The world faces severe global risks of over-extraction and misuse of water that will prevent achievement by 2030 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. The crisis of water availability and access, and degradation of water resources, perpetuates a cycle of water injustice when: (1) people do not have water access to meet their needs (physical, social, economic and cultural); (2) there is inadequate recognition and protection of these needs (including cultural practices); (3) water governance is not inclusive and lacks procedural justice, especially in relation to vulnerable people; and (4) knowledge is withheld, obscured or marginalised to maintain the status quo. Those most afflicted by water injustice are the poor and vulnerable. Water justice issues play out across scales and axes of social difference such as gender, class, race and ethnicity.

To respond to the global problems of water injustice, this special issue will: (1) Amplify ‘voice’ to those suffering from water injustice; (2) Promote ‘truth’ in relation to injustice and the impediments to water justice; (3) Seek ‘reconciliation’ and meaningful pathways to overcome past and current water injustice; and (4) Support inclusion with evidence and information for practitioners, governments, academics, civil society, and communities about how to incorporate water justice within the mainstream of water governance.

Bending Towards Water Justice – ‘valuing’ water and World Water Day 2021

R. Quentin Grafton, Safa Fanaian, Gabriela Sacco & Luis Liberman

World Water Day is celebrated each year on the 22 March. The theme in 2021 is ‘valuing water’ with the aim of getting people, institutions and governments to reflect on how water is central to our world. Access to water is essential to our very survival and sits at the heart of how we frame sustainability (set out explicitly in Sustainable Development Goal 6). It’s basic to life; it unites us, but it also divides us. Global Water Forum’s Quentin Grafton together with colleagues Safa Fanaian, Gabriela Sacco and Luis Liberman make a plea here to place water justice at the core of any reflection on the many values to water.

Any discussion on the ‘value’ of water must incorporate the notion of justice.

At a minimum, water justice requires:
-that everyone’s basic water needs are met;
-all those materially affected by water decisions have a respected ‘voice’ at the table; and
-substantive action is taken to correct for past and continuing water injustice.

Without justice, and a transformational shift to a ‘culture of care’, the worthy Sustainable Development Goal to ‘Ensure access to water and sanitation for all’ will never be achieved and billions will remain unserved or underserved in terms of access to clean water and improved sanitation.

The COVID-19 pandemic acutely illustrates the fault lines of water justice. The poor and vulnerable, especially in high density communities who have no, or limited access to the most basic water services, are particularly exposed.

While much has, and is, being done in the ‘Water Action Decade’, there is so much more to do.

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Law versus justice: the Strategic Aboriginal Water Reserve in the Northern Territory, Australia

William Nikolakis & R. Quentin Grafton


Using a policy tracing approach, we analyse the legislating of the Strategic Aboriginal Water Reserve (SAWR) in the Northern Territory, Australia. The SAWR is a share of the consumptive pool allocated to eligible Indigenous landowners in water plan areas, providing water resources for future economic development. Drawing on parliamentary and policy sources to reveal competing interests and ideologies, and the challenges of codifying water rights, this study finds that legislating water rights alone is insufficient to achieve water justice – water justice measures must respond to power imbalances and inequities by empowering people with the capabilities to implement their rights.

KEYWORDS: Indigenous People’s water rights, First Peoples, water justice, water policy, law

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Perceptions of Tanzanian smallholder irrigators on impact pathways between water equity and socioeconomic inequalities

A. Manero  & S. A. Wheeler


Irrigation is promoted as a critical strategy for rural welfare, yet fundamental questions prevail on the linkages between water, equity and inequality. Applying mixed-methods, this study investigates the impact pathways whereby water inequities are associated with socioeconomic inequalities within two Tanzanian smallholder irrigation schemes. According to irrigators’ perceptions, greater water equity would benefit the poor through improved working conditions, productivity, reliability and reduced risk. Quantitative analyses corroborate that water-dissatisfied irrigators suffered from lower yields and higher unproductive land, investment losses and yield gaps. Education, empowerment and strong governance are proposed as possible avenues towards greater water equity and inclusive growth.

KEYWORDS: Inequality, irrigation, rural development, Sub-Saharan Africa, poverty, water equity

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Water colonialism and Indigenous water justice in south-eastern Australia

Lana D. Hartwig, Sue Jackson, Francis Markham & Natalie Osborne


Political theorists argue that justice for cultural groups must account for socioeconomic distribution, political representation and cultural recognition. Combining this tripartite justice framework with settler colonial theory, we analyse novel data sets relating to Aboriginal peoples’ water experiences in south-eastern Australia. We construe persistent injustices as ‘water colonialism’, showing that the development of Australia’s water resources has so far delivered little economic benefit to Aboriginal peoples, who remain marginalized from decision-making. We argue that justice theories need to encompass a fourth dimension – the vitally important socio-ecological realm – if they are to serve as conceptual resources for advancing Indigenous peoples’ rights and needs.

