aerial view of mountains, valleys with trees and grass areas, and a river.

Graduate Researchers at UNE —

Anthropocentric water-management systems in resourcist markets hold a strong position based on entrenched economic power.

Liz Charpleix, doctoral candidate, School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences

Effective, equitable and sustainable management of the world’s water is becoming both increasingly necessary and increasingly difficult. Mainstream approaches to water management calculate its value using the principles of financial accounting: a process devoted to the collection of information about resources to describe economic activity. Western economic systems package water as a commodity to be valued only in financial terms, and position humans and the environment as consumers who must pay for access to water. Such ‘resourcist’ paradigms adopt exclusionary approaches to water management. The asymmetries inherent in these practices obstruct equitable allocation of water, block non-resourcist knowledges of water, mask the non-economic value of the environment and distort reciprocity between the human and non-human worlds. In a resources-focused world, it has been considered appropriate to allocate water according to the demands of ‘users’. This term denotes a utilitarian approach that ignores the intrinsic and relational qualities of water. Such approaches to valuing, recording and managing water tend to accentuate rather than resolve the water management challenges being presented by climate change, Indigenous self-determination, the expectations of constantly improving living standards and supporting ever-increasing populations.

The question is how water can be valued for its relational and existential qualities, in addition to its value as a commodity. Refinement of the valuation scheme, which forms the first step of any accounting process, would add useful complexity to the existing model. The next step is to account for its qualities and quantity in ways that are beneficial to both human and nonhuman recipients of water. For example in 2012 the Whanganui River in Aotearoa/New Zealand gained legal standing as an entity in its own right, giving it the rights of a legal person. This status was the result of a lengthy legal battle which culminated in a determination from the Waitangi Tribunal (Wai 167), which placed non-economic value on the traditional connections between the river and its Māori peoples, while also preserving the place the river occupies in the economy of the country. This legal case shows researchers what is possible when the limitations of Western economic and legal paradigms are challenged by alternative thinking. The Indigenous inhabitants lived with the river as an integral part of their community, alive and with unique needs, responsibilities and capabilities. They assimilated and responded to its changing presence according to their own cultural and legal understandings. Valuation using financial accounting indicators cannot encompass the intrinsic value of the river as a cultural and spiritual entity.

Possibilities for the creation of accounting systems that are able to report on a broad range of non-economic aspects of water need to be tested with the aim of enabling improved accessibility, distribution and sustainability of water by a rebalancing of the water accounting paradigms currently favouring resourcist treatments of the element. The resolution of Wai 167 required the Waitangi Tribunal to respect the Indigenous approach to living on the river while simultaneously ensuring that accessibility by broader society to the river, including its economic and tourism benefits, was not lost. For example, an incorporated association’s application for a Water Conservation Order was rejected on the grounds that its implementation would restrict the local council’s ability to approve certain river uses and was contrary to rights of management. Underlying this decision are the two perceptions of the river’s value, which stem from it being both a resource (for the local council to administer) and an integral part of a network of geographically connected communities (to be valued as the communities determine).

Anthropocentric water management systems in resourcist markets hold a strong position based on entrenched economic power. Water accounting research continues, with the goal of ensuring that the Earth is able to continue to support healthy life into the future. A discussion about the ontology of water is the first step towards identifying its incommensurable values, which is necessary because primarily economic approaches do not attend adequately to the needs of natural features, processes and organisms such as wetlands and aquifers, animals, plants and the climate. We are living in what has been called the ‘Anthropocene’ epoch, noted for the impact on the environment of human activities. This places responsibility on humans to ensure the sustainability of the Earth’s water. In order to ensure the future of human and other life, the noneconomic needs of the environment must be accommodated.

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