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Water shortage: interdisciplinary approaches to reflect our options

18 July 2011

Photo credits: hfph.mwn.de/igp

Martin Kowarsch

Many regions, mainly in subtropical countries, find themselves increasingly exposed to a scarcity of fresh water. Almost 900 million people worldwide lack safe access to clean water. More than a third of the world’s population lives in areas where water supply is problematic. Quantitative water availability and the quality of water are often closely related to each other; many diseases and deaths, particularly in developing countries, are linked to poor water conditions. The pressure on water resources will increase because of climate change and because of economic and population growth, among other factors. Local water scarcity is often caused, nevertheless, by mismanagement, such as a non-sustainable policy that also excludes or marginalises the poor.

From 20 to 23 June 2011, the Jesuit Institute for Social Policy (Institut für Gesellschaftspolitik or IGP) at the Munich School of Philosophy, together with the Jesuit Lassalle-Haus in Bad Schönbrunn (Switzerland) held a scientific workshop in order to discuss these issues and possible solutions. The title of the international workshop, at which 20 scientists came together in Bad Schönbrunn, was “Water management options in a globalised world: promoting a dialogue between economics, ethics and other disciplines” (see programme).

What were the IGP’s reasons to dedicate itself to water management? It is the mission of our institute to contribute – based on a Christian anthropology and on concern for human rights – to the development of strategies for poverty reduction and for supporting social justice in a globalised world. An equitable global economy including the sustainable use of resources is one of the three central research areas of our institute. The topic of water conforms to this objective. Therefore, IGP is involved in a large, three-year research project on sustainable water-management in a globalised world in collaboration with the Potsdam Institute for Climate research (see information). The IGP’s task within this research programme is to examine various water-policy scenarios and to assess them from an ethical perspective.

As a first step within our workshop in Switzerland, we sought an overview of current research related to water and a common understanding of the problem and its causes. This sparked many interesting discussions, especially between an economic-technological and a more political approach to the problem. This first perspective focuses not only on the increasing prevalence of water scarcity, especially for agricultural irrigation (which also threatens the world food supply) but also on their technological and economic solutions. The second perspective evaluates the water issue as a highly context-specific, political-legal and socio-cultural problem, pointing out that, in principle, in many regions sufficient water would be available except that political structures unjustly prevent an adequate water supply for everybody.

In other sessions of the workshop, individual water management options were discussed, e.g. (i) the potential of technological improvements, especially in the agricultural sector; (ii) climate change and its impact on water scarcity in sub-tropical regions; (iii) the so-called ‘virtual water trade’, in which water-intensive products are imported by regions suffering water scarcity in order to conserve their own water resources; (iv) various aspects of governance to achieve a more equitable distribution of resources and a better participation in the appropriate procedures; (v) pricing of water to encourage saving; (vi) changes in lifestyle and an increased awareness of water scarcity.

Martin Kowarsch

Another element of the workshop was to examine regional case studies: governance in Sudan, sanitation in Mongolia, water schemes in Australia, and socio-cultural issues in Nigeria. Finally, ethical issues of water management were discussed, e.g., whether one may price water (and if so, how?). The contributions to this workshop will be presented shortly on IGP’s website.

The author is an economist and policy adviser working at the Munich Institute for Social Policy (IGP). His research focus is on ethics, both ethical reasoning and applied ethics (air, water, economic and environmental ethics, sustainability concepts), and Political Philosophy. Since April 2011, Kowarsch is responsible for IGP’s contribution to the international climate Ethics Network (ESF network) ENRI-Future. For further information and contact details, visit his website at IGP.

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