Ethics of Water Governance

How to secure water availability and water safety in times of climate change?

Big reservoir

Fresh water shortages, climate change, drought and flood risks are important problems our society has to address. By the end of 2014, around 2.5 billion people are still deprived of clean drinking water and sanitation services, with an accordingly high percentage of people dying from water borne diseases. For example, annually 1.8 million people die of just diarrhoeal diseases, largely caused by unsafe drinking water.

At the same time, an increasing share of the global population lives in areas that are at risk of flooding, both in developed and in developing countries. Recent climate change has only increased the risk of floods. Tsunamis have more than once killed thousands and thousands of people in East Asia in this century alone. How to address these issues in a fair and efficient way?

In 2010, the United Nations recognized that access to water is a human right. How can we turn this human right into actual availability of water for every human, considering water is not only needed for drinking and sanitation, but also for agriculture and industry? And since access to water is now a human right, we should take a closer look at the distribution of drinking water. Can we still justify the privatization of water services, for example?

Every day people are suffering from improper water governance: it is a source of poverty and inequality, of sickness and death.

Dr. ir. Neelke Doorn specializes in water ethics. In her current research, she addresses the ethical questions that flood safety poses, for example: if we heighten the dykes in some areas, the risk of flooding downstream will increase; how to distribute the flood risks in a fair and efficient way? Similarly, measures that protect us against floods, like dyke strengthening or detention basins, require space. How to take the interests of individual people into account in the spatial planning of flood safety interventions?

Both in the Netherlands (with the new Deltaprogramma), in Europe (with the implementation of the EU Water Framework directive and the EU Floods directive), and at the global level (with the recognition of access to water as a human right), these are questions that cannot be ignored or solved by technical means alone. Researchers at the 3TU.Centre for Ethics and Technology are working together with other water researchers, engineers, and policy makers to address the water challenges of the 21st century.


Related Scientific publications (selection)


  • Doorn, N. 2017. "Allocating responsibility for environmental risks: A comparative analysis of examples from water governance". Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management 13(2): 371-375 (DOI: 10.1002/ieam.1799). available online
  • Doorn, N. 2017. "Resilience indicators: Opportunities for including distributive justice concerns in disaster management". Journal of Risk Research 20(6): 711-731 (DOI: 10.1080/13669877.2015.1100662). available online
  • Toonen, Th. A. J. and N. Doorn. 2017. "Good governance for the commons: Design for legitimacy" In: Designing in Ethics. Eds: M. J. Van den Hoven, S. Miller and Th. W. M. Pogge. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. pp. 192-210


  • Doorn, N. 2016. "Distributing responsibilities for safety from flooding". FLOODrisk 2016. 3rd European Conference on Flood Risk Management, France. E3S Web of Conferences 7, 24002 (2016) (DOI: 10.1051/e3sconf/20160724002). click to open pdf
  • Doorn, N. 2016. "Governance experiments in water management: From interests to building blocks". Science and Engineering Ethics 16(3) (DOI: 10.1007/s11948-015-9627-3). available online
  • Doorn, N. 2016. "Reasoning about uncertainty in flood risk governance". In: The Argumentative Turn in Policy Analysis. Eds: S.O Hansson and G.Hirsch Hadorn. Springer, pp. 245-263 (DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-30549-3_10). available online


  • Doorn, N. 2015. "The blind spot in risk ethics: Managing natural hazards". Risk Analysis 35/3: 354-360 (DOI: 10.1111/risa.12293). available online


  • Doorn, N. 2014. "Equity and the ethics of water governance" In: Infranomics - Sustainability, Engineering Design and Governance. Topics in Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality. Eds. Gheorghe, A., M. Masera, and P.F. Katina. Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 155-64.
  • Doorn, N. 2014. "Rationality in flood risk management: The limitations of probabilistic risk assessment (PRA) in the design and selection of flood protection strategies". Journal of Flood Risk Management 7/3: 230-238 (DOI: 10.1111/jfr1113.12044). available online


  • Doorn, N. 2013. "Water and justice: Towards and ethics of water governance" Public Reason 5/1: 95-111 click to open pdf


  • Hunka, A.D. (2010). Towards Communicative River Management in Poland. PhD thesis: Radboud University Nijmegen.


  • Hunka, A.D. (2008). Flood risk perception and place attachment: A case study in Poland. Proceedings of Freude am Fluss Final Conference "Space for the River, Space for People". Radboud University Nijmegen.



  • Doorn, N, B. Broekhans, and E. Mostert. 2013. "Redactioneel: Normen en waarden in water governance" (in Dutch) Water governance 3: 5 click to open pdf


  • Doorn, N. and W.M. Dicke. 2012. "Values of water" Water Governance 2: 52-53 click to open pdf

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