The Ethics of Water

March 22, 2021

Written by Dr. Ingrid Stefanovic

Recently, a 90-year-old relative told me that he refuses to drink Toronto tap water. “I can’t,” he confessed. “I recall the bodies floating in the Danube during WWII and imagine that same water coming out of my tap.”

His daughters had tried, to no avail, to convince him that Toronto water was amongst the cleanest in the world. Eventually, having exhausted himself carrying bottled water from Whole Foods to his home, he agreed that he would try a Brita filter. “As long as it cleans the water,” he told me.

At age 90, we will all have accumulated our stubborn beliefs. In fact, no matter at what age, we each frame our decisions around multiple sets of memories and even personality characteristics. Are you risk averse? Risk tolerant? A risk taker? And how will that attitude affect your decision to drink municipal tap water, or bottled water, or water that has passed through a home filtration system?

Our attitudes and value systems affect the decisions we make, individually and collectively, around water. Do you think of water as a basic human right, as duty-based ethicists assert, or should our moral priority be to maximize benefits and minimize costs, thereby choosing to prioritize utilitarian efficiency of water management and distribution? Is water a sacred element, to be valued in and of itself, independently of its usefulness to human societies? Or is it ultimately an economic resource, something upon which we must ultimately put a price? The volume, Ethical Water Stewardship, ( addresses these and similar issues. It explores the intersection between ethics and praxis, covering challenges ranging from “blue urbanism” to traditional, Indigenous knowledge to water security and military campaigns. It explores feminist perspectives and matters of water equity and power. The book looks at moral dimensions of water laws, infrastructure development, the international development agenda – and more.

The work contributes to the growing field of water ethics, an area of study related to both environmental ethics and climate ethics. Certainly, water constitutes a primary mechanism through which climate change impacts societies, whether through challenges of drought, desertification, aquifer depletion, climate feedback cycles, energy production and a whole array of social justice issues, from environmental migration to equity of clean, safe water availability.

It is important to realize that the field of water ethics constitutes more than a domain for philosophical theorizing. Instead, the practical realities of moral values infuse decision making. My 90-year-old relative was initially unable to shake deep memories and biases that influenced his preference for bottled water – although with a little bit of persuasion, his final choice of a filtration device arguably has a smaller environmental footprint.

Understanding and articulating our value systems is an important part of making meaningful changes that will help to advance water security. Readers are invited to ask themselves: where do we each stand in terms of how we value water and, ultimately, how will those perceptions, attitudes, biases, and rational ethical arguments impact the water world around us?


The PWRC is continuing to host workshops and seminars virtually. Watch our social media channels at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram for announcements on how to register and get involved.

We respectfully acknowledge that the PWRC operates on the unceded traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.

Learn More about Water Ethics

Available Now on Amazon or Springer

This interdisciplinary book brings philosophers and non-philosophers to the table to address questions of water ethics, specifically in terms of how moral questions inform decision making around water security at local, national, and international scales.

Editors: Dr. Ingrid Stefanovic & Dr. Zafar Adeel

About the Author

Ingrid Leman Stefanovic, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus

School of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University

Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto