Water and Ethics

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The science section pointed out several human impacts on water that threaten both the natural world and human society:

  • Extensive agricultural and industrial water use reduces the amount of fresh water available for human consumption.
  • Damming and diverting water threatens biodiversity, increases evaporation water loss, lowers downstream water levels, and reduces valuable sediment deposits.
  • Water contaminated by industrial waste, agricultural fertilizer, mining discharge, and improper human waste disposal contributes to 80% of the world’s water-borne diseases.
  • Fertilizer runoff and other waste contaminants have created over 400 oxygen-deprived ‘dead zones’ in the world’s oceans, constituting 95,000 square miles of water.

Today, 768 million people (11% of the world population) do not have ready access to clean water. Almost 2.5 billion people live without adequate sanitation facilities. Unless we change the way we use water, it is estimated that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in areas of severe water scarcity and two-thirds of the world’s population will have dangerously stressed water supplies.

Throughout the science section you learned how water is an essential component of the natural world and how a crisis is growing over the quantity and the quality of Earth’s water resources. In this section, we return to the ethical questions posed in the River Ganges case study that began this chapter.

  • What ethical challenges do we face in protecting the quantity and quality of Earth’s water resources?
  • What moral principles, goals, and virtues should guide our decisions about the use and distribution of water?

To review the foundations and norms of Healing Earth’s environmental ethic, return to the Healing Earth Introduction.

To address the ethical challenges we face over water, it is necessary to recall the three foundations of Healing Earth’s environmental ethic:

  • The natural world has intrinsic value.
  • The natural world has instrumental value.
  • The value of sustainability balances nature’s intrinsic and instrumental values.

Closer Look

How much water does a leaky faucet waste every day? Click on the drip calculator to find out.

These are the bases for the ethical norms guiding our decisions about water. As explained in the Healing Earth Introduction, these norms include moral principles, moral goals, and moral virtues.

Moral Principles and Water

The primary ethical challenge we face in protecting the quantity and quality of Earth’s water resources is human disregard for the value of water. Everything from keeping the faucet running as we brush our teeth, to expending 170 gallons of water for the production of one gallon of corn ethanol fuel, demonstrates that too many of us use water too carelessly.1

Water is a precious gift of the natural world. In ethical terms, it has intrinsic value, which calls on us to exercise moral responsibility in our treatment of this vital resource. When we treat water with respect, we avoid actions that waste and contaminate water and perform actions that preserve and protect water.

Water also has instrumental value. You learned in the science section how water is essential for nearly all of the planet’s biotic and abiotic processes. Consequently, human beings must use water, and in doing so, we must attend to every instance of water loss and contamination. However, our moral responsibility in view of this hard reality is to closely steward and manage our use of water, not abuse it when it is plentiful.

Controlling water loss and contamination is a major ethical challenge. Here, the guiding ethical norm is the moral principle of sustainability. This principle requires that the rate of human-induced water loss and contamination not exceed the ability of the water source to cleanse and replenish itself. On this point, the moral principle of sustainability is clear: if we knowingly support the unsustainable loss and contamination of a water source we violate the intrinsic value of water.


Mining and other large construction activities can cause acid metalliferous drainage (AMD) and destroy fresh water lakes and streams.1

One example of how this relationship between water use and sustainability is posing a serious ethical challenge today is in the mining of natural gas through hydraulic fracking. Today, one of the world’s largest underground sources of fresh water, the Ogallala aquifer in the midwestern United States, is suffering irreversible depletion by extensive agricultural irrigation. The expansion of fracking operations into this same region has intensified this depletion and compounded the problem by contaminating what groundwater is left. Hydraulic fracking uses millions of gallons of chemical-laced water per well2. The state of North Dakota alone has over 9,000 active fracking wells.3

The ethical evaluation of our water crisis must also include attention to the moral principle of human rights. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI sent a message to the International Exposition on Water and Sustainable Development in Spain.

Closer Look

Read Pope Benedict XVI’s complete statement on the human right to water.

In this message, he called water “a universal and inalienable right” and an “essential and indispensable gift” from God. The use of water, said the Pope, must be guided by “reason and solidarity,” taking into account the “growing and perennial needs of people who live in poverty.” In July of 2010, the General Assembly of the United Nations likewise acknowledged a “right to water” in General Comment 15 of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) report. The report states that the right to water requires that all people enjoy access to “sufficient, safe, accessible, and affordable water, without discrimination” for personal and domestic use.4

Closer Look

Read this excellent summary of the moral principle of the common good.

Access to water is a moral right of individual human beings and of whole communities. This is where the moral principle of the common good applies. The common good is “the sum total of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.”5 This principle calls forth our moral responsibility to support access to water and all natural resources not only for people we personally know in our neighborhood, school, or workplace, but also for people we don’t know--people who may be strangers to us, but are equal members of the human community.