KEYWORDS: Indigenous water rights, water governance, Indigenous peoples and agriculture, Murray–Darling Basin

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Water and land justice for Indigenous communities in the Lowbidgee Floodplain of the Murray–Darling Basin, Australia

Rene Woods, Ian Woods & James A. Fitzsimons


In Australia’s Murray–Darling Basin, efforts to restore water justice for the environment have focused on environmental flows for natural values of wetlands and floodplains. But there has also been an emergence of collaborative partnerships between environmental water managers and First Nations community organizations to water ‘Country’. The A$180 million Gayini Nimmie-Caira water-saving project saw the New South Wales and Australian governments purchase 19 properties on the Lowbidgee Floodplain, together with associated water rights, with the aim of delivering environmental flows, protecting First Nations cultural heritage and ensuring long-term sustainable land management. A consortium of environmental non-governmental organizations, First Nations and scientific organizations successfully tendered for the long-term management of the 88,000 ha property, Gayini Nimmie-Caira. This case study is used here to discuss water (and land) justice from the perspective of the Nari Nari people, the Traditional Custodians of Gayini Nimmie-Caira and the applicability of this model to other regions.

KEYWORDS: Water justice, cultural flows, environmental flows, land purchase

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Informality and water justice: community perspectives on water issues in Cape Town’s low-income neighbourhoods

Johan Enqvist, Gina Ziervogel, Luke Metelerkamp, John van Breda, Ntombikayise Dondi, Thabo Lusithi, Apiwe Mdunyelwa, Zinzi Mgwigwi, Mpumelelo Mhlalisi, Siya Myeza, Gciniwe Nomela, Ann October, Welekazi Rangana & Maggie Yalabi


Cape Town’s water injustices are entrenched by the mismatch between government interventions and the lived realities in many informal settlements and other low-income areas. This transdisciplinary study draws on over 300 stories from such communities, showing overwhelming frustration with the municipality’s inability to address leaking pipes, faulty bills and poor sanitation. Cape Town’s interventions typically rely on technical solutions that tend to ignore or even exacerbate the complex social problems on the ground. Water justice requires attention be paid to the range of everyday realities that exist in the spectrum from formal to informal settlements.

KEYWORDS: Citizen science, informal settlements, narrative-based research, transdisciplinary research, urban governance, water services

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Water justice and Europe’s Right2Water movement

Jerry van den Berge, Jeroen Vos & Rutgerd Boelens


In 2013 the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) ‘Right2Water’ collected 1.9 million signatures across Europe against water privatization. It became the first ever successful ECI and has built a Europe-wide movement. Right2Water sought for Europe’s legal enforcement of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation (HRWS) as a strategic political tool to challenge European Union market policies. The paper examines the ECI from a social movement perspective. Although the European Commission subscribed that ‘water is a public good, not a commodity’, its implementation is subject to continuing politics and socio-political struggle, with growing urgency in times of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis.

KEYWORDS: Human Right to Water, privatization, social movement, European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), European Commission, Covid-19

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Impounded rivers, compounded injustice: contesting the social impacts of hydraulic development in Laos

David J. H. Blake & Keith Barney


Laos has rapidly expanded its hydraulic infrastructure, creating profound environmental, economic and social ruptures. We combine frameworks of environmental justice with political ecology to examine the multiple expressions of water injustice evident in three hydropower project case studies involving resettlement. We find that livelihood restoration measures have not ameliorated, but reproduced underlying problems of poverty, inequity, exclusion and coercive expressions of social injustice. These are viewed as the structural outcomes of political choices. We conclude that there is little potential for a water justice paradigm in Laos without significant reforms to the national frameworks for water governance and human rights.

KEYWORDS: Hydraulic infrastructure development, water injustice, livelihoods, dam-induced displacement, Laos

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Murky waters: the impact of privatizing water use on environmental degradation and the exclusion of local communities in the Caribbean

Johana Herrera Arango, Juan Antonio Senent-De Frutos & Elías Helo Molina


The effects of climate change on tropical ecosystems cannot be interpreted based on physical variables alone. Severe water shortages and deterioration of ecosystems are most acute in places where historical inequalities occur, such as unequal access to land and other goods and rights necessary for the livelihood of marginalized populations. This paper explores environmental transformations and their repercussions on water resources based on spatial analysis and fieldwork carried out in the Colombian Caribbean. We have engaged with peasant and Afro-descendant populations who have been excluded from water use and now face problems in sustaining their way of life.

KEYWORDS: Privatization, socio-hydrological dynamics, Colombian Caribbean, environmental change

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