Water ethics: An introduction (Doorn, 2019)

David Groenfeldt

Doorn, N. 2019. Water ethics: An introduction. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 978-1-78660-951-9 (Paperback), 314 p., $39.95.

(URL: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781786609519/Water-Ethics-An-Introduction)

David Groenfeldt

Director, Water-Culture Institute, Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Adjunct Professor, Dept of Anthropology, University of New Mexico; dgroenfeldt@waterculture.org


To cite this Review: Groenfeldt, D. 2020. Review of "Water ethics: An introduction". Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019, by N. Doorn, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/169-ethics2


The publication of Water Ethics, An Introduction marks a "coming of age" for the emerging field of water ethics. Professor Neelke Doorn holds the only professorial-level academic post explicitly dedicated to water ethics (at TU-Delft), and is uniquely qualified to write this succinct and well organized introductory text. Every water professional has something to learn from reading this book, which is excellent in its own right, and all the more important because the field of water ethics has been so neglected. Yes, there is a growing set of books with "water ethics" in the title, including my own book from 2013 with a revised edition in 2019 (Groenfeldt, 2019) as well as three edited volumes (Llamas et al., 2009; Brown and Schmidt, 2010; and Ziegler and Groenfeldt, 2017). There was a major UNESCO-COMEST[1] initiative on "Water and Ethics" from 1998-2004 which produced some dozen short reports (Delli Priscoli et al., 2004), and just recently a follow-up report by COMEST on, "Water Ethics: Ocean, Freshwater, Coastal Areas" (COMEST 2018).

What Doorn's book adds to this literature is a well-structured point of reference steeped equally in the fields of philosophy, water engineering, and water governance. In Doorn's view, the primary role of water ethics "is to identify the underlying moral choices...in relation to water management, water policy and water engineering" (p. 20).  We should not expect to find "a simple roadmap that will ultimately lead to one unambiguous solution to moral problems" (p. 20).  Rather, the book's aim is to "support the process of reflection" through imparting "conceptual tools...for critically analyzing different frameworks" (p 21).  Nor does the book defend any particular value theory. "Instead, it will make explicit the value theories that underlie different water related decisions" (p.27).  Prof. Doorn is not going to exacerbate the polarization of water policies; instead she helps us understand more deeply our own water values and the values of others.

Following an introductory chapter which provides a helpful summary of ethical concepts and terminology, the book focuses on the often competing uses of water (Ch 2), social justice (Ch 3), economic valuation (Ch 4), water rights (Ch 5), water and responsibilities (Ch 6), water and engineering (Ch 7) and inserting ethics into water governance (Ch 8). The content of each chapter illustrates the diversity of ethical issues without revealing the author's own views about these issues. Prof. Doorn is teaching us by example that the proper use of ethics is to identify and disentangle moral issues in order to support constructive reflection on the best course of action.

In the chapter on social justice (Ch 3), Doorn addresses the very basic question of why we should be concerned about justice in the first place, and provides four reasons drawn from the philosophical literature: (1) for human dignity and self esteem, (2) for well-being, (3) for membership and solidarity, and (4) for corrections for past wrongs (anticipating the current new-found awareness of historic racism). This discussion serves as background for introducing the concepts of distributive justice, based on the capability approach of Sen and Nussbaum, and also procedural justice. When marginalized groups (e.g., Indigenous Peoples and women) are left out of water policy decisions (procedural injustice), they are also prone to lose out on their practical access to water (distributive injustice). This short chapter on justice illustrates the value of undertaking systematic ethical analysis as an adjunct to planning and design of water policies and projects. Doorn does not belabor the fact that such analysis is almost never carried out. Indeed one of the book's attributes is the positive tone. Though her topic of ethics is largely ignored by the water profession, she's not complaining!  

The chapter on water and economic valuation (Ch 4) provides a primer on Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA) and economic valuation methods based on willingness to pay (WTP). Both CBA and WTP presuppose the commensurability of different kinds of value which can be monetized and compared. But most of the values underpinning ethics, such as social equity, membership and solidarity, or ecosystem health, cannot be readily monetized, and Doorn concludes that CBA analysis is effectively useless for purposes of ethical analysis (an issue she returns to in Ch 7).

The next two chapters address the moral core of water ethics: Water and Rights (Ch 5) and Water and Responsibilities (Ch 6), which are two sides of the same coin. The author opens these topics with an historical overview about how water (and sanitation) gradually became recognized as a human right, culminating in the 2010 UN General Assembly vote. Implementation of this right, however, is the responsibility of states. Similarly the right to property, and in particular land and water, is guaranteed by states, but subject to considerations of the public interest. Doorn gives the example of flood management strategies where there are important ethical considerations about the rights of private landowners versus the public's right to safety from floods. Under the EU Convention on Human rights, specific private lands deemed absolutely necessary for managing floods must yield to the public interest. Two other water-related rights topics are mentioned almost in passing, but deserving of far more substantive treatment: (1) Indigenous Peoples' rights to ancestral waters (as stipulated in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), and (2) The water rights of natural ecosystems, with mention made of New Zealand granting legal personhood to the Whanganui River on Maori territory.

In chapter 6, the author stresses that various water stakeholders have differing responsibilities for managing water ethically depending on their specific roles, community, causal contribution, blameworthiness, capacity, benefit, and interest. While these terms are not self-explanatory, the author walks us through the details, and we come away with new clarity about why certain people, institutions, or companies have more or less responsibility for water management outcomes (See pp 161 to 165). In addition to responsibilities towards their citizens, states also have responsibilities towards other states, for example in the case of transboundary rivers. This concept is captured in the general principle of “good neighborliness “which obligate states to try to reconcile the interests of neighboring states. This is the moral basis for the UN convention on the law of non-navigational use of international water courses, also known as the Helsinki rules. Signatories to these rules commit to “utilize an international water course in an equitable and reasonable manner..."  

