Incorporating Social Equity Within Water Resources Infrastructure

There is growing demand by engineers, project managers, researchers, and local communities to include social equity in water resources infrastructure projects. However, equity is rarely applied in water planning and management, due to challenges in defining and applying the concept. When used in practice, equity is usually limited to the consideration of how benefits, harms or risks are distributed within a community (for example, the racial make-up of those who most benefit from infrastructure projects, or how different social and cultural groups may lose access to land and/or natural resources). While important, distribution only captures one facet of equity. To fully realize equity within our communities, all facets must be included.

In response to the need to put equity into practice, a group of scientists and engineers are working to make the concept of equity more accessible. They hope to help communities incorporate equity into water infrastructure planning and building. Here, we introduce a way to think about equity, and offer examples. The examples are only first steps towards equitable water infrastructure systems, but they can be done now. Full equity will require broader social, legal, and regulatory changes.

Social equity is based on the recognition of systematic wrongdoing. It is closely related to the concept of environmental justice. To work toward more just futures, we must account for the ways that historically unequal power relations created present-day social disparities. To this end, we need to recognize and engage with the variety of perspectives and needs within and across communities. Historical injustices often contribute to today’s inequities in the processes, risks, and benefits associated with water resources infrastructure.

Like a tree, equity is connected by three interacting elements: recognitional equity (the root system), procedural equity (the trunk), and distributional equity (the canopy or crown). Each part of a tree contributes to the functioning of the whole and is in constant interaction with the other parts. Tending to a single part of a tree or of equity does not guarantee that the other parts will also improve

Recognitional Equity

Recognitional equity refers to the acknowledgment and respect we must give to people with different life experiences and perspectives. Recognition acts like a root system, anchoring equity through acknowledgment and respect of diversity, and through humility in relation to the perspectives of others. Social difference is expressed in many ways, including language, relationships with land and water, spiritual beliefs, and political processes of self-determination. Differences in physical and mental abilities also lead to divergent experiences in day-to-day life. Equity in water infrastructure requires that traditional knowledge and practices be respected and integrated with expert planning and engineering processes. For example, this could mean giving equal consideration to projects based on traditional water purification and flood mitigation strategies that include plant species valued and cultivated by local communities.

Procedural Equity

Procedural equity refers to fair participation during the decision-making process. This includes giving people throughout the community access to the decision-making processes, and the ability to influence those decisions. It also includes the extent to which people’s values, perspectives, and knowledge are incorporated into decisions. Procedures are like the trunk of a tree, providing structure and support for equity and facilitating many of the ways recognition and distribution impact each other. Procedural equity requires the inclusive participation of local stakeholders, transparency in the project planning, and management, and consent from all parties involved. Ensuring inclusive participation requires that infrastructure project meetings be accessible, with meetings happening at different times and within locations that are easily accessible by public transport. Communications materials should be available in multiple languages, and those who speak other languages should be given meaningful opportunities to participate.

Distributional Equity

Distributional equity refers to the way in which benefits, harms, risks, opportunities and resources are allocated within a community. Like the crown of a tree, the distribution of benefits, harms, and risks is often the most visible part of equity. A tree’s crown is made up of leaves, branches, flowers and fruit, which change and grow across different seasons and from year to year. Likewise, the variety of components considered in distributional equity often change depending on the season and year (for example, flooding becomes a higher risk during rainy seasons; climate change increases event severity over time). Fair distribution of benefits, harms, and risks requires that different populations (for example, according to income, race, age) receive different treatments to account for past and present discrepancies in resources, social position, vulnerability, and exposure to harms. In the water resource context, for example, equitable distribution of benefits could include ensuring that marginalized communities receive tangible benefits from a flood mitigation project. A fair distribution of harms and risks may involve clear mitigation actions to minimize risk of communities at higher risk of flooding (due to proximity to floodplains) or compensation for damage done to their homes or properties. This requires developing new ways to measure costs and benefits, in addition to the traditional utilitarian cost/benefit ratios, which tend to give greater benefits to wealthier areas over time.

A holistic incorporation of equity into water infrastructure planning requires rethinking the values and ethics that are implicit in current approaches and purposefully pursuing equity in all phases of planning, design, and implementation. This multidimensional view of equity can serve as an initial guide for policymakers, managers, engineers, and local community members to meaningfully and effectively incorporate equity in water resources infrastructure projects.

For further reading on the concept of social equity please see:

Langemeyer, J. and Connolly, J.J., 2020. Weaving notions of justice into urban ecosystem services research and practice. Environmental Science & Policy, 109, pp.1-14.

Leach, M., Reyers, B., Bai, X., Brondizio, E.S., Cook, C., Díaz, S., Espindola, G., Scobie, M., Stafford-Smith, M. and Subramanian, S.M., 2018. Equity and sustainability in the Anthropocene: a social–ecological systems perspective on their intertwined futures. Global Sustainability, 1.

Schlosberg, D., 2009. Defining environmental justice: Theories, movements, and nature. Oxford University Press.