving water demands in the importer nation, it is increasing pressure in the water-poor regions which tend to have less efficient management and weaker laws regarding water use (UNESCO 2012, p. 50).

Climate change is also having an effect on water resources. Decreased precipitation in certain regions and increased evaporation due to global warming are contributing to the depletion of surface and groundwater. While the melting of glaciers will increase river flows in the short term, glaciers act as water reservoirs, and their disappearance will mean the loss of major water resources (which might occur in some places, such as South America). The acidification of ocean and rainwater, another effect of climate change, is having deleterious effects on biological productivity, including agriculture.

Misuse and waste of water resources is another contributing factor to water scarcity. Water-poor regions tend to be economically poor, which inhibits the development of efficient water infrastructures for domestic use. Developed nations are confronting problems with deteriorating water infrastructures. Agricultural use also widely suffers from inefficiencies, such as evaporation and leaks. Poor sanitation, as it has been noted already, can decrease water quality (and thus the quantity of clean water) by polluting freshwater. In developing nations, only 10 % of wastewater is treated before being discharged back into the environment, and only 10 % of treatment plants function efficiently (United Nations Environment Programme 2007, p. 132). Excessive groundwater pumping is resulting in not only depletions of water resources but land subsidence, intrusion of saltwater into aquifers, and increased costs from the need for deeper drilling.

All of these pressures on water resources are predicted to increase as the world population grows and the effects of climate change become more severe. Water use is expected to increase 50 % by 2025 in developing nations and by 18 % in developed nations (United Nations Environment Programme 2007, p. 121). In many parts of the world, water use already exceeds the replenishment of resources, e.g., in the High Plains of North America and the Indo-Gangetic Plain in South Asia. Climate change will further slow replenishment in these and other parts of the world. It is expected that by 2050, 1.8 billion people will be suffering from “absolute water scarcity,” and two-thirds “will be under conditions of water stress” (United Nations Environment Programme 2007, p. 129). Many people in the world are aware of the water crisis, including those currently living with it; others, especially those in water-rich nations, are only slowly learning of it.

The ethical issues of water use arise at both the levels of the crisis and its solutions. The crisis generates urgent moral imperatives for action, including increasing awareness of it and the need to devote attention to its solutions. Another related ethical issue concerns who are responsible for alleviating the crisis. For example, do developed nations (which tend to be water rich) bear responsibility, and how much, for alleviating the crisis in developing nations? The solutions to the crisis reflect various ethical presumptions ranging from the ownership of water and whether it should be treated as an economic or social good to the environmental and cultural impact of water solutions. Solutions to the crisis occur at both the individual and collective level. Individuals in water-stressed regions have obligations to be conservative in their water use. This obligation can also arise in water-rich regions depending on the use and source of water. For example, an abundance of groundwater does not relieve its users of an obligation to conserve water, especially if this water is being consumed at a rate greater than its replenishment; users need to be conscious of the availability of water for future generations. Their use of water also makes demands on water infrastructure and creates pollution, impacts which are independent of water quantity. In desperately water-poor regions, individuals do not have enough water to be conservative about. In water-poor urban areas served by water utilities, there can be a tendency to hoard and otherwise manipulate the water infrastructure in order to meet daily needs. At the collective level, efficient and ethical management of water uses (to be discussed later) are an essential part (and source) of solutions to the water crisis. Water management is essential for avoiding the classic and notorious “tragedy of the commons” problem; without the management of a public good like water, users will tend to deplete or otherwise destroy that good. But the distinction between individual and collective responsibility is not a sharp one. Individuals make decisions that affect collective action; as voters and/or consumers, they influence both public and private uses of water. Management solutions can assume either a restrictive or inclusive scope. The former would focus solely on satisfying water needs, whether short term or long term, and the latter a broader consideration of the social and environmental impacts of water use. But the distinction between restrictive and inclusive scope is also becoming increasingly more difficult to draw. For example, different water-use solutions, such as the construction of dams, have environmental impacts that can affect the quantity and quality of water.


The solutions to the water crisis include applications of specific technologies to increase the supply of freshwater, as well as more general strategies for alleviating the demand on water resources. The ethical implications of these solutions concern their ability to address both the water crisis in equitable ways and externalities, like the effects of these solutions on the environment.

Desalination involves taking saltwater and converting it into freshwater. It can provide a major source of water for coastal regions. However, the process is energy intensive and uses expensive technology, putting it out of reach for many countries. Also, a by-product of many desalination methods, such as reverse osmosis, is a high-saline brine. When this is discharged back into the ocean, the salinity of the surrounding water is increased, and this can damage the marine ecosystem. Water intake from the oceans can also damage marine life. Technologies are being developed to mitigate these environmental impacts.

