Exploring the Implementation Potential of a Proposed Water Ethic: A Canadian Case Study into Underlying Ethical Considerations for Water Resources Management
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Ideas about water use and ethics have been linked for many thousands of years. In this millennium, water resources remain a primary area of concern throughout the world, including such issues as shortages, supply, flooding, quality, restoration, allocation and regulation. Today, electronic environmental news and specialty websites contain a breadth of information on current water resources conflicts and issues throughout the world. In many parts of the world, water quantity is decreasing and water quality is worsening, lack of access to improved water supplies is decreasing, as is access to basic sanitation. Water challenges relating to water quantity and water quality are increasingly common in Canada and the United States due to water resources being under increasing pressure from population growth, economic activity and intensifying competition for the water among users. Faced with these challenges, humans are confronted with momentous decisions. Before making more decisions that will have an influence over water resources, and in response to repeated calls for a water ethic, this research takes the perspective that it is necessary to explore the ethical intentions of decision-makers with respect to water resources legislation and policy in Canada. The ultimate goal is to define a set of principles for a proposed water ethic that could and should be implemented at the municipal level of government in Canada. A review of academic and professional literature and a mixed methods research approach comparing two case study areas was used to gain a baseline understanding of the potential influences of underlying ethical frameworks on policy makers in Calgary, Alberta and Guelph, Ontario. A proposed water ethic, containing a set of principles compiled from ethical considerations for water use in academic and professional literature, was also developed and presented to case study participants. Participants provided feedback on their strength of agreement with each principle, thoughts on modifications, improvements and/or deletions of any principle, and implementation considerations of the proposed water ethic at the municipal level of government. The results indicate that case study participants in both areas apply a variety of ethical frameworks when making professional decisions about water resources management, and when preparing water legislation and policy. A review of relevant legislation, policies, documents and strategies in the case study areas supports this conclusion. In particular, components of the Consequentialist ethical framework (a perspective that can be associated with sustainable development and sustainability) are most often acknowledged in the statements of intent of the participants and water resource legislation and policies. Respondents also indicated that value positions associated with the Intrinsic Value ethical framework influenced policy preparation and decision-making; however, the ethical considerations associated with this framework are not as obvious in the language and intent of relevant legislation, plans, documents, and strategies. The case study participants in both areas supported all six proposed principles of the proposed water ethic and offered only minor modifications to the presented wording and intent. The endorsed principles of the proposed water ethic are: (1) allocate sufficient water to maintain and enhance ecosystem integrity; (2) establish conservation and efficiency measures as a priority over new supply initiatives in water resources planning; (3) meet basic human needs and enhance equity; (4)establish open and participative decision-making processes; (5) identify and seek to obtain multiple sustainability benefits from water-centered initiatives; and, (6) explicitly acknowledge system complexity and emphasize precaution. The feedback from the participants about the proposed water ethic, in association with the results of the ethical frameworks, informed the eight implementation recommendations, including: (1) entrench a water ethic vision in Provincial and municipal legislation; (2) work from within existing governance structures and institutional arrangements; (3) use an incremental model of decision-making; (4) provide specific policy examples for each principle within a water ethic; (5) include realistic and measurable targets within the policies; (6) accept that all six water ethic principles are unlikely to be accepted at once; (7) ensure the overall vision of the water ethic, principles, associated examples, and measureable targets, are defensible; and, (8)acknowledge the importance of strategy. The recommendations acknowledge that while the proposed water ethic is presented as a package and each principle is valuable, conflict and trade-offs may occur during the implementation process. The recommendations are therefore pragmatic and take into account the current governance structures and institutional arrangements. There is a growing recognition that understanding the underlying ethical perspectives that influence decision-makers may contribute to more effective water resources management legislation and policy. This research adds to this body of knowledge by showing that it is possible to identify ethical frameworks, extract the defining characteristics associated with each framework, and use case studies to suggest which ethical frameworks assert varying degrees of influence. This link between theory and practice may help organizations recognize what ethical considerations influence decision-making and identify the strengths and limitations of these ethical approaches to managing water resources. In addition, prior to this study, research had only been conducted into the identification of principles for the ethical use of water and not into the potential for implementation of a realistic and desirable water ethic that reflects sustainability and lasting well-being at the municipal level of government in Canada. Several opportunities exist to build on this research. They include (1) investigate if the ethical intent of legislation and policy related to water resources management is put into practice, (2) identify other ethical frameworks that may apply to decision-making, (3) focus on political decision-makers and their claims and intentions about water use, (4) test the implementation of the water ethic proposed in this study, and (5) investigate how to integrate ethical considerations about water into checklists and protocols related to land use development, professional codes of conduct and standards, institutional and organizational training programs, performance measures for official plans, and as standard components for municipal council reports and ministerial presentations. This exploratory research concludes that policy makers are willing to become more aware of their underlying ethical underpinnings and to learn how ethical considerations embedded in legislation and policy have the potential to exert significant influence over the behaviour of current and future water users.
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