Breath of Clarity

Integrating the Social, Cultural and Political Dimensions of Freshwater Resource Use and Impact into Management Strategies

The readings and film collectively reveal problems of environmental justice in conflict over water resources. Specifically, they bring up the issue of geographical inequity which is defined as one group experiencing benefits of a project while another group receives its costs. Particularly, Nunez (2019) illustrated the impact damming projects have had on local populations. Damming interferes with the water from reaching some communities, while ensuring that others, such as city residents, are allocated an abundance of water. The geographical inequality problem increases in severity as one considers the limited water supply in the face of climate change. Further, Robbins (2017) emphasized that people who have operations with high water plants, such as grass lawns, are revealing they are no exception to the traditional American way of overconsumption. On the other hand, the film broadcasted the point of view of downstream communities in the Navajo Nation and the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. It depicted how actions happening upstream restrict water access for communities that use substantially less water (Decena and Redford 2019). Specifically, people in the Colorado Basin consume approximately 200 gallons a day and people in the Navajo Nation use approximately 60 gallons a day (Decena and Redford 2019). I found the section of the film about the Navajo’s respect of the resource to be particularly interesting. I wonder whether, perhaps, profound respect for the resource leads to a decreased level of use and creative mechanisms for efficiently conserving water.

A key difference between the Colorado River System Conservation Program and the Yampa River Fund is that the latter incorporates more collaboration amongst stakeholders in structuring the program. The Yampa River Fund acknowledges that water funds are effective insofar as the program involves the most heavy water users, the agricultural operations. Understanding who is included and excluded from the decision-making process is vital for forging collaborative solutions that are fair, equitable, and balance competing water interests (Karambelkar and Gerlak 2020). Stakeholder composition can determine the types of solutions that are actually adopted to address shared water problems (Karambelkar and Gerlak 2020). The agricultural operations will be more likely to cooperate if they are a part of crafting the strategy to conserve.

I found another example about providing compensation for land conservation practices adopted by upstream farmers in the Thai political context. I drew a similarity to conditions in the U.S. as the authors conveyed the governance of common-pool natural resources has traditionally been under the control of powerful government line agencies, while the contribution of local communities to natural resource conservation have been hardly recognized by policy-makers (Sangkapitux et al. 2009). Drawing on a case study in Mae Sa watershed, they discussed the potential of developing compensation schemes in a socio-political context where upland farmers, mostly belonging to ethnic minority groups, tend to be considered a threat to the natural resource base rather than potential providers of environmental services (Sangkapitux et al. 2009). Based on data obtained from 371 farm households in the upstream communities and 151 farm households in the downstream communities, researches estimated the willingness to accept compensation and the willingness to pay. Both willingness to pay of downstream respondents and willingness of upstream resource managers to accept compensation were positively correlated with age, education, participation in environmental conservation activities, and previous experiences with droughts and/or erosion (Sangkapitux et al. 2009). That said, a water fund program should conduct similar research projects that measure the demographics surrounding its watershed in order to improve marketing for the purpose of generating involvement from upstream actors. Also, the authors conclude, there is potential for establishing compensation schemes for provision of environmental services in northern Thai watersheds, if other actors, such as private businesses and local administration, contribute a substantial share of the budget and if all relevant stakeholders get involved in the institutional design of compensation schemes (Sangkapitux et al. 2009).


Decena, Mark and Robert Redford (Directors). 2012. “Watershed: Exploring a New Water Ethic for the New West.” Kanopy. Retrieved Nov 5, 2019. Video, 57 min.


Nunez, Christina. 2019. Hydropower, Explained. National Geographic, May 13, 2019.

Postel, Sandra. 2014. “An Innovative Conservation Fund for the Colorado River.” National Geographic Newsroom. Accessed Nov. 5, 2019.

Robbins, Paul. 2007. Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Read Chapters 2-4, pp. 18-71.

Sangkapitux, C., Neef, A., Polkongkaew, W., Pramoon, N., Nonkiti, S., & Nanthasen, K. 2009. “Willingness of upstream and downstream resource managers to engage in compensation schemes for environmental services.” International Journal of the Commons, 3(1), 41-63.

Comment by Professor Frank Turina:

Thanks for citing the Sangkapitux, et. al. paper, Mary. I thought the correlation between willingness to pay and previous experience with drought and erosion was an interesting finding. It makes perfect sense that people who have lived and suffered through water shortages would place greater value water projects than those who never experienced drought conditions. Direct experience with an environmental problem often results in motivation to prevent similar experiences in the future.