by Karen Delfau, Gender Equality, Disability & Social Inclusion (GEDSI) Specialist

Viewing Water Stewardship through the lens of the Commons and Commoning

Water Stewardship[1] is based on the principle of sharing knowledge, information, and data to take a holistic catchment-based perspective, deepening an understanding of the geographic, hydrologic, socio-cultural, and territorial[2] facets of a dynamic space enclosed within a geographic watershed (also known as catchment) boundary. Catchments are ever-evolving spaces, with changes taking place in land use, as economic priorities and opportunities change, and as weather patterns shift with a changing climate. Water Stewardship recognizes the leadership potential of businesses within a catchment as having the capacity and the interest to improve business practices and outcomes, meanwhile securing thriving ecosystems and thriving communities through their activities and impacts, their knowledge, and their influence. Through the process of Water Stewardship, businesses lead communities towards a state of social, ecological, and economic sustainability.

How does this approach work in practice? First, a business will be introduced to the Water Stewardship International Standard – usually through a workshop or conference presentation, or through direct contact with a Water Stewardship professional or another business that has undertaken the process. Through learning and exchange, the business will understand how it is in its best interest to deepen its understanding of water resources in its catchment – how its business activities impact both water quality and water supply in the catchment beyond meeting imposed regulatory discharge requirements and water use restrictions. The business will understand that it is acting upon and reacting to water as a system in the catchment, and that it is an integral component of a collective of entities within the catchment. For the longevity of its operations and the well-being of the community of actors with whom it shares the catchment, the business needs to see how it is situated within territorial dynamics.

Identifying and addressing blind spots

This is where things get interesting, as a comprehensive data set is collaboratively and transparently developed to outline integrated catchment issues. Water quality and supply data and information may serve as an entry point to understanding and addressing cultural water, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) challenges, ecological habitats, niches, and threatened areas. When these data are understood through the lens of Water Stewardship, our understanding develops as a picture emerges of the interconnected elements comprising a dynamic system. Water Stewardship aims to uncover catchment blind spots – recharge zones, competing interests and values associated with water use, and how actors in the catchment are responding to and are affected by hydrologic changes associated with climate change, increasing pressures on land use, and growth. A comprehensive picture emerges.

Furthermore, Gender Equality, Social Inclusion, Disability Inclusion (GEDSI) and Indigenous knowledge inclusion is also fundamental to the process of engaging in the Water Stewardship International Standard. The process of understanding inclusion raises significant questions related to sustainability. How do activities in the catchment impact upon women, and upon socially or economically marginalized groups? How can an understanding of catchment hydrological, ecological, economic, and social processes also lead to a comprehension of intersectional and equity impacts associated with actions and processes over time? Water Stewardship, as a process, aims to bring these issues to light, and to support a deepened exploration and understanding of the catchment through this lens, and through the careful consideration and inclusion of different types of knowledge, including Indigenous knowledge.

Commoning at the catchment level

Commoning is a framework presented by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich[3] which underscores the importance of relationships that transcend the physical substances, ‘natural resources’, that are understood as the commons. This relational emphasis includes relationships between people in communities and networks, relationships between the human and more-than-human world, and relationships between present, past, and future generations. Through this relational emphasis, our understanding and thinking around value changes, and we can shift away from seeing the world through standard economic and policy frameworks. Commoning allows us to escape from overly economic-oriented, resource-based understandings of the commons, neither of which recognize the critical value and influence of underlying social dynamics.

Through Water Stewardship, commoning can emerge, where the actors and activities, human and more-than-human, are seen as an interconnected and dynamic set of players that are entwined in a relationship of making decisions, and experiencing subsequent trade-offs. In essence, each entity is constantly engaged in a process of acting and being acted upon, as a part of an interconnected system. Water Stewardship moves the catchment understanding beyond the neo-liberal private property framework of meeting regulatory requirements and operating in a silo, towards seeing how each of the actors are interconnected within the catchment and how they can work together towards a shared vision of healthy economies, healthy communities, and healthy ecosystems. Water Stewardship provides a framework, a starting point and a process, for getting to a state of commoning. The ‘shared resource’ of the commons is the exchange of knowledge and information, and is a process making decisions that moves all actors in the catchment towards a sustainable future.

Realizing the catchment as a space for commoning, while rewarding, requires a long-term commitment. It necessitates self-assessment, leadership, and adherence to a rigorous process. It requires the commitment to make the connection across segmented territories, and the willingness to challenge the short-term gains that have defined how many businesses have been trained to operate. It opens the space for developing lasting relationships acting upon shared values.

Catchment commoning through water stewardship.

[1] Established in 2014, the Alliance for Water Stewardship International Water Stewardship Standard is a globally-applicable framework for major water users to understand their water use and impacts, and to work collaboratively and transparently for sustainable water management within a catchment context.

[2] Territories refer to a political space encompassing societies, identities, and cultural ways of living in and with the web of life, beyond geographic and land-focused understanding of place and spaces. See: Tomaso Ferrando, Isabel Álvarez Vispo, Molly Anderson, Sophie Dowllar, Harriet Friedmann, Antonio Gonzalez, Chandra Maracle & Nora McKeon (2020) Land, territory and commons: voices and visions from the struggles, Globalizations, 17:7, 1276-1290.; Ibarra, María Ignacia, Aurelia Guasch, Jaime Ojeda, Wladimir Riquelme Maulen, and José Tomás Ibarra. 2023. “Commons of the South: Ecologies of Interdependence in Local Territories of Chile” Sustainability 15, no. 13: 10515.

[3] Bollier David and Silke Helfrich. 2019. Free Fair and Alive : The Insurgent Power of the Commons. Gabriola Island BC Canada: New Society.

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