Environmental Science Fair Water Distribution: From Theory to Application
Geoff Syme
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0141


Worldwide there are increasing stresses on water resources from rising population, burgeoning demand for water for different purposes, and uncertainties created by climate change. Often provision of water supply for one group may lead to a disadvantage for others, whether it be alienation of their land through dam construction or loss of access of water to downstream users. Overuse of water can lead to ecological degradation. These problems are exacerbated in the case of water as both volume and quality of water are both vital. Nevertheless, there are shared cultural principles of justice and fairness that give us some hope that there can be systematic approaches to managing potential conflict at all levels. These principles can and have been applied to achieve “fair” agreements. Understandably, there has been significant research and commentary on what is “fair” in water agreements. Philosophers, social psychologists, sociologists, economists, and mathematical and systems-based modelers have all made a contribution, but sometimes at a different scale and from differing assumptions about how fairness can and should be depicted. Often the concepts of fairness and equity are conflated. Some analyses define what the distribution of water between groups should be and then compare the outcomes with their ideals. Others operate at a situational level and seek agreements that are seen as “fair enough” by the interest groups rather than from pre-set assumptions. Both approaches can be applied to allocation problems when some members of society complain or protest that the allocation isn’t fair from their perspective. Protest for this imbalance to be rectified is almost always the starting point for “fairness” investigations. When a stable agreement that is regarded as “fair enough” by all parties is in place, there is no comment and fairness does not raise its profile in day-to-day water management. This article examines how “fairness” can be defined in relation to water distribution, and how it has been modeled. Working definitions of justice and fairness are then provided to encourage consistency in terminology. This is followed by an examination of what benefits we are sharing when we allocate water (as opposed to volumes of water). Many benefits can be achieved simultaneously and are related. The important relationship between fairness and procedural justice during decision-making is then examined. The article concludes with a discussion of how the concept of fairness can be developed to assist in resilient allocation decision-making.

What Is Fairness in Allocation Decision-Making?

Fairness is often used interchangeably with terms such as distributive justice, procedural justice, and equity. It is regarded as a synonym to all. For many such as the authors of Running, et al. 2019, its use is limited as fairness is an elusive concept, and is basically a judgement that is emotionally based and ephemeral, most often as a signal of displeasure at a decision. To some extent the same can be said for the ideas of distributive and procedural justice, although both according to Lecuyer, et al. 2018 have relatively precise criteria or components. They also have an extensive historical philosophical literature which have been applied by Syme and Nancarrow 1996 and Tisdell 2003 to lay determinants of acceptance of water allocation decisions. But the term “fairness” should not be discounted to the role of a mere adjective when it comes to water allocation and management, because of its significance in the creation of resilience. Achieving fairness is important in reaching stable water agreements as it is a robust heuristic which can be resistant to change. The “fairness heuristic” approach of Lind 2001 indicates once an impression of fairness has been produced it becomes extremely resistant to change because it provides a cognitively available summary judgement in lieu of a more complicated analysis. Reliance on the fairness heuristic is likely to occur in situations are knowledge is incomplete, uncertainty exists, and according to Leong 2021 interpretation relies on the dominant narrative of the day. This is often the situation for water management. It is important to note that perceived fairness also contains a number of constituent components which have been well explored in the social psychological literature by Feather 2015. But there is also the need to consider where fairness fits with other non-ethical dimensions when considering the acceptability or fairness of water allocation. For example, utilitarian theory predicts that harvesting in resource management situations is determined by self-interest. Wilke 1991 elaborates on this with a three-component GEF model. He states that although individuals are selfish (greedy (G)), their greed is constrained by two other motives: the desire to use the resource efficiently (E) and the desire to realize fairness (F). The GEF hypothesis was underpinned by results from several computer-controlled experiments. It can account for the pattern of individual responses to choices made by other group members, the impact of environmental uncertainty, social uncertainty, and the conditions under which freedom of access is abandoned in favor of leadership. Efficiency and greed criteria can sometimes demand compromise when it comes to delivering fairness as shown by Syme, et al. 1999 and Wagner and Niles 2020.

  • Feather, N. T. 2015. Analyzing relative deprivation in relationship to deservingness, entitlement and resentment. Social Justice Research 28:7–26.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11211-015-0235-9

    The acceptability or fairness of water allocations are assessed for fairness in the context of what others have received. Judgements of unfair allocation will occur if the party feels relatively deprived compared to other individuals or groups. Relative deprivation is unpacked in terms of people’s constructions of deservingness, entitlement, and resentment. All of these are relevant to water and will depend on resource use history and the dynamics between competitors.

