When water moves from rivers and reservoirs through canals and pipelines to fulfill crop consumptive needs, when it moves through urban water treatment plants to serve household and industrial requirements, when it is left in-stream for recreational and ecological purposes, it is because people have socially organized to make such things happen. How water organizations are socially constructed to capture, distribute, and dispose of any given society’s water resources has everything to do with human productivity, distributional equity, and environmental sustainability. Various forms of water organization critically impact a wide range of social problems, most obviously those in the domains of food, energy, health, land use, environmental quality, concentration of social power, and citizen participation in—or exclusion from—civic life. Careless water management has been associated with everything from disease transmission in a neighborhood to the demise of entire civilizations.
Water and Organized Collective Action
The organized control over water that has sustained all civilizations has been a product of various combinations of central state bureaucracies and local water providers that empowered individual citizens to do things collectively that could not be accomplished by individual producers and consumers in private marketplace exchange. Water organizations are necessitated in any state-level society and culture (as distinguished from a clan/folk level society) by a most fundamental need to manage human interdependence across large landscapes. Individual self-seeking rationality must somehow be reconciled with encompassing community requirements that can be fulfilled only by well-designed organizational effort.
Consider an example. Two individually rational farmers ponder the possibility of building an improved water course for channeling irrigation water to their adjacent fields. The total cost of improvement is $600. However, the benefits to farmer A equal only $400, whereas those to farmer B amount to $500. From the standpoint of their private rationalities, as disconnected unorganized social atoms, neither will build the improvement. Each individual does better not contributing while hoping that the other—in an economically irrational move—will build the improvement and thereby allow the noncontributing member to enjoy benefits of increased water supply and control; that is, take a “free ride” on the investment of the other party. They will fall into an equilibrium with each other that is much worse when compared to what they could gain together by organized cooperative action. From the standpoint of their collective joint benefit, the watercourse improvement should be made because together they will enjoy benefits worth $900, well in excess of the $600 cost.
The study of water organization, therefore, brings into sharp relief an age-old problem confronted by people in all cultures; that is, although people possess and act upon their private rationalities, they live not as disconnected social atoms but in continuous interdependence. People, in interaction, modify each other’s prospects. What one does, or is expected to do, conditions the actions of another. Social science research on water organizations permits systematic study of alternative ways in which human beings representing many water cultures manage their interdependence. If farmers A and B can devise organizational means of holding each other accountable for making a “fair-share” contribution, if they can mutually ensure that the other will not defect from agreed-upon cooperative action, they can collectively transcend their private self-seeking rationality and empower themselves to do things together on behalf of themselves and the community of which they are a part.
There is a vast social science literature on the uses and limits of alternative ways human beings have organized their water resources. It may be roughly sorted into five categories: (1) water policy, (2) law, (3) large central bureaucratic organizations for capture and administration of water across large landscapes, (4) local organizations that take water wholesale from the large state-funded and -operated supply systems and then retail it to (5) individuals, farms, and firms. Of the many hypotheses that have been examined, some of the most important have had to do with the configuration of, and linkages among, local water organizations (category 4) that function between large supply-side state bureaucracies (category 3) and demand-side water users (category 5). Some specific forms of local water control organizations are seen as having the potential to provide the social and political space where people can blend principles of generalized science and technology with local site-specific circumstances, where people can be most effectively empowered to rapidly respond to local changes (e.g., climate and weather, shifting marketplace demands, facility breakdowns). Furthermore, such local water organizations have been found to be most effective at enforcing policy, law, and regulations essential to controlling would-be “free riders” to sustain cooperative actions. In at least some systems around the world, local water organizations have been cradles of participatory democratic civic life.
However, analysts have also been witness to many cases where local water organizations are not well designed and operated, where generalized science is not fitted to local site-specific realities, where locals are not enabled to be rapidly adaptive to challenges, where “free riding” runs rampant, and where there has been little effective citizen participation in water governance. The social science question becomes: “What factors explain the difference between productive, equitable, and ecologically sustainable water organizational systems and those which fail in these respects?” Such inquiry has led analysts to better comprehend a critical facet of the human social development project. There is nothing more social and political than water molecules in bulk because human beings in all cultural traditions have had to cope with the problem of how to manage their interdependence in and around water.
- Freeman, David M. 2000. “Wicked Water Problems: Sociology and Local Water Organizations in Addressing Water Resources Policy.” Journal of the American Water Resources Organization 36:483-91.
- Mabry, Jonathan B., ed. 1996. Canals and Communities: Small-Scale Irrigation Systems. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.
- Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Worster, Donald. 1985. Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West. New York: Pantheon.
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