Theories of distributive justice explore how the benefits and burdens produced collectively, and consumed individually or by specific groups, should be allocated.
— Professor Adrian Walsh, School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
The extreme drought which has affected large parts of Australia over the past two years or so—threatening our eco-systems, our agriculture and in many cases the viability of many of our communities—has exposed, yet again, our vulnerability to extreme weather events, and in particular the precarious state of our water security. In Professor Adrian Walsh’s home-town of Uralla, just outside Armidale, water reserves were down to 29% of capacity before rains arrived in the New Year. For Professor Walsh, this period of extreme drought, and the immediacy of its impact, brought into sharp focus questions about the proper allocation of water resources that he has been pursuing in his recent philosophical research.
Professor Walsh has been considering the question of how we prioritise the distribution of water, understood as a scarce resource. The central question here, he says, is; when water is scarce, what kinds of uses and which users should be accorded priority? “There are, and always will be, a wide variety of possible and plausible candidates for such consideration, and the debates over how water should be allocated have often been remarkably bitter and have divided communities.” Explaining these considerations further, Professor Walsh says that we might, for example, give priority to water for the environment and environmental flows, for domestic use, for industry, agriculture and horticulture, or for traditional indigenous cultural practices. This list, of course, is not exhaustive, nor does it convey the complexity of who should be involved in decision-making about water policy.
These issues are fundamentally questions of distributive justice, questions which political philosophers have explored extensively over the past 50 years since the publication of John Rawls’ canonical work A Theory of Justice. They are questions that fall directly under the purview of political philosophy.
Professor Walsh’s expertise is in tackling difficult questions such as these, beginning most pertinently with the question of what, exactly, is meant by “theories of distributive justice”? Theories of distributive justice explore how the benefits and burdens produced collectively, and consumed individually or by specific groups, should be allocated. Distributive justice, as a topic, Professor Walsh says, should not be confused with theories of retributive justice which concern justice in punishment. The problem of distribution arises because goods are scarce and not all demands from potential users and uses can be met. If goods were in super-abundance, then there would be no need for theories of distributive justice.
Professor Walsh’s recent project, Water, Scarcity and Distributive Justice, explores what considerations must be taken into account when determining how to allocate water resources with an emphasis on the fact that water is a scarce resource. The central question of his research has been to determine what justice demands with respect to the allocation of water resources, with the ultimate aim of these interrogations being a “theory of just water” that will, amongst other things, provide guidance for policy makers in determining what should be allocated.
“Political philosophers have hitherto failed to explore the political question of how water should be allocated. There have been sociological studies looking at what relevant stake-holders perceive justice to be, but this is the first project that attempts to articulate principles of justice for water and, is, in this sense, unique.”