Global water ethics: Towards a global ethics charter (Ziegler and Groenfeldt, 2017)

Christiana Zenner

ethics Ziegler, R. and Groenfeldt, D. (Eds). 2017. Global water ethics: Towards a global ethics charter. Routledge/Earthscan, 319 p. ISBN: 978-1-138-20429-4, $49.95 [paperback].


Christiana Zenner

Fordham University, New York, USA; email


To cite this Review: Zenner, C. 2019. Review of "Global water ethics: Towards a global ethics charter", Routledge/Earthscan, 2017, by R. Ziegler and D. Groenfeldt, Water Alternatives,


Global Water Ethics consists of 17 total chapters across three main sections of this edited volume. Two chapters introduce the project: the first, by co-editors Ziegler and Groenfeldt, provides orienting concepts and chapter overviews; the second, by legal scholar S. Smith, is a free-floating and important essay on the international and political history of global water discourse in conversation with the emergence of fresh water ethics. Part I, 'Ethics and Epistemology', consists of four chapters. Part II, 'Global water ethics, local cases, and a diversity of perspectives', features six chapters. Part III, 'Water ethics and charting water', consists of five chapters. There is no concluding chapter.

The volume is very informative and covers a wide range of cases and modes of analysis. There is not one ethical viewpoint that orients the entire volume, but there are some consistent threads that appear throughout a number of essays. Some recurrent themes that leapt out to me included: the consistent effort to expand categories of moral considerability beyond the anthropocentric in order meaningfully to value and orient water policy toward "enlightened anthropocentrism" at a minimum and, more fully, perhaps even biocentric, ecocentric, and aquacentric ends; the curiosity over what it would mean to establish water charters that are not merely strategically policy and economy-related but are also ethical in broader senses; multiplicities of values assigned to fresh waters; and the dominance of western frames of thought and practice in conceiving of these realities.

In Part I, 'Ethics and Epistemology', Meisch’s chapter nicely frames some of key categories and approaches within moral philosophy that may be useful to readers who tend to be more familiar with case studies and policy analysis than with moral philosophy. Meisch describes water ethics as "application-oriented" and orients his project toward what may best augment the meaningful articulation of water ethics charters. He draws heavily on the water-specific work of Sandra Postel and offers useful terminology about cognitivism, descriptive vs. normative claims, and "value reflexivity" (50).

Subsequent chapters in the section on 'Ethics and Epistemology' similarly raise the volume’s thematic and titular concept of water charter, but take differently nuanced approaches. Kowarsch’s chapter on Dewey and water ethics advocates for a mode of environmental pragmatism in ways that resonate with Schmidt and Brown (2010). Perhaps most constructively for the 'global ethics' theme of the edited volume, he suggest that "a successful Deweyan inquiry into complex social-ethical issues presupposes a dialogue and collaboration between experts (including moral philosophers) and diverse stakeholders" and insists that "goals cannot be evaluated independently from the available means" (60-61). His engagement of the "triangle of justice" could be usefully put into conversation with several of the essays from the recent edited volume on Water Justice (Boelens et al., 2018), including the work of Zwarteveen and others. Kowarsch’s conclusion that the "Deweyan model suggests … first start with ethical solutions specifically tailored towards specific cases of water management and then see to what extent they can be generalized" seems an apt aphorism for much of the endeavor of the volume as a whole (69).

Kalhoff’s chapter makes some nice points critiquing the idea of the so-called 'tragedy of the commons', exhorts readers to conceiving of water cooperation as preferable to water conflict, and views "water resources … [as] the most basic natural common pool resources we have" (96). Groenfeldt’s chapter in Part I further develops his important contributions to a water ethics framework, specifically by delineating five categories of types of values: environmental, economic, social, cultural, and governance. His longstanding work on values in water ethics continues to be important for the interface of scholarship and public policy/governance, as indicated by his leadership of the Water-Culture Institute and his concerted efforts to generate a Water Ethics Charter.

