Changing conceptions of rights to water

What do we really mean when we talk about a right to water? A human right to water is a cornerstone of a democratic society, but what form that right should take is hotly debated.

irrigationArticle by Bettina Lange and Mark Shepheard, from the Oxford University Press blog

Recently 1,884,790 European Union (EU) citizens have signed a petition that asks the EU institutions to pass legislation which recognizes a human right to water, and which declares water to be a public good not a commodity.

But a right to water has various facets. It includes rights of economic operators, such as power stations and farmers to abstract water from rivers, lakes, and groundwater sources. The conundrum here is that an individual human right to water, including a right to drinking water and sanitation, can be in conflict with the rights of economic operators to water. More importantly such human rights to water may be in conflict with a right to water of the environment itself. The natural environment needs water to sustain important features such as habitats that support a wide range of animals and plants.

There is a growing trend under the label of ‘environmental stewardship’ that prompts us to think not in terms of trade-offs between different claims to water, but to change how we think about what a right to water entails. Environmental stewardship means that human uses of water – by individual citizens, consumers and economic operators – should pay greater attention to the needs of the natural environment itself for water. This raises some thorny issues that go to the heart of how we think about fundamental rights in contemporary democracies. Should we abolish the possibility to own natural sources, such as water and thus limit the scope of private property rights? Should we develop ideas of collective property, which involves state ownership of natural resources exercised on behalf of citizens? Should we simply qualify existing private property and administrative rights to water through stewardship practices? It is the latter approach that is currently mainly applied in various countries. How does this work? Water law can impose specific legal duties, for instance on economic operators to use water efficiently, in order to promote stewardship practices. Whether this will be of any consequence, however, depends on what those who are regulated by the legal framework think and do.

recent study therefore explored how English farmers think about a right to water and its qualification through stewardship practices. The study found that three key factors shape what a right to water means to farmers.

First, the institutional-legal framework that regulates how much water farmers can abstract through licences issued by the Environment Agency defines the scope of a right to water.

Second – and this struck us as particularly interesting – not just the law and the institutions through which water rights are implemented matter, but also how natural space is organized. The characteristics of farms and catchments themselves, in particular whether they facilitated the sharing of water between different users, influenced how farmers thought about a right to water. Water sharing could enable stewardship practices of efficient water use that qualified conventional notions of individual economic rights to water.

Third – and this touches upon key debates about the ‘green economy’ – the economic context in which rights to water are exercised has a bearing on how ideas about rights to water become qualified by environmental stewardship.

In particular ‘green’ production and consumption standards shape how farmers think about a right to water. There are a range of standards that have been developed by the farming industry, independent certification bodies, such as the Soil Association, as well as manufacturers of food stuffs to whom farmers sell their produce and supermarkets. These standards prompt farmers to consider the impact of their water use on the natural environment. For instance, the Red Tractor standard for potatoes asks farmers to think of water use in terms of a strategic plan of environmental management for the farm, which also addresses ‘accurate irrigation scheduling’, ‘the use of soil moisture and water application technology’, as well as ‘regular and even watering’. These are voluntary standards, but they matter. They can render farmers’ practices in relation to water stewardship more transparent and thus also promote accountability for the use of natural resources.

Supermarket standards were considered as most influential by farmers, particularly in water scarce areas of the United Kingdom such as East Anglia. But these standards revealed an interesting tension between their economic and environmental facets.

Somehow paradoxically green consumption and production standards could also reinforce significant water use by farmers, such as spray irrigation in order to achieve good product appearance. For instance, some manufacturers of crisps seek to reduce the impact on water use of the crops they source for their products. But farmers who want to sell their potato crops to crisp manufacturers still have to achieve ‘good skin finish’, because ‘nobody wants scabby potatoes’!

So, next time you go grocery shopping ask how your consumer choice shapes a right to water.

Dr Bettina Lange is an Associate Professor in Law and Regulation at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford University. Her research draws on social theory and qualitative empirical methods in order to understand how political and economic contexts shape how environmental legal rules are interpreted and implemented. Dr Mark Shepheard is a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Law at the University of New England, Australia. His research interests are natural resource stewardship, regulation and governance, virtue ethics as well as land and water management obligations. Together, they are the authors of ‘Changing Conceptions of Rights to Water? An Eco-Socio-Legal Perspective‘, which won the 2014 JEL annual Richard Macrory best article prize and is available to read for free for a limited time in the Journal of Environmental Law.

 

Oxford University and UK Government to lead research to improve global water supply

A global research project led by the University of Oxford and backed by the British Government will help millions of people in Africa and South Asia to have reliable access to water.

Photo credit: Rob Hope

Researcher sampling water quality at a water pump in Kenya

Announced by International Development Minister Baroness Northover, the seven year research project will receive a £15 million grant from the Department for International Development.

A changing and variable climate, increasing demand for water, crumbling infrastructure, unaffordable bills and water contamination have caused a chronic lack of safe, reliable and clean water in the developing world.

