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Water Quality Ethics

Guest blog post by Elizabeth MacAfee, 12 Oct. 2021

Water quality poses urgent and ubiquitous global challenges. Sanitation-related contamination, industrial pollution and agricultural waste threaten ecosystems and sources of drinking water. The WHO estimates that as many as 2 billion people worldwide use drinking water sources potentially contaminated with harmful bacteria and viruses ( Emerging contaminants including pesticides, industrial chemicals (e.g., PFAS), pharmaceuticals, and microplastics have complex impacts that we do not yet fully understand.

Balancing Tradeoffs

Uncertainty and ambiguity characterize decision making about water quality, yet even so, choices must be made which will also impact future water security. Water quality governance is inevitably entangled with ethical considerations.

There may be tradeoffs between current and future demands for water, or between human and ecological needs. In water-scarce regions, desalination has been hailed as a lifesaving way to increase availability of drinking water. But this process requires large inputs of energy often derived from fossil fuels, while the hot brine from desalination is often discharged into nearby water bodies, with devastating ecological consequences.

Another common water quality tradeoff is economic growth and pollution. In communities along rivers, the benefits of industrial growth accumulate upstream, while the harms of associated water pollution flow downstream.

Strategies to improve water security tend to focus on expanding access to water first, and addressing water quality second. This poses ethical issues, as connecting households to tap water that contains substances harmful to human health is essentially delivering hazards into homes. Yet more effective water treatment can raise costs and make it too expensive for the most vulnerable people to afford.

Is clean water optional?

When it comes to preventing diarrheal disease, handwashing has been shown to be the most effective intervention, meaning that having enough water can be more important than having the right water, especially if alternative sources are available). Unfortunately, poor people typically pay more for lower quality water, and allowing some sources of water to conform to more flexible standards can risk perpetuating two-tiered systems where some people are allowed to be more exposed to potentially harmful substances in their drinking water than others.

Small municipalities and rural communities generally have fewer resources to manage their drinking water systems and in some cases are allowed to set less stringent rules for drinking water quality. In Canada, this has resulted in rural and First Nations communities being at far greater risk of boil water advisories or lower standards for drinking water quality.

Political decisions always underpin who or what is able to be exposed to potentially harmful things in water. Water quality standards may appear to be technical and apolitical, but invariably contain values-based assumptions about what aspects of water quality should be prioritized. This is why ethics is important for water quality management and governance. How do we plan for a changing water future in a way that is ethical?

Ethical Decision-Making

Given these tradeoffs and challenges, we are in need of normative guiding principles for decision making. For example, the Water Ethics Initiative has worked on creating a Water Ethics Charter that stresses fairness, justice and equity in water governance. These principles are also important in the context of water quality as well as water quantity.

The human right to safe water is recognized in global conventions, and water quality should be a core part of this. Approaches to water quality ethics concern our morals and values as well as our commitments to each other and the more-than-human world. All of these concerns underlie questions about what makes something the right thing to do. How can we behave in a way that encourages equitable distributions of water quality (exposure and access) and still lets multiple voices be heard (recognizing that consensus may not always be possible but respect should be)?

Small municipalities and rural communities generally have fewer resources to manage their drinking water systems and in some cases are allowed to set less stringent rules for drinking water quality. In Canada, this has resulted in given the ethical challenges inherent to drinking water quality governance and the man tween different approaches for managing drinking water quality, an ethical approach should be highly context specific and inclusive of multiple perspectives.

Whatever the tradeoffs, whatever your values, water is fundamental to life and no one should have to be afraid or doubting whether their water is safe or they and their families could be in harm’s way.

Elizabeth MacAfee is a PhD candidate at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Ås, Norway, Faculty of Landscape and Society. In her research, Elizabeth explores drinking water quality governance in Kaolack, Senegal using an assemblage theory approach. She is particularly interested in the ethics of drinking water quality governance.


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