Effluent reuse is similar to desalination in that it takes a source of nonpotable water and converts it for drinking and other uses. Many municipalities direct wastewater that has undergone some treatment for agricultural and industrial use, as well as municipal uses like the watering of parks. The technology exists to make wastewater clean enough for drinking, but there has been resistance by potential users. The objections are mostly aesthetic. The idea of drinking what was recently flushed down a toilet or a drain is unappealing to many. These anxieties can be countered by pointing out, as it was at the top of this entry, that any water that humans drink has passed through numerous biological organisms, including themselves, and that the treated wastewater can be cleaner than water from other sources. Wastewater treatment also produces a by-product that has been directed to agricultural use, but some worry about pollutants in this waste entering the food chain, such as the residue of pharmaceuticals consumed by humans.

These solutions involve finding new sources of water. Other, less feasible, solutions have been proposed. Some have suggested towing polar icebergs to water-starved regions. Also, there are many places around the globe that enjoy a surplus of freshwater. Some have proposed shipping this water long distance in ocean tankers, but the current cost to do so makes this unfeasible.

Another set of solutions to the water crisis involves improving the management of existing resources to ensure their reliability and longevity. Different water management theories will be discussed in a later section. Important proposals related to the management of water resources are the privatization of water resources and services and the creation of water markets. Their advocacy is motivated by both free-market ideology and conservation concerns (Glennon 2005; Anderson and Leal 2010; Gleick et al. 2002). Many believe that setting a price on water will reduce demand and increase efficiency of water services; if water consumers have to pay for water, they will use it more wisely and less of it. In the United States, for example, most consumers pay only for the delivery of water, not the water itself. If they were to pay for the water, as well as allowed to transfer their rights to it, then a water market would develop that would set a “true” price for water and run efficiently without the need for much, if any, government regulation. Chile, which has had a market-based water policy since 1974, is often cited as a model of such an approach, but whether it has been successful is contentious (Anderson and Leal 2010, pp. 95–96; Bauer 2004). Some have argued that markets cannot capture all the costs of water. For example, they do not by themselves consider third-party effects of water transfers, such as those on the members of community where the water transfer originates (Sax 2010). Also, markets do not consider the effects of transfers on future users.

An ethical and political problem that confronts management solutions to the water crisis is the fact that many watersheds cross national boundaries. Rivers that cross through several countries are the clearest example of this. The Rio Grande passes through the United States and Mexico; the Nile passes through ten countries. Disputes over the use of such watersheds are a perennial problem of water use and can only be alleviated through better cross-nation cooperation. The Nile Basin Initiative is one example, although it has not solved all of the disagreements of the participating countries. In addition to cooperation, cross-boundary watersheds also highlight obligations that states owe one another. For example, a country that dams a river must consider the consequences to downstream users of the river, even those in another country.

Water as a Human Right

In order to encourage the implementation of solutions to the water crisis, and to influence the types of solutions that are pursued, many have called for the recognition of a human right to water. In 2002, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognized an implicit right to water in Articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (General Comment 15). This was followed in 2010 with a resolution by the UN General Assembly that recognized a human right to water and sanitation (UNGA Res. 64/292). A small number of states identify an explicit right to water in their constitutions, such as the Republic of South Africa.

A human right to water would ensure that the basic water needs of individuals are met. One widely endorsed estimate has this to be 20 L of water daily for each adult individual. This is well below the average daily use of those in the United States (400 L) and Europe (200 L). Even so, it is above the estimated daily use of 5 L by individuals in water-poor regions. Even the states in these regions that are actively trying to improve their water situation lack both the funds to improve the water infrastructure and the water sources needed to fulfill this basic needs minimum. On the subject of costs, the advocates of a human right to water are quick to point out that it does not entail that water should be free. It should be affordable. It should also be easily accessible and of a sufficient quality, but those who can should pay for the water and its delivery.

Besides the practical problem of fulfilling a human right to water, the human right to water suffers from some conceptual problems. For example, it is not clear who is the addressee of such a right, that is, who bears the corresponding duties and responsibilities of a right to water. The UN resolutions and comments, as well as the state constitutions that recognize a right to water, make governments the addressee. This presupposes that the government has a monopoly over water sources and services, an imperative to assume such a monopoly, or the power in some other form to ensure that the basic water needs of citizens are met. Again, there are both practical and conceptual problems with this presupposition. One possible way to resolve both sorts of problems is to deny that all rights entail correlative duties held by individuals or governments (Sampford 2009). But this would broaden the category of human rights to include what resemble aspirations or goals of a community. Rights, however, are more than this. They are enforceable, and their recognition can be demanded. Both acts imply some target or addressee of the right.

One way to meet at least the conceptual demands of a human right to water is to recognize water as a common good not subject to anyone’s appropriation, like air. Water and air are in many respects alike. They both move or flow, and they are renewable. However, air is ubiquitous above the surface of the earth, and water is not. Also, there are no consumptive uses of air. That is, the air humans use for breathing as well as such things as firing coal plants is immediately returned to the atmosphere (although, in the case of the latter and many industrial uses, with pollutants added). Some important water uses are consumptive. The legal regimes that have arisen around water use reflect this and are not all compatible with the idea of water as a common good.

