Santa Cruz Declaration on the Global Water Crisis


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Santa Cruz Declaration on the Global Water Crisis

At least one billion people around the world struggle with insufficient access to water. However, the global water crisis is not, as some suggest, primarily driven by water scarcity. Although limited water supply and inadequate institutions are indeed part of the problem, we assert that the global water crisis is fundamentally one of injustice and inequality. This declaration expresses our understanding of water injustice and how it can be addressed.

Crisis manifested

The global water crisis has multiple causes, dimensions and manifestations. One can observe the crisis in rural and urban areas across the global South. We have, for example, observed the following in our fieldwork:

● Peasants impelled to draw water from a spring, when large nearby pipes carry water to a mine in Peru
● People in Lesotho lacking access to clean drinking water as the government exports water to South Africa
● Community water managers excluded from the Nicaraguan water law
● Young girls in rural Nepal carrying water barrels up long mountain trails at night because climate change and hydroelectric projects have made village taps intermittent
● People bathing in a toxic river in Cambodia
● Residents of Dar es Salaam lacking access to water because the pipes fail to reach the informal settlements where most residents live
● Multinational agribusiness companies growing asparagus for export to the indus- trialized world, in the desert of Peru, with water taken from indigenous communities in the Andes

Environmental injustices are not limited to the global South. They are also manifested in the global North where marginalized communities live in similar conditions. For instance, in California’s Central Valley, running from Sacramento to Bakersfield, residents in low- income communities pay high prices for contaminated water for domestic and garden uses, and then have to buy bottled water to drink. Clean water from the Sacramento Delta travels in canals, bypassing these communities, for the benefit particularly of large-scale agriculture in Southern California.

These are a few of the ironies and inequities that make up the global water crisis. They are inequities of access, illustrations of exclusion and misuse, not the consequences of water shortage. They arise from the tendency of water to flow to the powerful and privileged, and often result from larger processes, including those highlighted below.

Urbanization and inequality. In many of the burgeoning cities of the global South, inequities of water provision have been inherited from the spatial segregation between rulers and ruled established by colonial-era city planning. Injustices are frequently embo- died as physical infrastructure, because allocational decisions become fixed in infrastruc- tural investments and designs, producing exclusion and poverty for some, and provision and accumulation for others. The fully provisioned cities built for colonial rulers still house those with the most wealth and power. Informal settlements, the product of historically unprecedented migration from rural areas to cities since independence, sur- round the provisioned core. Lack of access to water and sanitation generates unproductive work and degrading conditions that limit the enterprise and creativity of much of the population in these informal settlements, particularly women and children. People living in informal settlements may be marked as undeserving and trapped in interacting spirals of poverty and marginality. Equitable access could bolster people’s capacities, liberate their creative energies, enhance social status and validate citizenship.

Irrigation and injustice. The coexistence of formal laws and pre-existing laws and practices for irrigation water in many parts of the world signals the centrality of water for survival, economic accumulation and political influence. Legal plurality also signals that water access is often highly contested, with varying ideas about how to best or most fairly distribute it. Indigenous practices are often ignored or suppressed by governments which, in the name of production and efficiency and camouflaged by technocratic language, undermine the rights and lifeways of vulnerable and marginalized communities. Large irrigation schemes in many parts of the world become mechanisms for accumulation by large landholders, while small farmers are dispossessed with only residual access to water that ignores domestic needs. An equitable allocation of water should raise living stan- dards, revive rural communities, and recognize productive uses of water for livelihoods and the environment, even when these benefits do not have clear monetary valuation.

Mining. Mining requires substantial quantities of water. Mining companies can bring development (and justice) as they develop the infrastructure required for mineral extraction. At the same time, the companies degrade water sources, territories and cultures. While there are cases where mining companies have engaged communities at the nego- tiating table, the overwhelming power of the companies may prejudice the outcome of negotiations. Large-scale mining activities often destroy both the physical-hydrological as well as the institutional ‘waterscape’, altering the courses of rivers and polluting water and soils, as well as transforming existing systems of water rights and responsibilities. Mining companies often become the de facto managers of water, but without systems to hold them accountable for their actions. Water justice requires the voices of the powerless to be heard above corporate and state actors.