  • Lecuyer, L., R. M. White, B. Schmook, et al. 2018. The construction of feelings of justice in environmental management: An empirical study of multiple biodiversity conflicts in Calakmal, Mexico. Journal of Environmental Management 213:38e173.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2018.02.050

    This paper presents a case study which provides field data for people’s construction of various aspects of distributive and procedural and conditional (i.e., the right to exist) justice in environmental management. Measures of what aspects of these justice considerations made them “fair” are examined. Conditional justice related to the ecosystem as having the equivalence to a social identity. Procedural and distributive justice are seen as measurable. What is “fair” remains implicit.

  • Leong, C. 2021. Narratives and water: A bibliometric review. Global Environmental Change 68:102267.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2021.102267

    This paper provides both a quantitative and qualitative review of the study of participant narratives that surround water decision-making. This type of study has gained increasing attention over recent years. Understanding the stories of people affected by water decisions enables policymakers to have in-depth understanding of the social, historical resource use and political economy within which decisions will be assessed. Fairness heuristics are an important part of this assessment.

  • Lind, E. A. 2001. Fairness Heuristic Theory: Justice judgments as pivotal cognitions in organizational relations. In Advances in organizational justice. Edited by J. Greenberg and R. Cropanzano, 56–88. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    The concept of fairness is introduced and its relationship to other justice-related concepts such as procedural, interactional, and distributive justice are examined. Lind distinguishes two phases of fairness as a heuristic judgement phase that includes all of the above and a pragmatic phase in which specific fairness problems are being addressed. Here issues such as trust, prosocial behavior, identification, and self-esteem and acceptance of authority become important as well.

  • Running, K., M. Burnham, and M. V. Du Bray. 2019. Perceptions of fairness in common pool resource access: Farmer responses to new agricultural water use restrictions in Idaho. Environmental Sociology 5.4: 405–415.

    DOI: 10.1080/23251042.2019.1643548

    Overuse of groundwater led to a need reduction in allowances for aquifer extraction. Ostrom’s institutional guidelines were used to structure the investigation. Farmers who supported the reduced allocations did so to protect sustainability and maintain local control. Farmers against such reductions did not see the resolution to be fair. They perceived too much outside influence and they did not trust the state’s data. Here fairness is denoted by its perceived absence.

  • Syme, G. J., and B. E. Nancarrow. 1996. Planning attitudes, lay philosophies and water allocation: A preliminary analysis and research agenda. Water Resources Research 32.6: 1843–1850.

    DOI: 10.1029/96WR00465

    Community members were asked to rate their views on a wide range of ethics for water distribution as well as more specific attitudes toward water planning. The ethics varied from the historically earliest (virtue theory) to current utilitarian views. People were confident in their opinions about ethics and how they related to acceptance of “fairness” of decisions for priorities for water distribution.

  • Syme, G. J., B. E. Nancarrow, and J. A. McCreddin. 1999. Defining the components of fairness in the allocation of water to environmental and human uses. Journal of Environmental Management 57:51–70.

    DOI: 10.1006/jema.1999.0282

    Potential groundwater reallocations were examined in the Namoi Valley, New South Wales. The paper relates perceptions of fairness in reallocation, as derived from the community’s lay ethics to specific components of a four component policy to lower allocations. Most of the community’s fairness criteria were accommodated by at least one reallocation mechanism. The case study reinforced the GEF concept in the field. The allocation ethics included are shown in the Appendix.

  • Tisdell, J. 2003. Equity and social justice in water doctrines. Social Justice Research 16.4: 401–416.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1026365700255

    This paper applies the principles of fairness and justice to three water doctrines which have been commonly used in water allocation in the United States and Australia. These doctrines are: prior appropriation, riparian, and non-priority permit. The latter allows water distribution to protect the worst off. These policies are assessed with Rawlsian, utilitarian, and Nozick’s minimum state theories. Those doctrines based on coherent justice theory are deemed most acceptable.

  • Wagner, C. R., and M. T. Niles. 2020. What is fair in groundwater allocation? Distributive and procedural fairness perceptions of California’s Sustainable Management Act. Society and Natural Resources 33.12: 1508–1529.

    DOI: 10.1080/08941920.2020.1752339

    This study reports on a survey of groundwater irrigators in California. These authors adapted an earlier typology of fairness derived for climate change issues. They found perceptions of fairness in process led to greater acceptance of outcomes. They also showed that fairness (represented as egalitarian outcomes) were significantly more important than self interest in driving acceptance of decisions. This demonstrates the importance of this variable to be noted in allocation decisions.

  • Wilke, H. A. M. 1991. Greed. efficiency and fairness in resource management situations. European Review of Social Psychology 2.1: 165–187.

    DOI: 10.1080/14792779143000051

    Rational choice theory assumes resource allocation is completely determined by profit or greed (G). In this review of social psychological experiments, it is shown that two other dimensions are also highly influential. These are the need of efficient use of the resource (E) and the desire to reach fairness (F) which was defined as an equal outcome for all. The review demonstrates that pro-social motivations need inclusion in deciding water distributions.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.