Ethics of Water Use

What is “responsible” use of water? How much is it ethical to use and for what purposes? Is a swimming pool a good thing? How many swimming pools, how big, serving how many people, and at what cost? Americans use two to three times as much water per capita as Europeans. Is that ethical? Maybe even the Europeans are using too much. Africans use far less, particularly West Africans living in the Sahel.

Food produced by industrial methods of agriculture has a much higher total water “footprint” than food produced by small-farms and marketed locally. Coal that is mined through “mountain-top removal” or gold that is mined and processed with water-polluting methods, or electricity produced by dams that have severely altered water ecosystems are examples of indirect consumption of water. When we use the products produced with water, we are using water.

Cultural values are always intertwined with water use decisions. The dominant value system in water resources management is based on economic logic. It is articulated in the 1992 Dublin Statement on water which called for water to be recognized as an economic good as “an important way of achieving efficient and equitable use, and of encouraging conservation and protection of water resources.” More recently, the same principles are echoed in the World Bank’s 2004 Water Strategy: Water should be used where the economic gains are the highest, subject to the caveat that everyone’s right to enough water to drink should be respected. When politics comes into play, however, this line of reasoning can lead to disenfranchising local communities from control over local water supplies, as noted in a recent report by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, Water Politics: Impacts on Disenfranchised Communities.

While life and death issues of water access are the most complelling aspect of water use ethics, there is also a very large grey zone of less dramatic but more commonplace issues of everyday water ethics: pollution of sacred rivers, water wasteage by wealthy users who are innured to economic price signals, of the use of scarce irrigation water to grow flowers for export rather than food to alleviate local hunger. The stories are often complex and contradictory. Growing flowers for export might provide much needed income for poor farmers who have no comparable economic opportunities. Polluting the sacred river with dye from a textile factory might seem like the only option for economicaly viable production in a poor region.

The ethical approach of the Water-Culture Institute is to apply a “values lens” to water issues and promote critical dialogue about the values that are guiding bevavioral practices. By rendering explicit the underlying motivations behind water behaviors, the concerned communities and interest groups can more effectively engage with each other and, perhaps, find a workable consensus.

“Three plus One” Water Use Sectors

There are three basic water use categories or “sectors” of water use (agriculture, urban/domestic, and industrial) each with its own set of ethical issues. Then there is the larger ethical issue of allocating water among these three sectors, not to mention the environment, which is not a “use” sector but has water requirements. These “three plus one” sectors are (Click for details):

1. Ethics of Agricultural Water Use

2. Ethics of Urban and Domestic Water Use

3. Ethics of Industrial Water Use

4. Ethics of Water Allocation (among the 3 use sectors and the environment)

Common Principles

There are some common principles that can help us think about what’s reasonable and what’s truly wasteful in the way water is used within each of the sectors:

  • Reuse. Water can be used over and over by the same or different sectors, subject to limits of moving the water to where it is needed for the next use, and the quaity of the water after each use. Water that is “wasted” by sloppy irrigation methods, for example, might be reused downstream, or will infiltrate into the groundwater and used elsewhere, or will be evaporated into the atmosphere and return as rain (which might be useful or not depending on where it rains). The biggest opportunity for win-win solutions to water allocation is in managing the flow of water uses from trout stream to reservoir to recreational river that is feeds irrigation canals that recharge the groundwater that flow back to the river, where it can be used for urban water supply and industry, then treated and returned to the river, eventually discharging into a healthy and productive estuary and the ocean.
  • Substitutability. Water is absolutely esstential for many purposes, but it is optional in some processes. In irrigation, investments in drip and sprinkler technologies can lower water use, but at higher capital cost. Flood irrigation that uses more water is a way of subtituting water for capital. If the additional water is reused downstream, the apparent “waste” of water on the farmer’s field might be acceptable and even desirable. As a general rule, using less water is probably a good thing, but the specifics of the situation need to be explored. As the economists say, “It all depends.”
  • Environmental Impact. Every use of water has an environmental impact, firstly on the water itself that is being directly used (it gets heated or cooled, polluted or filtered), secondly through moving the water to and from the place of use (through pipes or canals) and thirdly on the environment where the water was captured (river, groundwater) and then where it is returned (river, holding pond, etc).


Water Footprint website (

GWP Background Paper on Water as a Social and Economic Good: How to Put the Principle into Practice, by P. Rogers, R. Bhatia, and A. Huber, 1998.

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