Land and water grabbing. Access to water is a critical component of land deals in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. Investors prefer to acquire land with reliable access to water and the potential for irrigation. Only a minority of investment is for rainfed agriculture. While long-term land leases in Sub-Saharan Africa often guarantee the investors the right to access water, water rights are frequently transferred without concern for downstream users or the environment. Small-scale cultivators who have managed to retain their land find that they no longer have access to the water necessary to put it to productive use. In this context, water justice and water equity are contingent upon transparent leasing procedures and protecting the interests of all stakeholders.

Tensions over international rivers. Borders established by colonial rule, infrastructures of storage, distribution and flood mitigation, and the uneven distribution of benefits from water use routinely lead to injustice on many of the world’s international rivers. We suggest that the growth of multi-track diplomacy, involving not just governments but citizen organizations and business enterprises, may increase pressures for justice in the allocation of the benefits of international rivers, while possibly also reducing the risk of violent conflict.

The nature and culture of water

Contemporary water allocations have come about through long, winding, co-evolutionary processes consisting of interactions between different actors, technologies and institutions. Decision making around water occurs in relation to other overlapping land and wildlife management practices (for example, agriculture/aquaculture, gathering of aquatic resources, irrigation and mining) that can be occurring at the same time and place but carried out by different stakeholders, under different governance regimes, and assigned to different institutions (for example, mining activities may be regulated by one ministry and wildlife by another). An assessment of what is equitable or fair often depends on the observer’s (political and situational) perspective and identification.

Water is not only a natural resource but is also an element imbued with spiritual, social, cultural and symbolic meaning. Indeed, water and society are mutually constituted. Efforts to promote equity in water governance thus cannot be achieved if these complex contexts, facets and interconnections are diluted or overlooked.

Justice and equity

Equality in some dimension is sought by almost all political philosophies. Philosophies of the Right seek equal freedoms and liberties, sometimes emphasizing freedom from government and taxation. Philosophies of the Left seek equal opportunities and outcomes, particularly with respect to material capabilities, income, assets and education. Water justice can address both sets of concerns, those of freedoms and those of capabilities.

Water justice encompasses questions of distribution and cultural recognition, as well as political participation. Justice may extend from demands for equal access, to demands for recognition of difference and autonomy in how water is used, to demands for full participatory democratic rights and citizenship. These demands are connected in complex and sometimes contradictory ways, linking resource access to questions of identity, belonging and territory.

The growth of environmental concern, and the recognition of large-scale ecological imperatives, have raised awareness that access to natural resources, and social interaction with them, can be a nexus of inequality. In the industrialized world, the banner of ‘environmental justice’ has proved valuable in struggles against the siting of toxic waste close to low-income and minority communities. The idea of water justice and equity is beginning to be raised in the non-industrialized world. It provides a space, and suggests a set of metrics, for leverage and struggle centred on a relationship to nature constituting human society. Nonetheless, demands for justice cannot be based on some outside, transcendent view of what justice is or should be; they need to be connected to and informed by demands for equity and justice articulated by movements or struggles for water justice.

Water justice can be conceived as equitable or comparable access for particular water uses and deliberated fairness between uses. Within uses, or sectors (domestic, agricul- tural, industrial, mining), equitable access or allocation can be determined straightfor- wardly. In cities, for example, households with full provision of domestic water can be distinguished from those excluded, and equitable levels of service established. Equity between uses may be more difficult to establish. The injustice of water allocation and access between uses, concretized in laws, agencies and infrastructure, would be subject to the criterion of fairness. Deliberation in the light of development goals, and the questioning of entrenched rights and inequities, are required to achieve a fair or just distribution between mining and communities, between cities and farming, and between domestic and irrigation water.

In many cases, promoting justice also requires broadening political participation, extending citizenship, guaranteeing democratic rights and recognizing cultural differences. Injustices do not just become manifest in how water is distributed. Rather, they inhere within the structures through which rights to water are defined, and by whom, as well as in who has the ability to make and benefit from water investments.

Implications for action and research

Existing water discussions and much research assume that water questions can be resolved either with straightforward, globally applicable technological interventions or with generic changes in government and policy. If, as we suggest, water questions are about inequities arising from diverse intertwined processes involving a range of actors, ecologies and technologies and influenced by questions of territory, identity and belonging, then solu- tions may not be simple, global, and primarily technical or governmental. Inequalities are embedded in particular histories, reflecting the character of that place, and its boundaries and conflicts. Actions and research for more justice therefore need to be explicitly connected to and grounded in people’s experiences of injustice and their strategies and struggles to contest and remedy it. Diverse and plural conceptions of equity and justice emphasize the need for critical pluralism and critical engagement, rather than unthinking application of global ideas.

