Sample Essay on Ethical Issues in Access to Water

Access to Water

Executive Summary

This study seeks to broaden our understanding with regards to the ethical issues associated with water management issue since it has become one of the controversial topics in the current world. The work also feeds into the factors that affect the environmental ethics in view of  the interaction of ethics and economics. The work is based on some reflections with regards to water ethics because of the continuous discussions it continues to elicit in terms of both policies and practices of water resource management. The submission of ethical concepts is directly connected to and hence significant to the water resource management. It assists in the process of decision making, which can be a challenging issue as it involves different scientific domains, and requires that the different sources of water use, including the supply and demand side be considered. The paper closely examines some viable or applicable ethical principles to resolve moral dilemmas that involve the management of water. It was argued that as opposed to assessing the ethical issues of water management again, more efforts should have been directed towards promoting the best ethical practices with some pertinent principles identified being the theories of Human Dignity and the Right to Water. The work then concludes that ethics form both the foundation and normative content of certain decisions as it provides the reason and explanation. It is necessary to acknowledge that even though the access to water is crucial, it sometime comes at a cost, yet the procedures used in determining the water price ought to satisfy and meet the operation and maintenance costs. This principle also calls for an impartial explanation of water status reports and the availing as well as ease of access of such reports to the public. Measures, standards and indicators ought to be established, not only for the purposes of human health, but also for the protecting the global ecosystems, swampland and their habitats and species.

Environmental, Ethical, and Moral Issues & Themes


The issue of water management has become one of the highly debated that touches on the world resources today. It is becoming more obvious that the water crisis witnessed by the world today is as a result of climate change, rapid, industrialization as well as urbanization, ongoing population augmentation and mismanagement of water resources. For instance, the Asian Development Bank attributes mismanagement of water resources as one of the most significant explanations for the “unprecedented” water crisis being seen in the Asian developing countries. Asian Development Bank further points out that future water crises will not occur as a result of genuine physical scarcity of water, as has been predicted by many organizations, individuals and institutions at present. Instead, the ongoing disregard of suitable wastewater management practices will be the main contribution.

For example, issues such as increased water prices, augmented water cuts owing to unpaid water bills and putting in place the prepaid water meters make it apparent that the existent reform processes based on economic values are in conflict with existing ethical and moral values as far as water is concerned (Gleick 1999). Moreover, scarcity and competition increase pressures to get water now from any available source, irrespective of the long-term ecological impacts that may even affect the water sources. Water markets and trans-basin transfers have been popularized in policy proposals with the aim of meeting the consumer demand. As a result, water has become conceptually and politically delinked from its places of origin, and in particular watersheds, ecosystems and landscapes, with some attempts to protect the environmental features being thwarted.

These management practices ought to ensure a lasting, consistent, and flexible water supply capacity that can meet diverse water consumption, as well as maintain a stable correlation between the practices associated with usage of water and their related environmental outcomes. However, challenges that affect water resources management exist at each stage of the development, usage and management of water resources (Brechin 1999). Such problems that have been attributed to water management include:

  1. Physical Problems: Physical problems are still commonly experienced in certain parts of the world, for instance, Asia and the Pacific regions. Such problems may take the form of poorly developed water supply and wastewater handling amenities, as well as imperfect water metering/monitoring systems.
  2. Water Pricing Problems: Low water prices can come about as a result of good water policy or availability of sufficient water resources. Despite its benefits, it has been named as one of the leading factors that contribute to excessive water use, for example in agriculture. The procedures used in setting up the water price should be able to meet both the operation and maintenance costs (Jerome, James & Ramón 2004). In China, for instance, the pricing of water is generally based on irrigated land area, or solely based on the electricity that has been utilized. The water prices that are applied for industrial and domestic uses do not therefore include the actual cost of water.
  3. Organizational Problems: Organizational problems have been attributed as the cause of most of the water conflicts. “Integrated Water Resources Management” is yet to be fully implemented in most parts of Asia and the Pacific. The case study, “A Brief Introduction to the Trans-jurisdictional Water Quality Issues in China”, introduces the overlapped and distributed institutional organizations.
  4. Achieving conformity on ethical issues appears to be an uphill task, yet, it is not unachievable (Jerome, James, and Ramón). The fact that there are numerous issues linked to water ethical issues necessitates the need to view the matter from a universal perspective.

