Hydrological Sciences

Water justice in hydrological research

Water justice in hydrological research

Water justice has become a crucial discussion in the past decades. Some of the core aspects reflect the questions about who gets involved in the decision-making process, who has access to drinking water, or who gains from flood alleviation schemes. Many hydrologists are struggling to find an answer to these major challenges. 

The rise of water justice

In recent decades, the question of justice in its many forms has received broad attention in academia, influencing policy-makers and communities across the globe. 

The Cochabamba Water War in Bolivia, which was started as a result of the privatisation of the water supply system back in 1999 and 2000 shows the importance of the debate over water justice. The financial and economic crises in 2008, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and current energy crises have encouraged the debate about justice (who gains and who loses under new circumstances). 

Furthermore, the biophysical (e.g., climate change) and socioeconomic (e.g., urbanization) changes in our world have also played a role in triggering questions related to water justice. For example, the negative consequences of climate change, such as losses in biodiversity and increases in natural disasters (such as floods, droughts, heat waves, etc.), demonstrate that not everyone is equally impacted. Plus, not all communities can adapt to and cope with the negative consequences of these changes, as risk reduction measures are not equally distributed across the globe. 

Consequently, the question of justice has led to an increase in the number of publications and debates within hydrological research (see, for example, Water Justice edited by Rutgerd Boelens, Tom Perreault and Jeroen Vos in 2018 in Cambridge University Press).

The role of water justice within hydrology

Research on water justice is often linked to the social and political outcomes of the change or introduction of new water policies, such as the use of nature-based solutions instead of technical mitigation measures. 

Each water policy, strategy and governance arrangement is not free of interest. Unequal distribution of power is the norm instead of an exception, with the outcome that each policy, strategy or governance system leads to gains and losses. 

In water resource management research, these questions are an essential framework, especially as they relate to recommendations. 

For example, the design level of flood alleviation schemes can be standardized across countries or distributed differently. The question of responsibility – who takes the lead in addressing floods, for example – may be best managed by the state, by providing dams and dikes. Homeowners can also bear some responsibility by implementing property-level flood risk adaptation measures. However, these different policy strategies affect people differently. Some might cover the additional tasks of individual preparedness, some may not, potentially leading to an increase in social inequality within society as householders who can afford individual preparation can reduce their individual vulnerability.

Justice debate: a social or natural science issue?

So far, these debates have typically been led by social scientists. However, in recent years, we have seen a shift in the discussion that includes the natural scientists. 

Natural scientists now try to include the social justice aspect within their studies. This shift in the perspective of hydrological research was driven by the introduction of the hydrosocial research framework, the sociohydrology discussion and the Panta Rhei Research Initiative of the International Association of Hydrological Sciences (IAHS) in the 2010s. 

Scholars have worked on various questions about water justice, including the distribution of water, flood risk management, drought risk management, sanitation and drinking water accessibility, and the unequal distribution of water pollution. In all of these, low-income communities are more negatively affected by the consequences of pollution. 


Hydrological research is not value-free, especially if it supports policy recommendations. For example, recommendations regarding using property-level flood risk adaptation measures, planned relocation or nature-based solutions instead of technical mitigation measures in flood risk management, have strong societal implications. 

Low-income households – which in some locations are more likely to be affected by flood events – might not be covered with these additional tasks. In such cases, more caution is needed to avoid penalizing them once again. Therefore, the integration of justice within our research has (and will) become more important.


Boelens, R., Perreault, T., Vos, J. (eds.)(2018). Water justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roth, D., Zwarteveen, M., Joy, K.J., Kulkarni, S. (2014). Water rights, conflicts, and justice in South Asia. 

Edited by Christina Orieschnig

Thomas Thaler is Senior Scientist at the Institute of Landscape Planning at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences based in Vienna (Austria). His research focuses on water policy, such as flood and drought risk management, governance and science-policy interface.

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