More than to present a unique definition of “Water Justice’, its distinctive features and its related concepts, this intellectual and social project wants to put the collective effort and search to discover, unravel and conceptualize this field of notions, in practice, at the centre. This is one of the big challenges of the theoretical and empirical research done by the alliance.  

In the book Justicia Hídrica. Acumulación, Conflicto y Acción Social (Justicia Hídrica, IEP, PUCP. Lima: IEP, 2011), the first results of this collective research are presented, distinguishing between several interlinked levels: the conceptualization of water justice by each researcher; the perceptions of water justice by different local actors; and the consented idea of water justice at the level of the alliance. This way, an important element of our framework is to allow the understanding of water security and justice as something articulated, experimented and perceived by different actors and in a specific context, going beyond the search for general theory about what water justice should be according to the so called experts.      

 To understand processes of water and water rights accumulation and the resulting conflicts, we propose using the ‘echelons of rights framework’ (ERA – Echelons of Rights Analysis). This framework starts from a conceptualization of water rights as embedded in, and expressing, social relations of power. It recognizes the plurality of laws, rights and norms. The framework allows explicitly articulating that water conflicts and struggles are not just about the unequal distribution of resources, but also about the rules, authorities and discourses that justify or challenge this distribution. Some of the key themes that characterize the collective research project are:

(1) the understanding of water justice, in terms of ontology (what is it, how to define it, what characterizes it) and in terms of epistemology (how to know it);
(2) the understanding and interpretation of processes of water accumulation and dispossession;
(3) the role of discourses and knowledge in co-producing water injustices;
(4) the ways and strategies to not just ‘expose’ injustices and the resulting conflicts through research, but to also actively contribute to more water justice.

The latter is done by looking for ways to contribute to civil society actions that support those marginalized groups who tend to lose their water access or are without voice in water decision-making.

Agreeing on concepts and theories is much more than a scholarly concern inspired by desires for clarity, intellectual rigor or scientific excellence. It is also a deeply political and ideological matter. In the theme of water justices and injustices, the socio-economical, technical, hydrological, cultural, juridical and political aspects of water are interrelated and interdetermined. In the below attached document a number of notions and theories are discussed that can help in the task to identify and challenge the sources of injustice in the water sector an d the mechanisms and processes of expropiation and dispossession. It is a first exploration for debate around how to study water injustice in a transdisciplinary, reflexive, contextualized way, recognising the plurality and complexity  as fundamental characteristics of aquatic societies. To ground the analysis of ‘water justice’ we propose using and elaborating the following theoretical notions and concepts (Zwarteveen y Boelens, 2011).

  • a post-positivist and constructivist epistemology and a reflexive research attitude;
  • a conception of nature and society as mutually constitutive;
  • an explicit recognition of the contested nature of water – involving struggles and conflicts over the resource, over rights and rules, over authorities and over discourses;
  • an understanding of water control as multi-layered and complex, and water problems as ‘wicked problems’;
  • an ontological definition of the terms ‘water security’  and ‘ water rights’  as reflecting and co-constituting history- and context-specific constellations of labor- and property relations, embedded in social relations of power and socionatural networks at multiple scales;
  • a conceptualization of ‘justice’ or ‘equity’ that explicitly thematizes its relational character and that recognizes both its material and economic dimensions as well as its cultural dimensions;
  • a linking of ‘local’ water struggles to larger historical and economical trends and forces, and an understanding of the scalar dimensions of resistance and civil society action.

Since water use, management and rights intrinsically combine issues of (material) water resource distribution with those of water control decision-making, legitimate authority and cultural-political organization, the alliance’s examinations of ‘water justice’ will intimately link to both the questions of ‘socio-economic justice’ and ‘cultural justice’. Acknowledging that water justice has a cultural as well as a material element, requiring both socio-economic redistribution and cultural/political recognition, the examination of the relation between the two is what characterizes good scholarship and policy-making as well as balanced activist and grassroots action. 

The Justicia Hídrica / Water Justice objectives and questions bring us to the need to analyze which are the views of formally accredited justice (formal schemes of interpretation and legitimization, and legal-positivist constructs of ‘Right-ness’) and of socially perceived justice or equity (location-, time-, and group-particular political constructs of ‘fairness’) that are used. Third, it also requires an analysis of the actors that develop or impose these views, and why certain views on justice or equity are promoted and others ignored. It asks to study what are the effects of these views and conceptualizations for specific (powerful and non-privileged) groups.

This endeavour of the alliance to analyze, in all their diversity and controversies, the realities of injustice as experienced by the politically oppressed, the culturally discriminated and the economically exploited, relating them to both local perceptions of equity and hegemonic discourses, constructs and procedures of formal justice, means that we move from theories and universalistic notions of ‘should-be’ justice to relational concepts. It requires a grounded, comparative and historical approach, focusing on the fair distribution of benefits and burdens, including rights, obligations and needs.