Sharing Our Earth: Water and Social Justice
In the context of the Anthropocene and the exponential use of resources and sinks by humans, the more or less fixed fresh water resources are increasingly coming under pressure as countries, companies and individuals compete for the use of these limited fresh water resources and as they try to cope with the extreme floods, droughts, sea level rise and salt water intrusion that they are threatened with from climate variability and change. And although water is part of a continuously circulating hydrological system with different ecosystem services in its different physical forms, countries, private companies, landowners, and individuals are increasingly claiming ownership – either through principles of sovereignty, privatization, prior appropriation, licensing and human rights. They are also shaping these water flows either directly through land use change, agriculture and infrastructure such as dams, or indirectly through the impacts of climate change and virtual water trade. Furthermore, pumping out groundwater leads both to land subsidence and increased surface water flows into the oceans contributing to sea level rise. This is part of the Sharing Our Earth problem. Governance of water has to thus rise above petty national and company interests to see the bigger picture about human and social dependence on water and the need to share water with our ecosystem but also, and more importantly, to not risk damaging the hydrological system. While the Sustainable Development Goals point to the needs to take planetary boundaries into account, and ensuring basic needs to water, it does not say very much about how the bigger conflicts around water in terms of sharing the rights, responsibilities and risks associated with water can be resolved. A key tool for showing, diagnosing, addressing and monitoring the systemic nature of (a) water and (b) water governance systems are spatial tools like mapping, remote sensing, and participatory geographical information systems where ground truthing is critical for enhancing information validity. At the same time, when such tools lead to the gathering and misuse of big data, the privatization of knowledge, and invasion of privacy – it can also exacerbate the Sharing Our Earth problem.
Joyeeta Gupta is based in The Netherlands as a professor of Law and Policy in Water Resources and Environment at the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in Delft, and at the VU University Amsterdam and of water law and policy. Her expertise is in the area of environmental law and politics. She is editor-in-chief of International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics. Gupta was lead author in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, and of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.