Social justice and water security are inextricably linked – for either to be achieved, the other must be considered from the very beginning.
By Clara Colton Symmes, Princeton in Asia Fellow, IWMI
Did you know February 20th is World Day of Social Justice? Designated 15 years ago by the United Nations (UN), World Day of Social Justice recognizes the essential role social justice plays in “the achievement and maintenance of peace and security within and among nations” and acknowledges that “social justice cannot be attained in the absence of peace and security.”
At its core, working for social justice necessitates advocating for equal economic, social, and political opportunity for all. And in order to achieve this, focus must be given to groups who have been historically oppressed or disadvantaged, including women, children, the poor, and members of racial, ethnic, or religious minorities.
However, it is worth noting that the original UN statement celebrating World Day of Social Justice does not mention water — or the environment — at all.
Yet just as social justice, peace, and security are fundamentally linked, so too are social justice and water justice. Indeed, water is such a foundational piece of the puzzle that when it comes to truly “solving” major social justice issues — such as racism, sexism, and classism — water is often overlooked. But how can true equality be realized in the absence of water security?
Water is social justice. Social justice is water.
At the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), researchers aim to break down barriers to social justice by working toward ensuring water security for all. While the approaches of IWMI researchers vary depending on the needs of the communities they work with, some examples of our recent work relevant to social justice include developing socially-inclusive hydropower in Nepal, advocating for decolonized water laws in South Africa, and providing flood insurance for smallholder farmers in Bangladesh and India.
In Ghana, meanwhile, IWMI’s Charity Osei-Amponsah leads a component of the European Union’s Resilience Against Climate Change project focusing on Social Transformation Research and Policy Advocacy (REACH-STR). The project aims to improve understanding of how social transformation is influencing climate change impacts on communities in Ghana’s northern regions.
In the arid, rural regions of Ghana where Charity works, women and girls are burdened with walking long distances to collect water for their families, preventing them from working or attending school. “With social justice we want to ensure that everybody has economic, social, and political rights,” she says. “But because of their cultural gender responsibilities including collecting water, these rights are less accessible for woman and young girls.”
In addition to researching how policy and development planning can ensure equity for women in rural Ghana, the team of PhD and Masters students that Charity leads is also studying the migration of rural youth, who move to urban areas to find work after struggling to cope with changing rainfall patterns. Better understanding of rural-to-urban migration is important, because under certain circumstances, such population movements can disrupt communities and food access in rural areas.
A universal problem
Issues related to safe water access and social justice are not limited to the countries of the developing world, however. Around the globe, it has often been historically-oppressed populations who have bared the brunt of damage related to inadequate water supply systems. For example, in Flint, Michigan — a predominantly Black city of just under 100,000 people that once served as an auto-manufacturing hub in the midwestern region of the United States — a polluted river contaminated the water supply for thousands of households starting in 2014. But despite outcries from parents, it took years of protest before the issue was formally addressed, leaving children with lead in their blood and burdening residents with the cost of purchasing bottled water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning.
Beyond Flint, water-related injustices have assumed many forms over the years. For example, dams promising clean energy have flooded indigenous land; oil spills and cargo accidents have damaged vital marine systems; and extreme weather has destroyed entire towns, intensifying inequities for oppressed populations. Meanwhile, climate change — coupled with the ongoing degradation and pollution of our fresh water supply — is sure to pose new challenges in our ongoing quest for water justice and social justice as we move deeper into the 21st century.
Today’s celebration of World Day of Social Justice is a timely reminder that now more than ever, water must be considered at the most fundamental level when it comes to meaningfully addressing challenges related to social justice. In Ghana, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, the United States, and elsewhere, so many struggles for equity are born from, or exacerbated by, water access. We must recognize that without access to safe, clean, reliable water, true social justice cannot be achieved.