 Jerome, James and Ramón (2004), further state that:

Ethical values take different forms in different cultural groups. In western societies, ethical restrictions tend to take the form of behavioral rules, which ultimately are codified in law. In non-western societies, they may take the form of taboos or rites, which develop into customs of behavior with the social sanction of the community. ( 2004)

From the above text it is easy to deduce that there are major dilemmas in applying the moral values on the society scale which are centered in-between the macro sphere of global norms and the microsphere of inter-personal relationships (Jerome, James & Ramón 2004). Even though it is obvious that all three levels are pertinent with regards to water ethics, there has been a problem in distinguishing the ethical interpretation of water and religion viewpoints. For instance, during the International Conference on Water and the Environment that was held in Dublin in January 1992, it was agreed that water has an economic significance in all its competing uses and, thus it should be regarded as an economic good (Al-Jayouroi 2000). However, the Muslim fraternity was against this proposition because this description of water as an economic good differed greatly from the Koran, which describes water as the source of all life and a gift of God. Jerome, James & Ramón 2004 suggests that supposing this problem had been noticed in the beginning of the conference, then it would have necessitated the change of wording of the phrase. After six years, another problem in relation to the prior issue was  raised in the conference in which context, Muslims abide by the belief that water needs to be given free to the people instead of being sold for monetary value.

The Context of Environmental Ethics

Despite some pertinent differences in beliefs of different individuals and groups, water ethic ought to be viewed in the context of a general environmental ethic (Mary & Jocelyn 2000). It is essential to use the environmental perspective as a distinct and unique way of dealing with a long-standing controversy in the field of moral development. This means that each individual in the community must be held accountable for water management given the significance of this resource in human life and development. The issue of upstream and downstream interdependence within a watershed, frequently poses the threat for water management hence necessitating the need for an incorporated water management approach.

Roles of Water Ethics

This topic is constantly being discussed in different forums addressing both policies and practices of managing water resource. The submission of ethical concepts is directly connected to water resource management and hence remains relevant to this topic. It helps in the decision making process, which is a difficult subject that involves different scientific domains, and demands the attention of various sources of water use, including the supply and demand sides. In this delicate environment with diverse variables, ethics is mainly charged with the responsibility of providing operational aid and conceptualization of different perspectives, while still focusing on the action, consequences or the motives, which analyze the concepts of rights and duties. Ethics forms both the basis and normative content of particular decisions as it provides reasoning and explanation.

Increased privatization of water and human rights in developing countries can result in massive unrest in most Image 2developing countries. Most countries have managed to establish policies that promote private ownership and control of public water supply, which can be seen as a gross violation of human right to accessing water. Basically, public rights and interests in water can be a conjectural basis from which private rights as well as interests in water can be derived. However, as a practical concern, private rights in water are given primacy, subject to a few key public interest restrictions. Given the essential nature of water as a basic element for human life, it is wrong to deny any human being access to water because of their financial capacity either as an individual or group of people. The importance of water makes it essential for human beings to have access to clean water (Gleick 1999). It is fundamentally correct to assert that every person has a right to life in a water source that is at the minimum healthy and functional.

Frameworks for Water Ethics

The World Commission on the Ethics of Science and Technology, UNESCO organized and sponsored working groups that tried to look into the question of water ethics (Jerome, James & Ramón 2004). This led to the publication of 14 essays and 5 case studies which argued that instead of carrying out assessments once again regarding the ethical issues of water management, it would be better to strive to promote the best ethical practices and principles identified which included:

Human dignity: without water life ceases to exist.

Participation: which entails involving all individuals, especially the poor, in water planning and management; with gender and poverty issues being taken into account when nurturing this process.

Solidarity: the upstream and downstream interdependence within a watershed that often poses threats for water management necessitating the need for an incorporated water management approach.

Human equality: all people must be given the basic life necessities equally. Given the importance of water to human life, it is necessary for organizations and individuals to provide water to very person irrespective of their status in the community.

Common good: water is a common good, without which human latent and self-respect can disappear. The description of water as an economic good is in contradiction with the Koran, which describes water as the source of life and a gift of God (Jerome, James & Ramón 2004).