Baroness Northover said: ‘Access to water is a defining challenge for the 21st century. The UK has already helped 43 million people to access clean water, but there is far more to be done. Research into how water resources can be better managed will help millions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

‘Oxford University’s expertise will ensure we can generate new ways to give up to 5 million more people secure water resources in some of the world’s poorest countries.’

The programme’s initial focus will be on fragile states which face great water security risks. Some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people live in fragile states, rural hinterlands, floodplains and rapidly growing urban slums where they have very low resilience to water shortages and the least capacity to cope.

The announcement comes ahead of World Water Day on 22 March 2015 and the release of the 2015 United Nations World Water Development Report, which calls for urgent action in managing the earth’s water resources.

The researchers aim to create a risk-based framework for policy-makers, assessing risk at global, national and individual household scales. Researchers will generate data on climate, hydrology, health, poverty and demographic trends to provide an overarching context for governments and international organisations to inform future decision-making to improve water security. Ensuring the research translates into real influence and change leading to improvements for the poorest will be a priority for the programme.

The University of Oxford Vice-Chancellor, Professor Andrew Hamilton, said: ‘This research programme is an outstanding example of how the University of Oxford can contribute to the international effort to improve water security globally. Our researchers work to provide innovative solutions to the pressing challenges of climate change, population growth and sustainable development. They are helping to ensure that more people living in poverty can rely on safe water supplies and working to minimise the impact of droughts and floods on lives and livelihoods.’

The Programme Director Dr Rob Hope, from the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment in the School of Geography and the Environment, said: ‘Living in poverty has long been synonymous with the struggle for water security. This programme establishes a global science-practitioner partnership to design, test and replicate more effective policy, methods and technologies to improve water security and reduce poverty.’

The global science-practitioner partnership will work with UNICEF global, regional and country programmes to provide the capacity and expertise in delivering water security for children and communities in the greatest need.

Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF’s Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene said: ‘Water security will be one of the major challenges in making sure that the poorest and most vulnerable children gain access to drinking water and sanitation. We are excited to be partnering with the University of Oxford to help countries access the best possible evidence for making decisions that will improve the lives of millions of people.’

Media coverage

The Saïd Business School takes on water education

The Saïd Business School recognises water as a pressing global challenge, naming ‘Water Management and Markets’ a theme of its flagship Global Opportunities and Threats Oxford (GOTO) programme in 2015.

GOTO is an action-oriented problem-solving community geared towards addressing some of the most complex issues that the world faces today. It has been running at the Saïd Business School since 2012 and is an integral part of the curriculum, with all MBA and EMBA students participating.

At the core of the GOTO programme is a multimedia platform which connects students, alumni and faculty to discuss, debate and drive new business ideas that address global challenges. The platform features contributions from experts and practitioners, debating forums, research from Saïd Business School’s students and faculty, as well infographics, images and videos.

In 2015 the Business School is taking on Water Management and Markets as a key theme, reflecting the growing concern about global water risks such as water scarcity, pollution and floods. The World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Risks Report recently ranked water crises as the risk with highest impact on society in a survey of 900 leaders from politics, business and NGOs.

The Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment is partnering with the Saïd Business School to design the curriculum for a course on Water Management and Markets, to be delivered as part of the GOTO programme in the Spring Term of 2015.

The Water Management and Markets course will engage students and stimulate thinking around private sector risks, challenges, and opportunities related to water. Leading academics, industry experts, international organisations and growing enterprises will give presentations on a range of topics, including: the science of water management, water supply services and systems, corporate water risk and return, and entrepreneurial opportunities in the water sector.

Related links

Vacancy: Postdoctoral Research Associate in Economic Analysis of the Impacts of Droughts

School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford

Grade 7: £30,434 p.a.

We are seeking to appoint a Postdoctoral Research Associate who will work with us to analyse the economic impacts of drought.

The successful candidate will have extensive knowledge of economic impact assessment and risk analysis. You must have a Doctorate and have published innovative research on relevant topics in the academic literature. You will have experience of empirical analysis of heterogeneous and sparse datasets, the implementation and application of economic models at different scales; demonstrable capability to devise and implement innovative modelling solutions; a sound understanding of probabilistic risk analysis, uncertainty analysis and decision analysis, and the implementation of these methodologies in the context of economic modelling.

The postholder will be expected to publish their research work in the international academic literature. You will be expected to participate enthusiastically in the multidisciplinary MaRIUS research consortium, including engagement with project stakeholders in government and industry.

This is a fixed-term post for 20 months.

For an informal discussion about the post, contact Dr Chris Decker (christopher.decker@csls.ox.ac.uk) to arrange a suitable time for a phone-based discussion.

Applications for this vacancy are to be made online. You will be required to upload a CV and supporting statement as part of your online application.

The closing date for applications is 12.00 noon on Monday 23 February 2015, and interviews will be held on Thursday 26 February 2015 or in the week commencing the 2 March 2015.

For more information and how to apply, please see the job details on the Oxford University Recruitment website.