Inspired People

Groenfeldt [photo]

David Groenfeldt is an American anthropologist who has devoted his career to international water issues. He is currently Director of the Water Ethics Network, an international resource for making moral decisions about water. Click here for the Network’s materials and monthly newsletter.

The moral principle of the common good also presents us with the ethical challenge of considering water needs from a global perspective. From the standpoint of the international common good, water access varies dramatically from country to country. As we learned in the science section, the average American uses over 500 liters of water every day--thirty-five times the average of a person living in sub-Saharan Africa and two times the average of a person living in Great Britain. Social media communications and images have drawn people from different corners of the world closer together through greater knowledge of global entertainment events, political upheavals, and natural disasters. Awareness and action regarding global water inequity needs to find a place on this platform.

In 2001, the citizens of Stockton, California fought for local control over water and against business proposals to privatize the water system.1

Some people argue that the best way to make water available for community use is for private companies to access and distribute water as a commodity. They believe that competition between water companies on the open market is an incentive for private companies to distribute water more efficiently and at a lower cost than non-profit, public institutions. Earlier, we discussed this issue of water privatization in the science section when we looked at the relationship between water and industry. We found there that water privatization is a very dangerous enterprise and can leave people vulnerable and entirely without means to obtain water from natural sources that should belong to the community.

“By its very nature, water cannot be treated as just another commodity among many . . . it must be used rationally and in solidarity with others” Statement from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church.

Because water has intrinsic value, is a human right, and is part of the common good, it is morally short-sighted to describe this precious resource as a commodity that can be owned by anyone. As we noted in the Healing Earth Introduction, exploitation of natural resources often results from viewing the natural world in solely instrumental terms. For example, if water were nothing but a commodity, then a business that owns a community’s water could respond to shareholder demand for higher profits by raising the price of the water. This would make water available only to those who could afford paying this increased price.

Private ownership of water runs up against another moral principle regarding water: the universal destination of goods. This moral principle holds that the availability, or ‘destination’, of goods necessary for life is ‘universal’; that is, basic goods such as water, food, air, shelter, and clothing cannot be withheld from human beings who are in a condition of absolute need. According to the principle of the universal destination of goods, the inability of a person to pay for water does not release us from the moral obligation to make water we possess available to human beings in grave need.

“The principle of the universal destination of goods is an affirmation . . . of the requirement that the goods of creation remain ever destined to the development of the whole person and of all humanity. This principle is not opposed to the right to private property but indicates the need to regulate it. Private property . . . is in its essence only an instrument for respecting the principle of the universal destination of goods . . . it is not an end but a means. Statement from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church.

The issue of water ownership and commodification also effects relations between nations. One example relates to the River Ganges case study that opened this chapter. In 1975, Bangladesh and India began a water dispute when India proposed building a dam across the Ganges that would reduce river flow to the seacoast of Bangladesh. India wanted to divert water into the Hooghly River so that sediments silting the port of Calcutta would flush into the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh was convinced that the scale of this diversion would adversely affect its coastal environments as well as its agricultural and fishing industries. Fortunately, this boundary water dispute ended peaceably. India agreed to let a larger portion of the Ganges River continue to flow unimpeded to Bangladesh.

Closer Look

Take a look at this video about contested ‘water wars’.

Sometimes water conflicts do not end peacefully. In 2006, 250 Somali men died fighting for control over a watering hole for their homes and cattle. Unfortunately, water conflicts are on the rise. Disputes erupt most frequently around the world within and between communities that share the same watershed. If individuals, communities, and countries continue using water in an unsustainable way, these problems will only increase.

Girls carrying water in Bangladesh. 1

Another moral principle pertaining to water is the preferential option for the poor. The moral principles of human rights, the common good, and the universal destination of created goods would seem sufficient to call our attention to the water needs of the poor. However, no less than water, the intrinsic value of a poor human being is often ignored in today’s world.

Closer Look

Women worldwide have a unique relationship with water. Read a special United Nations report on women and water.

For example, while women make up approximately 50% of the world’s population, they represent over 70% of the people living in extreme poverty. In developing regions like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, women and girls bear the cultural responsibility for water collection, causing them to miss important economic and educational opportunities open to men and boys. The average distance travelled to collect water is six kilometers, a trip that costs women around the world over 152 million work hours a day. On these trips, women often carry 22 kgs of water at a time, causing physical strains that can result in serious incapacitation or infertility. The moral principle of the preferential option for the poor requires that communities and states take special steps to address these and other conditions that make access to clean water such a grueling challenge for the poor.

Questions to Consider

  • Imagine finding a hidden pipe from a local factory pouring waste into a stream supplying drinking water to your community. Identify the moral principles you would use to show the irresponsibility of this action. Explain how the principles would apply.
  • Imagine you are the leader of a community with plentiful water resources living near a community suffering from a lack of water. How would you use the moral principles you have learned in this section to encourage your community to share water with the neighboring community?