Stewardship: It is necessary to safeguard and carefully use water resources for intergenerational and intra-generational equity and the promotion of the sustainable use of life-enabling ecosystems (Craig 2009).

Transparency and universal access to information: the lack of data that can be accessed in a form that is understood by all, promotes the exploitation of others by some parties that understand this data.

Inclusiveness: water management policies ought to address the interests of every person who resides in a water catchment area. In this case, the interests of the minority, the poor and other disadvantaged in the society must be indemnified.

Empowerment: There is need to facilitate participation in planning and management, and there is need to create opportunities and platforms for discussion. Communities and individuals must be involved in such debates so that they can make pertinent decisions regarding their water (Horowitz 1996).

Theories of  `Human Dignity and the Right to Water

Article three on human dignity and human rights stipulates that human dignity, human rights, and freedom must be respected, while article 14 on social responsibility and health advocates that the central purpose for governments should be the promotion of health and social development for their people. These touch on the ethical principle of human dignity,  which has continuously arisen in many reports on ethics (Craig 2009). It is also depicted in many reports that address the use of water. The vital test lies in finding the right balance between the interests of individuals, society, and other non-human users of water.

Principle of Equity in Availability and Applicability of Water

This is very important at all levels and should start from the local communities to the universal scale. It is not right for one individual to have access to too much water in excess of what he/she needs, while another absolutely lacks access to water. It is necessary to practice equity for water rights and apply a policy that provides an equal amount of clean healthy water for human use while avoiding any extravagant water usage.

Ecosystem Requirement and a Healthy Environment

The deep and endless affiliation with water is first proven by the biological dependence whereby our body weight is made up of nearly 95 percent water (Gleick 1999). The other is socio-biological affiliation to water, together with other parts of the environment where the common themes brought out in the comments and pictures of nature and life was water, most fundamentally rivers and oceans with ponds having birds, fish and other animals. Most religions also use water for cleansing purpose and all these factors combined confirm the frequency of water as an image of the environment.

Principle of Vicinity

There is no doubt about the irregular distribution of freshwater resources that make it challenging to access dependable freshwater resources. Legal barriers also make it difficult to access these because of legal barriers, for example in cases where an upstream land is privately owned or under the authority of another country. Under the principle of vicinity it is implied that in case the need for water arises, the first alternative will be to utilize the closest water resources. This principle therefore gives first priority and consideration to those people living closer to water when it comes to usage in comparison to those that are far away. Nevertheless, it should be noted that such consideration is not a privilege, but is only dependent on their approval of the situation. Those who are close to the water sources ought to utilize such sources carefully, bearing in mind to avoid any contamination.

Principle of Frugality

This principle directs that people living close to the water sources should avoid wastage and using the water beyond their genuine needs. People ought to only consume the amount that meets their essential living needs, comfort and for sustaining the local ecosystem. This is to enable water not to be misused by other communities in different regions that lack the essential commodity. Water can also be stored for future usage and to this effect, the government needs to set up a policy to adjust the levels between the areas that have a good supply of water and those that face water shortage challenges so as to balance water utilization.

Principle of Transaction

This principle calls for the trade of saved and surplus water that is gotten from the located source as a product in the water market using water banks, water exchanges or transfers. Such trade should, however, bear in mind the private right of users to use and own water resources. In many parts of Asia Pacific countries, water resources are considered public properties with the exception of  those used for household purposes. The state therefore grants the permits that are utilized in facilitating water appropriation.

Principle of Multiple and Beneficial Use of Water

The involvement of an all inclusive approach in running water resources, makes it essential for multiple usage. Since humans heavily depend on water, no other water use should be prioritized, even if it is considered equal. While considering this point, it is important to note that the beneficial use of water resources entails the multiple uses over different sectors. For instance, it is advantageous to build a multipurpose hydropower that promotes irrigation and the generation of electricity as opposed to putting water sources to a single use. However, if the multipurpose use of hydropower will affect the extremely important human needs for water, the criteria of selecting beneficial use should be the one which satisfies the higher utilization of water. Nonetheless, this should not be interpreted to imply that minorities should be sacrificed in favor of majorities when addressing the human needs for water.