One critique I have of this section is that in two of the chapters (Kowarsch and Kalhoff), the case studies are hypothetical. This seems odd to me on several counts: first, because of the many actual case studies available and widely documented; and second, because I am unconvinced that simplified, hypothetical case studies are useful. While hypothetical case studies can serve as succinct placeholders or illuminate a specific point, all too often they also ignore variables that substantially daunt decision-making in the real world. (Granted, my longstanding antipathy towards invented case studies is one of the reasons I am an environmental humanities professor, not a straight-up analytic philosopher.) A final concern about this section is that the perspectives on what constitutes ethics and epistemology are decidedly western, a point on which I elaborate in subsequent paragraphs.

Part II, 'Global water ethics, local cases, and a diversity of perspectives' includes chapters that grapple conceptually with water ethics and governance intersections, as well as chapters that explore the implications of some of these ideas in particular contexts. Chapter 7, by Ziegler, Gerten, and Döll is a nice primer on planetary boundaries and what would constitute a "safe, just, and sufficient space" for freshwater use if conceived beyond an anthropocentric framework. The chapter includes useful sections on the precautionary principle and environmental philosophy, drawing heavily on Paul Taylor’s work, and ably navigates several different scholarly discourses.

The chapter on ethical factors in IWRM (chapter 8, by Aldaya, Martínez-Santos, and Ramón Llamas) gives a nice overview of how global water resources are conceived by the UN and related institutions − including water footprint, virtual water, consumption rates by sector, and so forth − and argues that "in this globalized world, a global water ethics dimension is fundamental to achieve real sustainability" (135). They acknowledge that "the social aspects related to water are the most difficult to quantify" and state that "cultural and spiritual values are of fundamental importance" at the policy-making level as well as the policy-implementation (or efficacy) level (143). An intriguing, concluding claim is that "usually there is no physical water scarcity but rather deficient water governance or 'mental aridity'" − a descriptive claim paired with a figurative concept that would be interesting to reflect upon further in light of social geographers’ notions of hydrosociality.

Feitelson’s chapter on 'A hierarchy of water needs and their implications for allocation mechanisms' develops several promising ideas: the concept of the plurality of waters, a "water needs hierarchy" that could guide water provision, and a set of derivative recommendations that could be implemented as policy in the specific context of Israel/Palestine. This is a fascinating essay that acknowledges the hold of values and ideology in water governance (see p. 156) while also expressing how revised normative commitments could be implemented in specific policy mechanisms to provide more water to the West Bank and Gaza, even in this hydropolitically contentious region. Feitelson’s chapter is also the only one in the book that raises the issue of how migration impacts fresh water provision. Like Rodina (Chapter 10), Feitelson acknowledges that "there is a danger that the most vulnerable people, the refugees that are not accounted for, will be forced to use expensive unmonitored water vending services" (162).

Rodina’s excellent chapter, 'Reflections on water ethics and the human right to water in Khayelitsha, South Africa', demonstrates how "the implementation of the HRW should engage with on-the-ground realities of unequal access to resources and the processes that produce these inequalities" (167). She argues for an expansion of the rights paradigm from short-term "basic needs framing towards broader conceptions of livelihoods needs, and social justice" (168) and insist that endemic "realities of social inequality and ongoing social struggles" cannot be contained in volumetric needs assessments; instead, redressing determinative legacies (such as that of apartheid) must be part of the HRW implementation strategy (172).

The essay by Jie and Xiang on ecocentric water allocation in the Hexi corridor of Gansu Province in China (Chapter 11) demonstrates how a command-and-control political governance context that prioritized agriculture led to the dewatering of the basin due to overextraction, and has been replaced by an attempted rehabilitation of the river and basin in recognition that environmental needs and human needs must both be attended to for the long-term existence of the river. They argue that the basin "is experiencing a transfer from an economic-centric water allocation to an ecocentric one" (189).

Finally, in a diversion from other essays in this section, Chapter 12 by Levi and Mishori portrays the water activism and knowledge put forward by Anupam Mishra in Rajasthan. They depict a history not only of Mishra and his influences from Gandhi and on Vandana Shiva (among others), situate what they refer to as "Rajasthani water TEK", (Traditional Ecological Knowledge) and argue that Mishra can be understood as a water virtue ethicist informed by his particular context "as a water conservationist … [and] as a way to empower communities and to promote a more sustainable and just society", which the authors take as an invitation to "consider ethics in a wider sense, as a worldview and as a spiritual commitment" (199).

