by Katharina Welle, DPhil student

Water is a vital piece in the sustainability jigsaw. It’s also a resource that requires careful management. In the final plenary session at the STEPS Centre’s Annual Conference last week, Andy Stirling encouraged us to exercise “intellectual judo” in pursuing pathways to sustainability: finding “levers” where we can change or redirect the momentum of mainstream ideas to open up more options and directions of change (pathways).

Well, one question that I ask myself sometimes is what role water plays in the pathways concept (for more about pathways, see the STEPS working paper or briefing). More broadly, how do we engage with water as a resource for sustainability in general?

The conference highlighted at least two ways to conceptualise water as part of pathways for sustainability: 1) to concentrate on water itself, and explore sustainable ways to manage it; and 2) to view water as one of many inputs into sustainability and sustainability debates (where other inputs might be land, food, people etc). In Friday’s panel on Water Dynamics, the four presentations offered a mixture of these two ways of looking at water.

Christian Stein (Stockholm Resilience Centre) is using social network analysis to look at the interaction of organisations involved in the management of “blue water” (resources in aquifers, lakes and dams) and those working with “green” water (ie water embedded in moisture and soils). In the session, he suggested that water could be managed more sustainably if we better understand the links between these two types of actors. Alan Nicol (Institute of Development Studies) also talked about more sustainable ways of managing water. He proposes using social network analysis to better understand the linkages in water resources management – his particular focus is on river basin management in various parts of Africa. He suggested that river basin management is dominated by the agendas of powerful actors, with possibly negative results for sustainability – nicely expressed in the metaphor of his title “When hippos hug – what happens to the pond life?”

The other two contributions highlighted the role of water in wider sustainability debates. Maria Teresa Armijos (DPhil, Institute of Development Studies) and Synne Movik (independent consultant) used water to illustrate how a resource can be used to increase sustainability or how it can be subject to trade-offs between different social, economic or environmental forces.

Maria Teresa Armijos presented findings from her DPhil field work on the communal dynamics of water resources management. In the Andes, water is used as a political tool to exercise power; but in the community Maria studied in Ecuador, local people also use water to express their sense of identity. This resonated nicely with Synne’s presentation. She asked the interesting question of what role sustainability plays in distributive justice, based on her reading of Armatya Sen’s book The Idea Of Justice. Drawing on a case from South Africa, Synne argued that the subjective framing of sustainability can easily ignore the question of justice. In South Africa, arguments for sustainability tend to focus on economic and environmental sustainability; in the case of water resources management, these arguments portray social justice as a barrier to sustainability.

Both ways of engaging with the domain of water in pathways to sustainability are useful in their own right. But are there more ways of looking at water in relation to sustainability pathways? Let’s continue the intellectual judo!

>> STEPS Centre: Water & Sanitation research
>> STEPS Centre Conference 2010: Pathways to Sustainability