Moral Goals and Water

Making water decisions in light of the moral principles of intrinsic value, sustainability, human rights, common good, universal destination of goods, and preferential option for the poor moves us toward our moral goal: to conserve and protect Earth’s water and increase its availability to human beings and all forms of life. Meeting this goal requires persistence and cooperation from local individuals to multinational organizations.

At whatever level of social organization, good water decisions need follow-through. The effects of decisions that control agricultural irrigation and fertilization, industrial manufacturing and mining, river diversion and damming, and waste management require constant monitoring. Community leaders, national government agencies, and international organizations need to cooperate in these efforts.

At the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000, all 189-member states of the U.N. set 2015 as the year to achieve eight goals for international development. The seventh of these Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was to “Ensure Environmental Sustainability”. Included in this seventh goal was the aim “to halve, by 2015, the proportion of the [global] population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.”6

Global Water Solidarity is a United Nations Development Programme helping communities in the developing world manage their local water supplies. Go to their website for current information on the global water situation. 1

Remarkably, through international cooperation between nations, the drinking water portion of this target was achieved by 2010, five years ahead of schedule. Over two billion people gained new access to improved water sources by this date. As for the other half of the target, more than two billion people did acquire proper sanitation facilities for the first time, though this number fell short of the 50% improvement goal.

The results of the MDG7 offer hope. It shows that human beings can build international solidarity to address the needs of the natural world and human society. The water crisis creates a moral goal that can be achieved through global solidarity: to conserve, protect, and provide the precious water resources of our planet.

Questions to Consider

Imagine you have the economic goal of planting a money-making vegetable garden. Imagine, too, that you have the moral goal of protecting and preserving water.

  • What challenges will you likely face in meeting these two goals?
  • What do you think you could do do meet these challenges?

Moral Virtues and Water

Holding fast to moral principles and goals that protect and preserve water is an ethical challenge. It is a challenge for both the mind and the heart. Moral virtues are the qualities of heart that give us the disposition to act in ways consistent with our moral principles. In other words, when virtues are acted on in everyday life, they are the building blocks of moral character.

For the philosopher Aristotle (384BC-324Bc), every person has a character, which comes from the repetition of certain kinds of action. A person with good character is a person whose acts are guided by moral virtues. To learn more read an explanation of Aristotle’s understanding of virtue.1

The Greek philosopher Aristotle’s answer to how we build moral character is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. According to Aristotle, we build moral character by doing virtuous acts. As he wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics, “by doing just acts, the just man is produced, by doing temperate acts, the temperate man; without acting well no one can become good.”7 From the perspective of Healing Earth’s environmental ethic, people of moral character act in ways that respect the intrinsic value of water.

Each of the moral virtues discussed in the Healing Earth Introduction encourages respect for water. The virtue of justice calls us to know and sense when we are using more water than our fair share. It likewise encourages us to admit when our use of water has deprived others or resulted in contamination. As Aristotle reminds us, however, unless we act in ways that use water fairly and protectively, our characters will not develop a sustainable respect for water.

Inspired People

Similarly, while we may intellectually understand the importance of water conservation and sharing, unless we act in ways motivated by the virtues of temperance and generosity, we will not grow into true conservationists and collaborators. Sincere concern over water availability also includes the virtue of kindness toward all the living creatures on Earth.

Practicing the virtue of prudence helps us make the often unpopular, yet brave and best water decisions possible under the circumstances of our human limitations and social constraints. Prudence guides us in decisions that address not only the needs of our present life, but also those of future generations.

In the end, unless we experience gratitude for the gift of water in our natural world, we will likely not be motivated to protect it. The virtue of gratitude is essential for our moral response to the water crisis.

Questions to Consider

Imagine, again, you are the leader of a community with plentiful water resources living near a community suffering from a lack of water.

  • What moral virtues would you need to speak out and encourage your community to share water with the neighboring community?
  • Do you feel you possess these virtues? What could you do to strengthen them?

Imagine you have the economic goal of planting a money-making vegetable garden. Imagine, too, that you have the moral goal of protecting and preserving water.

  • What challenges will you likely face in meeting these two goals?
  • What do you think you could do to meet these challenges??

We face serious ethical challenges today in protecting the quantity and quality of Earth’s resources, but we are not without a compass. The principles, goals, and virtues we have discussed in this section make it possible for us to think through the moral choices that face us in the healing and sharing of Earth’s water resources.

These choices ask us what we value and what core commitments truly engage our inner depths. In other words, these choices reach into our spiritual lives, just as they have done to human beings for thousands of years. The spiritual identity and meaning that people have given water in the great religions of the world is an important resource for our ever-deepening reflection on the nature, value, and meaning of water. It is to this subject that we now turn.