On the whole, most of the 'global' water ethics in this volume is portrayed in decisively western frameworks. With few exceptions, non-western perspectives are included primarily as case studies − not, that is, as normative or conceptual interventions into "ethics and epistemology" in Part I. It is important to credit the co-editors for including several geographically specific philosophical perspectives beyond western or internationalist frameworks; these are treated ably, for example in the chapter by Levi and Mishori (on Anupam Mishra, Chapter 12); briefly in the first of Groenfeldt’s two chapters; and most impressively in 'I. yá.axch’age? (Can you hear it?)' by Hayman with James, Wedge, and Katzeek (Chapter 13). The chapter by Hayman et al. is excellent and a model for collaborative, accountable hydro-ethnographies and scholar-community partnerships − an important example in an era of ongoing resource and knowledge extraction of indigenous peoples by colonial governments and institutions.

To that end, it is a thought-provoking decision to include the Hayman et al. chapter in the final section, Part III, 'Water ethics charters and charting water'. Foregrounding a Tlingit and Tagish understanding of ethical relationships with water, as well as its "deep charting" approach, is an important way to rectify the overwhelming reality that "the construction of hydrological space, but also linguistic and imaginative space has long been dominated by Western constructs and their parceling out of the world, whether it be cartographically, imaginatively, or literally" (235). For related reasons, this chapter is among the most important contributions of the entire volume. In an era of value pluralism for fresh waters (as evidenced not just by Hayman et al.’s chapter, but also by legal decisions in Aotearoa/New Zealand and elsewhere) and ascending critiques of the ways in which Anthropocene/planetary thinking become ciphers for western normativity, it would have been useful to expend further attention on indigenous or non-dominant/non-western moral philosophies of water (see, e.g. Wong and Christian, 2017).

Part III delves into several context-specific examples of water charters. I learned an enormous amount from all of the essays in this section, including about background processes to global water network charter-type efforts such as the Ecumenical Water Network (religiously-based with the World Council of Churches), the Water Ethics Charter (linked to Groenfeldt’s Water-Culture Network and prior partnerships), the Berlin Water Charter, and the Alliance for Water Stewardship’s efforts to bring water- and-sustainability based decision-making to corporate leaders. I was, admittedly, a bit surprised that there was no engagement in this section with the idea of Blue Communities, despite the several mentions of Maude Barlow’s work across numerous essays in the volume.

In addition to articulating the creative and collaborative articulations of values and ethics in these 'charting moments', I would love to see the authors in this section delve into the weak points or fissures in their approaches. For Groenfeldt and Sym (chapters 15 and 17, respectively), this would mean grappling with the growth-and-extractivism underpinnings of economic value paradigms. For Smith’s chapter on global, ecumenical water ethics (Chapter 14), I would have liked to see some nuance of the claim that 'all faiths' can get behind the approach offered by the EWN (Ecumenical Water Network) − not least because the anthropocentrism of most western theological approaches (even if it is generous, enlightened, or expanded) is not necessarily universalizable across religious traditions. There are ontological presuppositions and trust in governance patterns here, which may not be shared among traditions that have been on the receiving end of colonialism, domination, or cultural eradication campaigns.

What of 'the global'? In the Introduction, the co-editors specify that their use of the term 'globalization' in this book includes two aspects: a "focus on interdependent processes and effects across the global, and a historical diagnosis that something new and different is happening 'in the world of today'" (3). They argue that a turn to globality in water ethics is justified by five factors: "economic globalization, and specifically the water dimension of trade" (4); the need to make explicit the presumptive ethical tendencies of existing water management paradigms; climate change and its major, ascending impacts on water supplies; related pressures on ecosystems; and "the growing awareness of human agency at a global scale and our ability to measure our ever-increasing planetary footprint" (5). The co-editors then suggest that "for freshwater, the main challenge is to live, and live well, with limited freshwater supplies while supporting a growing human population and growing global economy" (6).

