How is water scarcity simultaneously affecting the global economy and the basic human right of access to clean and sufficient water?  What is the ‘safe operating space’ in water use for both the environment and society to ensure a prosperous and just future?  

Background:  Increasing water demand for municipal uses, agriculture, and other businesses raises concerns about meeting human needs with the earth’s limited freshwater resources. Human appropriation of water resources is already responsible for the depletion of water stocks (e.g., groundwater) and the loss of aquatic habitat in many streams and rivers around the world. While there has been much focus on the preservation of natural habitats and ecosystem functions, for water-dependent businesses, the priority is to secure uninterrupted and reliable supply of water resources at costs compatible with revenues. This competition between human and environmental needs is further complicated by the tension existing between the enjoyment of human rights (to food and water) and business operations. Opposing views have emerged in the water security debate between water as a human right or as a commodity. While human rights cannot be sold or alienated, commodities can be. Water pricing and trade are often invoked as a way to ensure an economically efficient use of water resources.

This working group will combine a suite of ecohydrological and socio-environmental analyses to evaluate the biophysical limits to the sustainable use of water resources. We will:

  1. Determine the boundaries for both an environmentally safe and societally just ‘operating space’ in the use of water resources.
  2. Investigate possible environmental and policy changes that could lead to ‘water stranding’ in business operations (investments and assets limited by water scarcity).
  3. Combine a variety of perspectives focusing on the analysis of ecological processes, hydrologic constraints, livelihoods, human rights, water tenure, and development.

Project Team

Professor of Ethics; Department Chair
University of Virginia
Image of Paolo D'Odorico
Environmental Science, Policy, & Management, UC Berkeley
University of California, Berkeley

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