Re-imagining water management on World Water Day

By Helen Kopnina and Veronica Strang. There is an urgent need for a paradigmatic shift to more species-inclusive and sustainable water policies and practices. Giving such primacy to human interests inevitably promotes unsustainable forms of water management and use.
Published in Sustainability
Re-imagining water management on World Water Day

Share this post

Choose a social network to share with, or copy the shortened URL to share elsewhere

This is a representation of how your post may appear on social media. The actual post will vary between social networks

Ethically, a major impediment to addressing water scarcity, climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution is the dominance of anthropocentrism, which positions humankind as separate from and "above" a non-human world. The need for sharing the planet more equitably is readily visible in societies’ engagements with water. Within the larger problem of anthropogenically-caused climate change, overusing freshwater and degrading waterways places the surrounding ecosystems under increasing strain, threatening water, food and energy security. The World Bank points to a fast-approaching shortfall between water supply and demand, with related conflicts and increasing numbers of refugees. Decisions about water management and use are often driven by short-term responses to these pressures that, as well as sacrificing the rights, needs, and interests of less powerful human communities, override those of non-human species and ecosystems.

The “nature needs half” (hereafter NNH) movement, popularised by biologist E.O. Wilson, is championed by conservation biologists. NNH scholars are committed to ecocentric ethics, new interspecies relational arrangements, and better resolutions of anticipated conflicts between human and non-human needs and interests. NNH still needs to develop the agenda for biodiversity in a human-half of the Earth. How it might do so is illustrated here by the case of water management, suggesting that NNH is uniquely situated to engage in public policy and scholarly debates about conservation practices that tackle environmental change at a variety of scales.

NNH is grounded in three basic principles: wildlife refers to living beings with their own intrinsic value; other species have a right to continued existence, free from anthropogenic pressures; and habitat destruction is the leading cause of biodiversity loss. These principles generate an urgent imperative to set aside much more habitat to preserve other species, and conservation biologists agree that a majority of Earth's existing species will not survive unless we do. NNH scholars argue that intraspecies justice - justice for people - should not come at the expense of interspecies justice - the very existence of other species (Kopnina et al 2018). We need to create a world in which humans and all other species can flourish. That means ensuring sufficient habitat for other species while living prudently and justly in the remainder. It also means choosing to limit our own numbers, so that this is possible. Such a moral commitment is owed not only to non-human beings but also to future human generations, who will otherwise inherit a severely damaged planet.

A vision of “re-imagined communities” proposes a different theoretical starting point for thinking about river catchments (Strang 2017). Inspired by indigenous engagements with waterways, and by concepts of ecological justice (Baxter 2005), this seeks more equitable engagements with ecosystems’ human and non-human inhabitants. Broadening the concept of “communities” to encompass all living kinds, it suggests a methodology enabling a deeper understanding of their diverse – and sometimes conflicting – needs for water. Drawing on a range of disciplinary and local knowledge, the bodies responsible for river catchment areas should appoint a Council of Experts. Each Council’s role would be to “speak for” a cross-section of human and non-human actors within the ecosystem; articulate their needs and interests; and ensure that, in decisions made about waterways, these are not ignored or overridden.

To avoid a common problem, in which watershed management groups are captured by stakeholders aiming to protect their own access to water, the Council members should be impartial and without conflicts of interest. Such Councils should be formally appointed, given financial support, and made central to policy and practice. A network of local groups could provide a pool from which similar national and international Councils might be drawn. Critically, they should be empowered by appropriate legislation at each scale, so that non-human rights, needs, and interests are necessarily taken into account in all decisions about rivers and related ecosystems. Such legislation could draw on the concepts of ecodemocracy and ecojustice developed by groups such as the Earth Law Centre (2018); GENIE; or the Earth Protectors Trust Fund created by the late Polly Higgins, lawyer, and campaigner against ecocide. This suggests an important potential for universities to work in partnership with policymakers, non-governmental organizations (such as the Earth Charter or Parties for Animals in various countries), and intragovernmental networks such as The Harmony with Nature program of the United Nations.

Such an approach challenges ingrained assumptions of dominion over the non-human world, questioning the idea of water as a commercial asset, and rivers as mere providers of ecosystem services. It requires creative solutions that work with ecosystems and their inhabitants instead of acting upon them. But there are signs of hope: a 2018 UN report promoted “nature-based solutions”. The International Water Association is seeking paradigmatic shifts in its approach, and water companies are asking how they might do things differently. There is widening recognition that business, as usual, is no longer an option. The current outbreak of the coronavirus demonstrates that governments and societies can respond quickly and efficiently to global crises. Similar mobilization on water issues could be transformational, averting a greater long-term danger to public health and to the viability of global ecosystems.  A similar response might be needed for addressing climate change, water scarcity, and pollution.

The combination of clearly articulating non-human needs and interests; providing legal protection for their rights; and above all promoting a vision of “re-imagined communities” that relocates humankind within a world of living kinds, can provide more sustainable ways of thinking and do. Thus, this blog is a plea for making not just half, but all of the Earth, liveable for all the planet’s inhabitants, in water and on land.


Baxter, Brian. 2005. A Theory of Ecological Justice, London and New York: Routledge

Earth Law Centre. 2018. Universal Declaration of River Rights.

Kopnina, Helen, Washington, Haydn, Gray, Joe, Taylor, Bron. 2018. ‘The ‘future of conservation’ debate: Defending ecocentrism and the Nature Needs Half movement’. Biological Conservation, 217 (2018): 140-148.

Strang, Veronica. 2017. ‘Re-Imagined Communities: the transformational potential of interspecies ethnography in water policy development’, in K. Conca and E. Weinthal (eds) The Oxford Handbook on Water Politics and Policy, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 142-164.



Please sign in or register for FREE

If you are a registered user on Research Communities by Springer Nature, please sign in

Subscribe to the Topic

Research Communities > Community > Sustainability