It is certainly true that there are global dimensions to strategies such as IWRM, public-private partnerships, and now financialisation of water resources and infrastructure. These deserve attention. And globalization, of course, is a now-common term that, like 'sustainability', is often invoked in western-dominated spaces such as the UN or the World Economic Forum or the World Water Council. Given this, I was a bit surprised to read on several occasions that the editors view the history of water ethics as being primarily place-based in ways that warrant more attention to − if not a corrective by − the articulation of a global water ethic. As Ziegler et al. frame their defense of an "adjusted planetary boundary framework" for water: "it helps to put [issues] in a global context and thus to move beyond the frequently very place-based discussions in water ethics and water governance" (115). What does this mean for the insights that swell up from particular places, value systems, and cultures? To me, the challenge seems to be less about articulating a global ethic and more about what is lost by tacitly trusting in the presumed neutrality of 'the global' or the 'planetary'.

Like 'globality', notions like 'planetarity' and 'Anthropocene' – with which this volume opens, both in its Preface and its Introduction – do have rhetorical traction within dominant political economic regimes. I concur that the question of what kinds of principle and practices can be generalized is an important one; the translation of specific principles into varieties of contexts is a challenge. I am simply not sure that the ideas of globality and planetarity are the notions that will facilitate that translation with maximal nuance and efficacy. Instead, it seems important to at least consider that such notions lack the capacity to internally critique the structures that lead to extraction, scarcity, and injustice. There is some useful nuance and recognition of this concern, for example in Kowarsch’s chapter and in Groenfeldt’s chapter in Part III. But there is also a steady confidence about the generalizability of certain normative commitments under the banner of the global or the planetary.

It is the elisions made possible by the first person plural and the danger of presumptive uniformity to 'the global' − not to mention what it means to 'live well' and the normalization of economic growth − that makes me, as an environmental humanities scholar-ethicist, uneasy. These realities are neither natural nor accidental. As many theorists have pointed out, major drivers of phenomena like climate change, depletion of water resources, and economic globalization can be traced to historical and ongoing practices of extractive capitalism that emerged from European settler colonialism, and that take very specific form with very dramatic consequences in a range of places worldwide. I find it difficult, in fact outright troubling, to conceive of global water ethics without a consistent decolonial reckoning − that is, both a recognition of and a commitment to redress the highly historicized and privilege-laden relationships that have governed water processes in an era of so-called 'globalization' or 'planetarity' and have led to vast differentials in wealth, power over resources, policy influence, and even conceptualizations about what kind of thing water is and who is allowed to define it as such (Zenner 2019). Hayman et al.’s chapter is an important antidote, but its insights are not generally reflected throughout the volume.

Overall, it was a delight to read and engage this book. It is an important reference text for which specific chapters will teach very well in courses on fresh water values, ethics, and governance. While I am partial to Part III, I can also easily imagine assigning essays from Part I and the first half of Part II in classes that are more focused on ethical theory surrounding water (especially Chapter 7 by Ziegler, Gerten, and Döll), and assigning essays from the second half of Part II in classes that are focused on the human right to water and water justice (Chapter 9 by Feitelson and 10 by Rodina stand out in this regard). Given a volume entitled Global Water Ethics, the idea of water ethics pervades each section. This is useful in that there is often a pairing of conceptual analyses of various aspects of water ethics (in the abstract) with empirical or case-based treatments of water ethics (in the particular). There are some common interlocutors, such as Sandra Postel and Paul Taylor (and, occasionally but in a similarly neo-Aristotelian vein, Martha Nussbaum). I would have appreciated seeing a clearer run-down of different types of approaches to water ethics, perhaps in a concluding chapter, that articulates what can be gleaned from different inflections such as virtue ethics, social ethics, environmental pragmatism and so forth − and links or further hones in on insights generated by contributors whose essays overlap conceptually.

In sum: Global Water Ethics is an important contribution to a growing set of ethical and governance reflections on water. There is much here that I recommend, even as there is more to be charted.


Boelens, R.; Perrault, T. and Vos, J. (Eds). 2018. Water justice. Cambridge University Press.

Christian, D. and Wong, R. (Eds). 2017. Downstream: Reimagining water. Wilfred Laurier Press.

Zenner, C. 2019. Valuing fresh waters. WIREs Water. 2019;6:e1343.




Additional Info

  • Author(s): Rafael Ziegler and David Groenfeldt
  • Year of publication: 2017
  • Publisher: Routledge
  • Subject: Water ethics
  • Type: Review
  • Review author: Christiana Zenner
  • Language: English