Corporations, according to Doorn have a responsibility to conserve water across the value chain and lifecycle of their products. No mention is made of critiquing the products themselves in terms of their value to society, or to nature. For example, shouldn't a distinction be made between using scarce water for fracking versus using water for irrigating small family farms?  

Doorn is more directive in her discussion of individual professional responsibility: “Water professionals have specific responsibilities that go beyond those based on their role as consumers or citizens....The focus is on the responsibilities of professionals towards society that come with being an expert in some field” (p. 178). Society has legitimate expectations for experts “to act competently and within the bounds of the law.”  In my view, this is asking far too little of the water profession.  Professional competence is not enough; we should hold water experts to be ethically alert in whatever water related activities or policies they are involved in.  Doorn recounts the Flint water tragedy in Michigan (USA), where local water managers and political leaders failed to protect public welfare. In spite of a chorus of customer complaints about household water quality, local and state authorities failed to respond until hundreds if not thousands of children were diagnosed with lead poisoning. Missing from the lessons Doorn draws from this case is how greater ethics awareness on the part of both water managers and the public at large might have preempted the criminal negligence that took place.

In the chapter on "Water and Engineering" (Ch 7), Doorn focuses on the engineering design process, when multiple and often competing values need to be accommodated. How can we assess which values to prioritize? Cost-Benefit Analysis was already deemed (in chapter 4) to have limited utility because of the incommensurability issue. Her suggestion is to employ a variant of Multiple Criteria Decision Making. In designing a flood management strategy, for example, competing solutions can be compared along the value dimensions of social justice, ecosystem health, and financial cost.  By applying a "satisficing" approach, threshold levels can be established for each identified value category, with the best design being the one that scores higher than the others in more categories. Even here the issue of commensurability remains problematic. Should a high score in "ecosystem health" be weighted more heavily than a high score in social justice? The purpose of comparative analysis is not necessarily to identify a clear winner, but rather to structure and clarify the design challenge so that ethically-guided reflection can be usefully applied. Doorn is in her element discussing the ethics of the design process, as this is where her experience is strongest, and specifically in flood management. She offers small but valuable rules of thumb: The best design solutions from an ethical point of view are multifunctional (meeting several value functions), adaptable (avoiding irreversible decisions), and sustainable (in this context, nature-based and eco-centric). 

The book's concluding chapter addresses the challenge of, "Inserting ethics into water governance." Finding the right level of governance is one ethical issue.  Doorn notes that the subsidiarity principal (managing water at the most decentralized level possible) has become a well accepted principle of water governance, but this clashes with another principle, that water should be managed at the level of the larger system, typically a river basin.  Moreover, the global impacts of virtual water trade suggests the need for some type of global arrangements as well. Similarly, inter-sectoral coordination, aka "Nexus" approaches, such as water-energy-food-environment, are also important to consider, and in this sense an ethical response to one sector would need to consider other linked sectors as well. Doorn stops short of proposing water ethics as a natural framework for facilitating coordination across multiple water-intensive sectors, though that argument could be made.  In my view, one of the major selling points for water ethics is that even a conceptual integration of multiple water using sectors can help in analyzing the many diverse and interactive impacts that need to be considered in water governance.

Another water governance challenge is water resilience at the community level. Here Doorn cautions that wealthier communities have inherent advantages in self-organizing for water resilience whether in response to floods or droughts, whereas from a water justice perspective, socially marginalized communities are at risk of further marginalization unless there is a concerted effort to direct water governance attention to the particular needs of those communities.

Finally the author discusses global water governance institutions (e.g., the Global Water Partnership and the triennial World Water Forums of World Water Council) and initiatives (e.g., OECD‘s water governance principles, as well as the global water ethics charter, which this reviewer was involved in). Such initiatives function as “a bridge between global level water governance and more decentralized approaches.” Should the emerging field of water ethics take on the role of actively developing or brokering ethical standards of water governance? Or should water ethicists adopt a role of facilitating stakeholder dialogue to promote mutual understanding?  

Prof. Doorn does not answer or even pose these questions, but they will arise on their own from reading her book. She has gifted us with an important guide to the new and still emerging field of water ethics. By declining to reveal her own preferences for the direction this field should take, she clears a creative space for other scholars and practitioners to weigh in. Let's hope that there are many volunteers to continue the discussion!



Brown, P. and Schmidt, J. (Eds). 2010. Water ethics: Foundational readings for students and professionals. Island Press, Washington, DC.

COMEST. 2018. Water ethics: Ocean, freshwater, coastal areas. Commission on Ethics of Science and Technology, UNESCO, Paris.

Delli Priscoli, J.; Dooge, J. and Llamas, R. 2004. Water and ethics: Overview. UNESCO International Hydrological Programme & World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology, Series on Water and Ethics, Essay 1. UNESCO, Paris.

Groenfeldt, D. 2019. Water ethics: A values approach to solving the water crisis. 2nd Edition, Routledge.

Llamas, M.R.; Martínez-Cortina, L. and Mukherj, A. (Eds). 2009. Water ethics: Marcelino Botín Water Forum 2007. CRC Press/Balkema, Leiden, Netherlands.

Ziegler, R. and Groenfeldt, D. (Eds). 2017. Global water ethics: Towards a global ethics charter. Routledge, London.


[1] COMEST: Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology



Additional Info

  • Authors: Neelke Doorn
  • Year of publication: 2019
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
  • Reviewer: David Groenfeldt
  • Subject: Water ethics
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English