The riparian doctrine, which dates back to the Justinian Code of 533 CE, holds that landowners have a right to the water in a stream or river that adjoins their land. The right to this water is not transferable, that is, it cannot be transferred apart from transfer of the land. The water removed needs to be put to reasonable use and returned in as close to the same condition to its source. The riparian doctrine only works well in humid regions; in arid regions, water must be diverted across the land to be of use. The doctrine of prior appropriation was developed to accommodate these uses. It was applied in the western United States during the gold-mining boom (mining makes extensive use of water) and was likely derived from English common law and the acequia system of Hispanic law. It grants a right to water to whomever diverts the water for beneficial use. They do not need to own land adjacent to the source, and priority is given to those who first make use of the water over those who come later. The public trust doctrine, which is another one to have origins in the Justinian Code, contends that air, running water, and the sea are held in common by all humans. The state retains title to them and is obligated to regulate them for the benefit of all its citizens. The public trust could be relied upon by states to fulfill a human right to water, but it conflicts with doctrines like prior appropriation, and it does not cover all water sources. The use of groundwater has been subject to less legal regulation. Some doctrines have mandated certain limits on pumping, such as the reasonable use rule; others have endorsed mostly unlimited pumping, such as the rule of capture (Pennington and Cech 2010, p. 378ff). Only the public trust doctrine is consistent with a human right to water, but not sufficient. Making such a right consistent with existing legal doctrine – or overriding those doctrines – poses both legal and ethical challenges.

Water Management

Whether water is a common good or property, wise management is necessary to ensure the sustainability and accessibility of water resources. A laissez-faire approach to water use is no longer a possible approach to water use in a time of increasing scarcity. Over the last few decades, several different management paradigms have been proposed and adopted. These paradigms consist of tenets of water management that are intended to promote the wise and efficient use of water.

In the 1980s, integrated water resources management (IWRM) emerged and eventually became the dominant paradigm for water management. It arose in response to the recognition that the management of water must be coordinated with that of other resources, their various uses, and the entirety of stakeholders. It advocates an interdisciplinary and multi-institutional approach to the management of water resources and services. IWRM has been endorsed by numerous world organizations, including the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank, and the Global Water Partnership (GWP). The GWP has provided the most widely cited definition of IWRM as:

a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems. (Global Water Partnership 2000, p. 22)

This definition has been criticized for its vagueness (Biswas 2008). Nevertheless, several states have attempted implementing IWRM, with varying degrees of success (Petit and Baron 2009).

The ideas behind IWRM have a long history (stretching at least as far back as the early twentieth century), as do some of its competitors, such as adaptive management. This approach to management has roots in the writings of Aldo Leopold, in particular the “Land Ethic” section of A Sand County Almanac (1949). It also reflects the insight that water and other resources are unstable and undergo unpredictable variations. Large-scale water management projects such as for irrigation or flood control assume stability and make humans more susceptible to harm from unanticipated ecological change (Brown and Schmidt 2010, p. 9). Adaptive management is a strategy for ensuring the resilience of ecological systems. It involves a pragmatic approach to water management that emphasizes experimentalism and social learning (Norton 2010). Ecohydrosolidarity can be considered a species of adaptive management, although distinguished from both it and IWRM by a greater emphasis on human rights and social justice. First articulated by Malin Falkenmark and advocated by organizations like the Stockholm International Water Institute, with which she is affiliated, ecohydrosolidarity combines insights from both ecology and hydrology to, for example, draw attention to the functions of both blue water (liquid water flow) and green water (e.g., soil moisture). Traditional water management has focused on the former, even though it is only one-third of water resources, and green water is involved in plant production, which supplies food and other critical needs for humans. An understanding of, and attention to, the interaction between blue and green water is essential for effective water management (Falkenmark and Folke 2010).

All management paradigms make ethical presuppositions, and their implementations have ethical implications. Some explicitly acknowledge the ethics, such as ecohydrosolidarity, while others, in particular some advocates and practitioners of IWRM, try to disguise them behind a value-neutral, objective approach to the problem of water scarcity. However, merely the identification of a problem reflects an ethical judgment. Also, as it was discussed above, all solutions to the water crisis have ethical implications, and the choice of solutions reflect ethical judgments.


The water crisis is affecting a large and increasing percentage of the world’s population. Population and economic growth, climate change, and the misuse and poor management of water resources are placing pressures on existing water resources. Solutions to the water crisis include finding new sources of water, such as through desalinization and effluent reuse, and improving the management of water resources and services, including privatization and the creation of water markets. All of these solutions have ethical implications. The recognition of a human right to water is another type of response to the water crisis that seeks to influence governments and international organizations to act to alleviate the crisis. The notion of a human right to water suffers from some practical and conceptual problems, and it is incompatible with much of existing water law. Several management paradigms have been advocated as another way to respond to water scarcity and other problems associated with water use. They vary insofar as they incorporate the ethical dimensions of water use and scarcity, among other ways.



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Louisiana Scholars’ CollegeNorthwestern State UniversityNatchitochesUSA