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Toward a Global Water Ethic: Learning from Indigenous Communities

  • Emma S. Norman


This review essay examines three important new contributions to the water governance literature, which provide important overviews of the changing water governance structures over time, and advance the call for a new water ethic. Furthering this work, I suggest that the need for a water ethic is globally important, but it is particularly urgent for indigenous communities. Settler expansion, fixed political boundaries, and subsequent colonial framings of land and water ownership have affected indigenous communities throughout the world and have led to severe environmental and social justice disparities. Although the books under consideration provide examples of indigenous rights associated with water protection, the theme is largely underdeveloped. Thus, I suggest that insights from indigenous communities’ more holistic and long-term relationship with water could help define and move forward the adoption of a new global water ethic. These insights are gleaned from work with indigenous communities throughout North America, particularly those in the Salish Sea and the Great Lakes regions. A new water ethic could incorporate three precepts: (1) treat water as sacred; (2) consider rights and responsibilities together; and (3) practice hydrophilia (love and know your waterways).



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1 Biswas, Asit K. and Tortajada, Cecilia, “Assessing Global Water Megatrends,” in Biswas, Asit K., Tortajada, Cecilia, and Rohner, Philippe, eds., Assessing Global Water Megatrends (Singapore: Springer Nature, 2018), pp. 126.

2 Conca, Ken, Governing Water: Contentious Transnational Politics and Global Institution Building (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006), p. 114.

3 Mehta, Lyla and Movik, Synne, eds., Shit Matters: The Potential of Community-Led Total Sanitation (Warwickshire, U.K.: Practical Action Publishing, 2011).

4 Ibid.

5 Bakker, Karen, Privatizing Water: Governance Failure and the World's Urban Water Crisis (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2010); Budds, Jessica and Linton, Jamie, “The Hydrosocial Cycle: Defining and Mobilizing a Relational-Dialectical Approach to Water,” Geoforum 57 (2014), p. 170-180. Harris, Leila M. and Alatout, Samer, “Negotiating Hydro-Scales, Forging States: Comparison of the Upper Tigris/Euphrates and Jordan River Basins,” Political Geography 29, no. 3 (2010), pp. 148–56; Swyngedouw, Erik, “The Political Economy and Political Ecology of the Hydro-Social Cycle,” Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education 142, no. 1 (2009), pp. 5660; and Linton, Jamie, What Is Water? The History of a Modern Abstraction (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010).

6 Budds, Jessica, “Contested H2O: Science, Policy and Politics in Water Resources Management in Chile,” Geoforum 40, no. 3 (2009), pp. 418–30; and Budds, Jessica and Hinojosa, Leonith, “Restructuring and Rescaling Water Governance in Mining Contexts: The Co-Production of Waterscapes in Peru,” Water Alternatives 5, no. 1 (2012), pp. 119–37.

7 Norman, Emma, Cook, Christina, and Cohen, Alice, eds., Negotiating Water Governance: Why the Politics of Scale Matter (Farnham, Surrey, U.K.: Ashgate, 2015).

8 See also Leopold, Luna, “Ethos, Equity, and the Water Resource: The 1990 Abel Wolman Distinguished Lecture,” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 32, no. 2 (1990), pp. 1642.

9 Whyte, Kyle, “Is It Colonial Déjà Vu? Indigenous Peoples and Climate Injustice,” in Adamson, Joni and Davis, Michael, eds., Humanities for the Environment: Integrating Knowledge, Forging New Constellations of Practice (Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge Earthscan, 2016), pp. 88104.

10 Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Swinomish Climate Change Initiative: Impact Assessment Technical Report (La Conner, Wash.: Office of Planning and Community Development, 2009).

11 United Nations, “Communities of Ocean Action: Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14,” June 5–9, 2017,

12 Kimberly Curtis, “‘Climate Refugees,’ Explained,” UN Dispatch, April 24, 2017.

13 On the notion of false choices, see Gagnon, Valoree, Gorman, Hugh, and Norman, Emma, Eliminating the Need for Fish Advisories in the Great Lakes Region: A Policy Brief (Houghton, Mich.: Great Lakes Research Center, Michigan Technological University, 2018); and Donatuto, Jamie, Campbell, Larry, and Gregory, Robin, “Developing Responsive Indicators of Indigenous Community Health,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 13, no. 9 (2016).

14 Norman, Emma S., “Standing Up for Inherent Rights: The Role of Indigenous-Led Activism in Protecting Sacred Waters and Ways of Life,” Society & Natural Resources 30, no. 4 (2017), pp. 537–53; LaDuke, Winona, All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life (Chicago, Ill.: Haymarket Books, 2015); and Whyte, “Is it Colonial Déjà Vu?”

15 Norman, “Standing Up for Inherent Rights.”

16 Norman, Emma S., Governing Transboundary Waters: Canada, the United States, and Indigenous Communities (Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge Earthscan, 2015).

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Ethics & International Affairs
  • ISSN: 0892-6794
  • EISSN: 1747-7093
  • URL: /core/journals/ethics-and-international-affairs
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