How do we Start to Realise Socially Just Water Systems?

To achieve socially just water systems we must first apply a social justice approach.

A social justice approach requires us to ask questions about the water system across five key themes:
  • Access: who has access to reliable, clean, affordable water? Why do these people have access and not others? What are the power dynamics?
  • Equity: what are the barriers specific groups face to accessing water? How can these barriers be addressed to create equal access?
  • Participation: who is at ‘the table’ making key decisions on our water systems? Who isn’t? Is space being made to meaningfully include a variety of voices and perspectives? Has space been made at all?
  • Diversity: are a range of voices and perspectives meaningfully valued in decision-making? Do they have the opportunity to influence decision outcomes or is their inclusion merely tokenism or box ticking?
  • Rights: everyone has a right to water, but whose rights are being respected and whose are being ignored? Why is this the case and what needs to be changed so everyone’s right to water is respected?

There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach or ‘one solution’ to creating socially just water systems.

However, there are some key features of a socially just water system. For example, it must:
  • Respect everyone’s right to water (including the environment). Water can’t just be for the homogenous majority, wealthy, influential or easy to reach.
  • Provide sustained, reliable, high quality water to all. It is insufficient to narrowly focus on universal access.
  • Be designed and delivered to prioritise the water needs of ALL people and the environment. Rather than prioritise water as an economic input/output or for the most powerful, wealthy or influential.
  • Be designed, amended and delivered with the meaningful participation of, and in partnership with a wide range of water users, communities and individuals with a range of ‘social identities’ . It is not a socially just system if designed by technocrats (even if on behalf of communities), primarily by businesses stakeholders or by those with the most power (from local to transboundary).
  • Ensure sufficient, high-quality environmental flows. As ecosystems need water just as much as humans!

Climate change is making the achievement of a socially just water system harder because:
  • It is exacerbating existing inequalities within water systems. As water flows change, decisions are being made about whose water needs to prioritise e.g. those who can afford higher tariffs to cover the costs of infrastructure upgrades, industrial water users (e.g. agriculture/mining).
  • It is placing greater pressure on the relationships between water users. As a finite amount of water can only be divided a certain amount of ways often with a bias towards stakeholders with the greatest political and/or economic influence.
  • It is creating new markets which potentially impact water flows for communities. e.g. climate mitigation schemes creating incentives to build hydrodams to generate carbon credits for the international market at the expense of water flows for local communities.
  • It is placing greater strain on water infrastructure which requires capex and opex to upgrade to become ‘climate-resilient’. But who is responsible for paying for this? Poor water users? Utilities companies? Heavy water using industries? Those who created climate change?

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