Water resources management covers interdisciplinary questions regarding conserving, allocating and organising water among competing uses/users. Water’s decreasing availability and quality and unequal distribution lead to growing pressures on society and nature, threatening availability and intensifying conflicts. Meanwhile, water pollution continues and flood risk increases, raising questions about differential, unequal access to socio-environmental health, protection and security. The Water Resources Management (WRM) group has initiated and coordinates the Water Justice Alliance (WJA), which builds on the notion that sustainability and ecological integrity should not be separated from fairness, solidarity and justice. Original, creative analyses must acknowledge that ‘water’ is a biophysical, engineering, social, symbolic and political issue.
An intercontinental network
The WJA -a research, training and action network- brings together academic, policy-making and civil society institutions comprised of scholars, professionals, students and grassroots leaders in Latin America, North America and Europe, and expanding to Africa and Asia. For over a decade, beyond isolated projects, the alliance has combined empirical research (theoretical and comparative) with societal action (training and policy advocacy).
Based on a political ecology approach (Boelens et al., 2018), WJA’s research, education and action focuses on how water rights and decision-making are distributed along class, gender, caste and ethnicity lines in the global South as well as the North. Contemporary policies and legislative measures often aggravate rather than solve inequalities. Smallholder irrigator communities, indigenous territories or local water committees are overruled by bureaucratic water administrations, market-driven water policies, desk-invented legislation and top-down project interventions. These contradictions and complexities, water science, policy-making and development interventions need innovative strategies.
Combining multiple actions and projects (funded by NWO, USA-NSF, EU-ERC, national governments and NGOs), we have organised research, congresses and yearly courses for students, leaders and young water researchers worldwide, bridging cultures and stimulating transdisciplinary collaboration. To illustrate, we refer here to one declaration (Crow et al., 2014; resulting from the water justice congress we organised at University of California, Santa Cruz - UCSC). The Santa Cruz Declaration on the Global Water Crisis (see full online declaration) triggered large scholarly and societal debate and new research and action projects on water-based inequities and ways to confront them. The declaration outlines how at least one billion people struggle with insufficient water access, while global water crises are not primarily driven by scarcity. Although limited supply and inadequate institutions are a problem, the global water crisis is rooted in injustice and inequality. Also highlighted is how environmental injustices are not limited to the global South but are also manifested in the global North, where marginalised communities experience similar conditions. Ironies and inequities comprising global water crises arise from water’s tendency to flow to the powerful and privileged, often resulting from processes of exclusion, discrimination and misrepresentation. The global water crisis won’t be resolved simply with more water, but rather by redressing injustice, requiring a critical rethink of water, rights and authority distribution. Understanding injustice’s multidimensional causes (historical decisions about infrastructure, unnoticed aspects of technologies, diversity of ecological constraints, use of water to accumulate wealth and power) may yield openings for the redemption of inequities.
The UCSC Declaration, as an illustration of a permanent series of collective research, training, education and policy actions by the WJA, fostered worldwide debate, indicating the need to transform rationale and patterns of ‘established’ water knowledge development and ‘institutionalised’ intervention policies. They provide concrete inputs for a more diverse, transdisciplinary and pluri-cultural water-vision and water-interest arena.
The alliance examines how understanding on-the-ground ‘living water rights’ and ‘water justice frameworks’ are key to comprehending diverse rationalities of water management, conflicts and solutions. The respective conceptual frameworks the network has developed reveal how water rights and governance systems are given substance; how legal, cultural, political and technological systems interact; and how they materialise injustice or support fairness.
In the forthcoming five years, the WJA will deepen academic questions and societal action with Northern and Southern partners through two projects: ERC Consolidator Grant project Riverhood and INREF-funded project River Commons. In a WASS-WIMEK-WIAS collaboration among the CWS chair groups (WRM, HWM, AEW) and chair groups at Wageningen University (ELS, GEO and AFI, together with local, national and global partners), 13 PhD and 40 Master projects will investigate societal co-governance of European, African, Asian and Latin American rivers, to learn from grassroots experiences in situ and trans-locally, building new conceptual and methodological tools for research, education and stakeholder interaction. They foresee supporting river co-governance initiatives at multiple scales, combining scientific excellence and societal co-learning.
Boelens, R., T. Perreault, J. Vos (Eds.) (2018). Water Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Crow, B., R. Boelens et al. (2014) Santa Cruz Declaration on the Global Water Crisis, Water International 39(2):246-261.
The WJA has published a new book with Cambridge University Press. Edited by Rutgerd Boelens, Tom Perreault and Jeroen Vos, Water Justice has contributions from renowned scholars worldwide, laying new ground for water governance and unequal power structures. It also provides inspiration for alternative water realities. Water Justice is directed at students, researchers and policy makers interested in water governance, environmental policy and law, political geography and cultural anthropology.