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Water Policy Vol 14 No S1 pp 52–64 © IWA Publishing & the Botín Foundation 2012 doi:10.2166/wp.2012.003

What is water? A normative perspective

Eran Feitelson

Department of Geography, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem 91905, Israel E-mail: msfeitel@mscc.huji.ac.il


In the modernist era, water is discussed as a single substance which has multiple uses. I argue that from a normative perspective water should be discussed in the plural term (‘waters’), as they constitute a variety of ‘things’ with a similar chemical composition. Waters are composed of multiple ‘needs’, which are uses with a normative rationale, and of ‘wants’, which are desires that should be seen as economic demands. Moreover, waters should also be differentiated by source: natural, recycled or produced. This new language of water has direct policy implications. Needs, differentiated into direct human needs, spiritual needs, environmental needs and community needs, which may be prioritized, should be supplied regardless of cost considerations. ‘Wants’ and produced water should be priced at the full social cost of supply. Hence, while the rates at which needs are supplied should be determined by affordability, regardless of spatial differentiation in supply cost, the pricing of water supplied for ‘wants’ will vary over space. Thus water which is supplied through the same pipe to the same house may be subject to different pricing logics. However, there are many nuances to these generalizations, which have still to be fleshed out.

Keywords: Desalination; Economic demand; Environment; Needs; Religion

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