Principle of Mandatory Application of Quantity and Quality Measures

This emphasizes that both supply and allocation should be viewed as both scientific and ethical responsibilities. Precise, dependable and up to date data on water sources can facilitate monitoring the status of all water bodies and help to establish definite lasting strategic policies that will attain and sustain the preferred status of water situation that promotes healthy environments. Such data can also provide the appropriate responses and intervention mechanisms that can be used to address the negative trends and changes such as pollution or any other problem (Orlando And Peter 2002). This principle also calls for an indiscriminate and clear explanations of water status reports as well as availing and easing access of such reports to the public. Measures, standards and indicators need to be established not only for the purposes of human health, but also for protecting the global ecosystems, swampland as well as their habitats and species.

Principle of Participation

The interests of all groups, and especially those of the poor and the underprivileged, ought to be considered in all policies that govern water management. These can be attained by providing education, open journals of water data, community hearings, virtual forums and deliberations. All individuals should be compelled to participate whenever any issues arise that affect the management of water. For example, many concerns have been raised by the opponents of aqua fluoridation who consider it as a form of an obligatory mass medication and assert that while obtaining approval from all water consumers is desirable, it is not an easy thing to achieve. On the other hand, the suppliers precisely manage the exact concentration of fluoride that a population can receive and this goes to show that if all stakeholders would be involved in policymaking, it would have been easier to make the concerned parties to comprehend the concepts behind fluoridation.


Two conclusions can be drawn from the current situation being witnessed and that has elicited strong debate regarding the controversial resources in the globe today. Despite the fact that today’s world is witnessing water crisis caused by climate change, rapid industrialization as well as urbanization, ongoing population augmentation and mismanagement of water resources, the situation can be managed or controlled (Craig 2009). Management practices should be set in place, so as to foster a lasting, constant, as well as flexible water supply capacity which will be able to meet versatile and diverse water consumption, in addition to maintaining a stable correlation between water usage practices and their related environmental outcomes. It is necessary to practice equity for water rights and apply policies that provide an equal amount of clean healthy water for human usage without any extravagance and wastage.

In addition, even though in this delicate environment with diverse variables, the main objective of ethics is to provide operational assistance and conceptualize the different perspectives, the focus should remain on the actions, consequences or the motives, that analyze the concepts of rights and duties. Ethics forms both the basis and normative content for the decision making process given that it provides reasoning and explanation. It is necessary to acknowledge that despite being crucial, the access to water it may come with a price. Yet, it is important to ensure that the procedures used in setting the water price must satisfactorily meet the operation and maintenance costs. This principle also calls for an impartial explanation of water status reports and availing as well as easing the access of such reports to the public. Measures, standards and indicators must be developed in order to protect human health, and also for the indemnify the global ecosystems, swampland and their habitats and species.



AL-JAYOUROI 2000, ‘Islamic Water Management and the Dublin Statement. In: Water

Management in Islam’, Journal of Water International, vol 26, no. 4, pp. 481–9.

BRECHIN, S,R 1999, ‘Objective problems, subjective values, and global environmentalism:

Evaluating the postmaterialist argument and challenging a new explanation’, Social Science Quarterly, no. 80, pp. 793-809.

CRAIG, A 2009, ‘Water Privatization Trends in the United States: Human Rights,National

Security , and Public Stewardship’, William & Mar y Environmental Law and Policy

 Review, vol 33, no. 3, pp. 786-849.

GLEICK, P 1999, ‘The Human Right to Water’, Journal of water policy, pp. 487–503.

HOROWITZ, HS 1996, ‘The effectiveness of community water fluoridation in the United States’,

J Public Health Dent , pp. 253-8.

JEROME, DP, JAMES, D & RAMÓN, L 2004, ‘Water and Ethics’, Series on Water and Ethics,

  1. 1-33.

MARY, M & JOCELYN, D 2000, ‘The Ethics of Water Fluoridation ‘, Journal of Canadian

 Dentalt Association, pp. 592-3.

MCNALLY, M & DOWNIE, J 2000, ‘The ethics of water fluoridation’, Journal of Canadian

 Dental Association, vol 66, no. 11, pp. 592-593.

ORLANDO, L & PETER, H,K 2002,  Water, Air, Fire, and Earth: A Developmental Study in

Portugal of Environmental Moral Reasoning’, Journal of environment and behavior, vol 34, no. 4, pp. 405-430.