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David Groenfeldt, Director Water-Culture Institute & University of New Mexico in the US

At the risk of oversimplifying the complexities of water ethics, this essay lays out an approach that engineers (and also non-engineers) can use to identify ethical dilemmas and begin a process of  “ethical reflection” to transform trade-offs into synergies.  

“Ethical reflection” refers to creatively looking at problems and searching for innovative ways to overcome obstacles. An example is the introduction of solar powered irrigation pumps for small farmers in South and SE Asia. Solar powered pumps are cheaper and cleaner (no carbon footprint) than conventional diesel pumps, but ethical reflection would quickly flag the problem of wealthy farmers capturing benefits intended for poor farmers.  

A recent village pilot project to introduce solar irrigation in Bihar, India, addressed two ethics problems simultaneously: (1) environmental impacts from burning fossil fuels and over-pumping groundwater, and (2) the social injustice of poor farmers paying monopolistic prices to the nearest pump owner.  Simply replacing diesel pumps with solar pumps would only add to social inequity, as poor farmers cannot afford the technology.  The project team rethought how irrigation water might flow to poor farmers. Instead of individual farmers owning the pumps, the project established a new job category of “solar irrigation service providers” (SISPs), offering young entrepreneurs in the village subsidized loans to purchase a solar pump and piping to create an irrigation service area.  By overlapping the service areas of each SISP, farmers can access irrigation water from two or more water providers, thus creating a village-level water market exclusively for small farmers (Shah et al, 2018).

This example illustrates how ethical solutions often involve working on multiple levels simultaneously.  Addressing environmental values was more effective due to the innovative governance strategy (recruiting SISPs to manage the solar pumps) which also brought a social justice benefit and more participatory and effective governance.  Here we are dealing with three of the five value categories that I feel are most important to reflect upon when dealing with water: (1) environmental, (2) economic, (3) social, (4) cultural, and (5) governance values.   Figure 1 presents a matrix of these five value categories (across) and two categories of water use (down): water left in nature, and water taken out of nature and put to some specific use.  Within each of these ten cells lies a myriad of ethical issues.  

Fig. 1.   Two categories of water context (down) and five categories of values (across)

In most water engineering interventions, whether involving major infrastructure such as a dam, levee, mine, or a factory, or developing a more effective approach to urban wastewater treatment, it is best to assume that all five value categories will come into play.  In what ways?  That’s for you to explore, with the help of ethical reflection and the expertise of multiple disciplines.  You as an engineer are not solely responsible for anticipating the cultural impacts, for example, of a dam that your firm is designing in Madagascar.  However as an employee or contractor with the firm you have a responsibility (in my view) to ensure that someone with the appropriate expertise is going to be addressing how the dam project will protect traditional riverine fisheries (e.g., by including fish passages), and ensuring that local communities are meaningfully consulted.   

The framework outlined in Figure 1 can help you notice potential impacts or synergies that might otherwise be overlooked.  Indeed, that is one of the central benefits of taking an ethics approach to water.  By labeling the approach as “ethical” you are reminding others, as well as yourself, that water use and management has moral and ethical implications.  Water should not be used casually or wastefully; it is too precious for that.  Referring to “water ethics” becomes a reminder that water decisions have an intrinsic moral dimension. 


David Groenfeldt is the author of Water Ethics: A values approach to solving the water crisis (2019 Routledge). The book introduces the idea that ethics are an intrinsic dimension of any water policy, program, or practice, and that understanding what ethics are being acted out in water policies is fundamental to an understanding of water resource management. Drawing on case studies from countries including Australia, India, the Philippines, South Africa, and the United States, this textbook is essential reading for students of environmental ethics and water governance and management.

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