Ethics and the duty of water

I’ve mentioned the interesting work that James Wescoat has been doing on the “duty of water” in a previous post. And now there is another work of his that is out on the concept. This one is in the Journal of Landscape Architecture and it combines issues of ethics with those of irrigation. Here is the abstract:

The ‘duties of water’ with respect to planting: toward an ethics of irrigated landscapes


The ethical dimensions of irrigation in landscape planning and design are examined. After introducing the historic ‘duty of water’ standard for irrigation use, four major extensions of that concept are discussed: 1) the duty to start watering (reclamation ethic); 2) the duty to reduce watering (conservation ethic); 3) the duty to stop watering (ecological ethic); and 4) the duty to continue watering (planting ethic). No one of these duties universally overrides the others. They need to be critically examined and coordinated with one another in irrigated landscapes. The final section of the paper outlines a pragmatic path toward an ethics of irrigation in landscape planning and design.

James Wescoat on “The Duty of Water”

James Wescoat, at MIT, has a new paper out that looks at the irrigation concept known as the “duty of water” to see how different social norms have changed over time. It’s open access, here is the PDF.

Here is the abstract:

This paper assesses changing norms of water use known as the duty of water. It is a case study in historical socio-hydrology, a line of research useful for anticipating changing social values with respect to water. The duty of water is currently defined as the amount of water reasonably required to irrigate a substantial crop with careful management and without waste on a given tract of land. The historical section of the paper traces this concept back to late-18th century analysis of steam engine efficiencies for mine dewatering in Britain. A half-century later, British irrigation engineers fundamentally altered the concept of duty to plan large-scale canal irrigation systems in northern India at an average duty of 218 acres per cubic foot per second (cfs). They justified this extensive irrigation standard (i.e., low water application rate over large areas) with a suite of social values that linked famine prevention with revenue generation and territorial control. Several decades later irrigation engineers in the western US adapted the duty of water concept to a different socio-hydrologic system and norms, using it to establish minimum standards for water rights appropriation (e.g., only 40 to 80 acres per cfs). The final section shows that while the duty of water concept has now been eclipsed by other measures and standards of water efficiency, it may have continuing relevance for anticipating if not predicting emerging social values with respect to water.