Academic journal article Rural Society

Utilising Diversity to Achieve Water Equity

Academic journal article Rural Society

Utilising Diversity to Achieve Water Equity

Article excerpt


Water is no longer readily accessible to all of the world's population. Scarcity has been brought about by a range of factors and while current thinking on water scarcity remains heavily focused on the impact of physical scarcity and the effects of varying climate conditions (Cullen, 2007) and the economic scarcity reflected by inadequate development of water infrastructure, water scarcity can also be created as a result of socio-political processes (Mehta, 2006). This kind of socio-political water scarcity is linked to the idea that our social and institutional processes have the potential to create and exacerbate water scarcity, and this directly affects issues of water equity and water justice.

Alongside the fact that water cannot always be found in the quantity or quality that we would like, is the fact that not all persons have equal access to the resource. While water is widely regarded as a basic human right (United Nations, 1992), there are significant power differentials among those who have access to water and rights to make decisions about the way in which it is used, and those who do not (Strang, 2004). In this paper, I am interested in examining the impacts of socio-political water scarcity, and in particular, the kinds of social exclusion that occur when parts of populations or communities - in this case, women - are denied the ability to make basic choices about water.

The denial of the right to participate in social and political decision-making processes is a form of social exclusion that displaces people from their social freedoms, and in this case, from equity and social justice with regard to their access to water. Martha Nussbaum (1999; 2000; 2003) has developed a capabilities based assessment framework that examines social freedoms and equity in the context of gender. While I am using the concept of gender in this paper as a mode of exploring notions of diversity among water users, Nussbaum's framework provides a useful way of examining how social exclusion impacts on water equity and women's well-being.

The concept of well-being is itself very much 'context and situation dependent, reflecting local social and personal factors such as geography, ecology, age, gender, and culture...[and] these concepts are complex and value-laden' (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2003, p. 71). However, the value of Nussbaum's work lies in the fact that she brings a rather distinctive feminist approach to issues of gender and well-being (Nussbaum, 1999), which has the potential for wider application in matters of water equity and justice. The potential for this broader application to the water sector is significant, because while the capabilities approach is widely recognised in the human development sector, it has rarely been adopted by water policy makers (Anand, 2001). Thus examining equity from a gendered perspective provides a model for how we might approach multiple and diverse social and cultural perspectives as they also relate to questions of water equity.

The aim of this paper is to examine Nussbaum's capabilities based framework as a fairer and more practical alternative to rights based frameworks for ensuring equity and well-being and further, to demonstrate how the capabilities approach might be usefully applied to inform current discussions about water management more broadly.

A feminist approach to water and gender

Nussbaum (1999) describes her own conception of feminism as being made up of five salient features. While some of these features have been considered ill-matched and even contradictory, and I am only interested in the first four features in the context of this paper, Nussbaum believes it is a powerful combination which has made it possible to link feminist theory successfully with issues of global justice. In brief, Nussbaum's feminism is:

(i) internationalist - recognising that women's lives and experiences are incredibly diverse due to different social, political and economic circumstances

(ii) humanist - committed to the idea that all human beings should be accorded equal worth, respect and concern and that some of our shared human experiences need to be protected to preserve the dignity of all persons

(iii) liberal - rejecting hierarchies of importance based on classifications such as social status, race and gender and valuing each life as an end in itself

(iv) concerned with the social shaping of preference and desire - reflecting that 'people's desires and preferences respond to their beliefs about social norms and their own opportunities' (Nussbaum, 1999, p. …

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