If inequalities arise from diverse co-evolutionary processes, neither innovative tech- nologies in filtration, pumping, distribution and storage, nor generalized governance remedies like privatization, will be sufficient to resolve established injustices. They may, in fact, skew access even further and create new injustices. Equity requires the development of new and improved insights into how actual distributions of water – and of water-related powers, rights and authorities – come about. Creative institutions and practices may best be generated through engagement with the excluded, impoverished and dispossessed. Water justice requires that all stakeholders can find ways to act collectively in their own best interests. New forms of engagement are required with those who directly experience, and struggle against, injustices.

Remedies for injustice

We, the undersigned scholars, community members, activists, officials and citizens, declare that the principal form of the water crisis is not a shortage of water, nor failures of government, but the many injustices in access to, the allocation of, and the quality of water. The global water crisis is not likely to be resolved by the provision of more water. Redressing injustice is a more promising approach. That requires a critical rethinking and transformation in how water, water rights and authority are distributed. We recognize and build upon work that has gone before, including notably the work of the Justicia Hídrica/ Water Justice Alliance, and the work to implement the human right to water and to include water in corporate social responsibility certification initiatives.

An understanding of the multidimensional causes of injustice, including historical decisions about infrastructure, unnoticed aspects of technologies, the diversity of ecological constraints, and the use of water to accumulate wealth and power, may each suggest possible openings for the redemption of inequities.

We suggest that this work can be furthered through some of the following portfolio of measures to mitigate inequities and to seek a wider water justice.

Policy dialogue could be instigated with diverse stakeholders to examine persistent water inequities. There could be harmonizing mechanisms to redress imbalances of power. This mode of action has been pioneered on a range of questions by community-based organizations in several countries. The object of such dialogues on water justice would be to open up long-ignored injustices for collective action by government, judicial process and social protest. Active and conscious efforts to include those who most directly experience injustices are important here.

Local actions, multi-scalar mobilizations and democratic assessment. Mobilizations by marginalized household members, water user families, environmental justice organizations, and grass-roots communities and federations often raise significant questions of water equity. Resistance to large hydroelectric and irrigation structures, for example, has sometimes led to multi-stakeholder and democratic discussion. On a global scale, the World Commission on Dams is perhaps the most substantive example of such discussion. Comparable initiatives are required to evaluate the influence of new combinations of physical infrastructure and the social and environmental choices they embody.

Academic and reportorial investigations. Both scholarly and journalistic investigations, in a wide range of academic disciplines and by those in the media specializing in questions of poverty or the environment, could examine the implications of established as well as new infrastructure and institutional boundaries. Water access could be understood under this framework but expanded to include multi-scalar processes and situations where boundaries are complicated by the politics of space.

Santa Cruz, California, 15 February 2014

The Santa Cruz Declaration drew upon the work of participants in a U.S. National Science Foundation-supported workshop on Equitable Water Governance held at the University of California Santa Cruz in February 2013. Comments, both critical and constructive, from a range of prominent water researchers and practitioners were published with the Declaration (and available on this page under Past Comments) as part of a special issue of the International Water Resources Association journal, Water International:

(2014) Santa Cruz Declaration on the Global Water Crisis, Water International, 39:2, 246-261, DOI: 10.1080/02508060.2014.886936.



The undersigned endorse the principles of the declaration as it appears above. It was prepared by a small group of participants (marked * below), building on the work of many others, in the NSF-sponsored workshop on Equitable Water Governance.

Rutgerd Boelens*
Jessica Budds
Jeffrey Bury
Christopher Butler
Ben Crow*,
Brian Dill*
Adam French
Leila M. Harris
Colin Hoag
Seema Kulkarni
Ruth Langridge
Flora Lu*
Timothy B. Norris
Constanza Ocampo-Raeder*
Tom Perreault
Sarah Romano
Susan Spronk
Veena Srinivasan
Catherine M. Tucker
Margreet Zwarteveen*

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To view the complete publication as a pdf document please download it here.