IWRM at McGill University

I had the pleasure of joining (via Skype) the graduate class on Water: Society, Law and Policy that is a core course in McGill University’s graduate certificate in integrated water resources management. This was the third time I was invited to speak on ethical issues in water policy with that course and, as I have come to expect from the students there, it was a treat.

One of the students offered a nice critique of some of the work Peter Brown and I did in our book, specifically the essay on what we called ‘compassionate retreat‘ that forms the last chapter of our book. The gist of that piece is that water management has over-emphasized technical and scientific knowledge at the expense of considering issues of normative judgment. So we suggest that finding ways of retreating from our current position as a dominant force in complex systems and do so with compassion is vital – both with respect to the obligations we created through massive interventions into the water cycle and with respect to those excluded from the ‘benefits’ wrought under the guise of that type of development.

The student who critiqued the paper did a fabulous job, particularly in drawing out a nice distinction regarding science and technology. The distinction focused on the difference between policy programs oriented towards how science and technology should be applied versus if certain forms of science and technology fit with defensible ends for water management.

As with other opportunities engaging with the students in this class, it was a privilege to have somebody engage with your work so closely that, when they put up a diagram summarizing your chapter you think, “Hey, maybe we could use that if we revisit this?”


  1. Jeremy,

    This is great that you are engaging with students and with IWRM. It seems to me that IWRM is the best existing conceptual framework for incorporating ethical considerations in water management. I re-read your “compassionate retreat” paper — which I really like — and have been thinking a lot about how one would go about operationalizing this idea within the IWRM framework. It’s not clear to me yet. I think there is some resistance or discomfort among water resources professionals to embrace philosophical or ethical ideas. Even the goals within IWRM of preserving the environment imply (never explicitly stated as far as I can tell) that this is to be done only because this preserves “services” that humans find useful. In other words, it is still anthropomorphic. But, that sort of self-centredness can find general buy-in, whereas if you start talking about morals or virtue, people are liable to tune out, because that sounds like ideology rather than just being utilitarian. I disagree, but that is the vibe I get.

    A key point you make in your paper is the gaps in our understanding of physical hydrological processes. This causes our models to have a great deal of uncertainty in predicting the effects of interventions into the hydrologic system. My hydrologist and engineer colleagues are fully aware of this, and they would offer techniques like adaptive management and safety factors to deal with such uncertainty. However, while this is helpful, this still seems to me to be a technical response and still rests (at least to some degree) on a benefit-cost kind of consideration. That is, the ethic is still non-moral and utilitarian.

    One question I had for you from your “compassionate retreat” paper is how one would operationally define “virtuous” or “ethical” with respect to water management, preserving the environment, and promoting sustainability. That is, are these ideas still “utilitarian” in a broad sense of the word? For example, some of the wordings you used to describe virtue or ethics mentioned things like “conducive to a good life for the entire community of life” or words like “humility”, “fairness”, “justice”, “respect”. I am in full agreement with these as guiding principles. However, I think one could also see these as a way to operationalize existing IWRM goals of environmental preservation and sustainability. Maybe you see a difference in the sense of preserving the environment for its own intrinsic worth rather than its worth to humans, but then that gets pretty philosophical. But even just at the level of human utility, I think these principles are helpful in guiding us in preserving the environment for the goal of truly achieving sustainability of human populations. That is, they can be utilitarian and, to put it crudely, self-serving.

    Another key idea that you mention toward the end of your paper is the goal of “minimal intervention”. It seems obvious to me that a century of big interventions has proven itself to be essentially disastrous. Because we do not understand the systems we are playing around with very well, we ought to expect there to be unintended consequences from our interventions. Climate warming is certainly another example of this. So, another operational principle that we could use within IWRM could be the principle of minimal intervention. This would cause us to err on the side of caution — essentially the “precautionary principle”. However — and this is probably the sticky point — it would also cause us to back off of our demands from the system based not so much on rigourous economic analyses but on principle. We have a long way to go before many people would embrace such an idea — that is, of “enoughness”.

    Another idea or meme out there is that environmental concerns and preservation is a luxury of the rich. I understand the grain of truth in this, but is it possible even for poor people desperately trying to survive to preserve their own “habitat”, or are they doomed to destroy the physical basis of their life? Even poor people, if they are to survive in the long run, need to preserve their environment. So I think it is a red herring for people to say that preserving the environment is a luxury. Of course, the hard part is that preserving the environment is a long-term prospect, which has to be balanced with people’s short-term needs for survival. But I would hope that developing countries as well as rich countries would learn the lessons of the mistakes of the rich countries — but we’ll see.

    Well, I could go on, but that is plenty for now. I guess what I hope for is to see ethics like what you discuss becoming integrated into mainstream water management paradigms. IWRM is the current one, and hopefully it will continue to evolve. Engaging students, who will become tomorrow’s water professionals, is an excellent way to accomplish this.

    David Garen

  2. Hi David,
    Thanks for your interesting comments and questions – as always, it is nice to hear them!

    I think we are in agreement about the gaps between complex systems and our knowledge of them. And forms of adaptive management encourage us to take an experimental view towards the space between knowledge and uncertainty. I think one of the issues we tried to raise on this front is that the knowledge we have of complex systems is always positioned and partial. This leaves us relatively ignorant of exactly how the gap we acknowledge actually relates to parts of the system that we don’t have knowledge of (and which is likely to be changing).

    When it comes to making things operational, we suggest first a recovery of the idea of virtue – which refers to qualities of persons rather than the principles of action. Making virtue operational just is acting virtuously. Aristotle defined it as striving for the the mean (though he did not mean average) between extremes. Alternately, one of the main ideas in the opening chapter of the book is that we are always making ethical principles operational in water management. The question is: which principles?

    Here the idea of minimal intervention functions as the counterpoint to attempts at trying to manage ever more of complex systems. The mean in this case, and at this time, is for less intervention – particularly so given the increasingly difficult time we have hydrologically when things like stationarity are under question.

    As for the question of ‘enough’ your guess is as good as mine. My preference, however, would be to first start with the question of efficiency. Specifically, to question just how calculations of efficiency are made in water management. This is important because efficiency calculations are ratios, but we must lean on our values and policy objectives to tell us what goes in the numerator and what goes in the denominator. So here is another example where we already make our ethics operational and where we can start auguring for an explicit discussion of ethics and values.

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