Let's Give Nature a Seat at the Table

Let's Give Nature a Seat at the Table

Let’s Give Nature a Seat at the Table

Bryony Bowman, Ian Abbott-Donnelly, Jean-Francois Barsoum and Peter Williams

This article was originally published as part of The Pivot Projects' contribution to COP 26.

If rivers can be thought of as arteries of life flowing through the world groundwater can be thought of as the bone marrow - generating much of the contents of those arteries and being replenished by them.  Just as the balance of bone and blood cells directly affects one’s health, the balance of water in the environment provides the conditions for life. Too much at once can cause devastating floods whilst too little leads to droughts, crop failures, and changes to habitats. 

In the earliest years of education we are taught about the water cycle. This is described as a loop where rainfall runs through the environment to return to the atmosphere through evaporation. Yet, across society this relationship is forgotten. All too often water is thought of in a linear sequence where it enters through a tap and is disposed of down a drain. Nature completes this cycle, and even remediates some of the pollution we have created, but how this happens is lost to our perception. As we continue to release pollutants into the environment these natural systems are less able to remediate on our behalf and become increasingly harmed.

The United Nations Climate Champions have designated the theme of “nature” for today during the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. We strongly believe that for humanity and nature to achieve a sustainable balance, nature must be granted the same kinds of legal rights and considerations we give to people, corporations, and government bodies.

That’s because we have made a mess of nature, and we have a lot of fixing to do.  We have disrupted the natural water cycle over hundreds of years by making physical, chemical and ecological changes to water systems. The effects of industrialisation, intensification of agriculture and increasing population all affect water quality now and into the future. The impacts of historic practices can be seen in the quality of groundwater, and in the condition of rivers. Our aquatic environment, above and below ground,  must be protected both now and into the future. 

Water is - rightly - identified as a human right. Therefore, increasingly it is asserted, water for personal consumption should be free because charging for it is inequitable, analogous to charging for the air we breathe.  But the problem is that, as with other “free” goods, the tragedy of the commons sets in. People waste water. The definition of personal consumption becomes stretched to include thirsty appliances or landscape irrigation, not to mention subsistence farming.  People and industry may fail to exercise sufficient care in the use and discharge of water to protect the environment. This is ultimately self-defeating because the resulting water impairment and shortage undermines the ability to provide for the human right. 

The human rights argument  does not get us to where we need to be to protect water resources globally.  It is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition.  We argue that the reason for this insufficiency is that it neglects to consider the rights of nature and ecology. In so doing, it only addresses part of the cycle of water and not the entirety of it.

Over the years various schemes have been proposed and sometimes implemented to provide for free the basic quantum of water necessary for subsistence but then to charge at ascending unit rates for consumption beyond that. But increased charges have only partial or temporary success in deterring higher consumption - and the politics of higher charges are frequently difficult to negotiate.  Agricultural (subsistence and commercial) and industrial consumption likewise have proven difficult to moderate, the growing number of corporate commitments to net neutrality in water use notwithstanding.  

It is clear that something else is needed. Suppose, just as corporations have legal standing, we gave the environment legal standing and thus the ability to be protected in court? The idea is not as outlandish as it seems - there are a growing number of examples around the world (therightsofnature.org map), although the path is not always straightforward.  We can’t only consider this as an option once it becomes critical to ecosystems or to public health, we need to act to protect our environmental resources now. So how can we work together to globally recognise the connectivity of water and nature and provide this with legal protection to ensure safe and sufficient water resources for ecosystems, agriculture, industry and our populations both now and into the future. 

To date the focus has been predominantly on surface water, presumably because of its direct consumption by people, its scenic value and the ecosystems it supports.  We would extend the concept to include ground water which, though invisible, interacts with and enables surface water resources. By considering both ground and surface water as part of the environment we enable the balance of water in the environment to be protected as a whole.

Giving the environment legal standing, and by inclusion, surface and groundwater resources, fundamentally changes the nature of the debate. It provides another powerful tool to protect the water that we all need and ultimately, it enables a more sustainable definition of equity.