Ethics of Water Infrastructure Reinvestment

by: Rebecca Dziedzic

The fact that infrastructure does not last should not come as a surprise. It is clear in our houses and on our streets. Yet, there is a global infrastructure funding gap. This gap widens not only due to population growth but also due to the failure to proactively renew and maintain ageing assets. Specifically for water infrastructure, consequences of an investment backlog can range from small service interruptions to more serious threats to health and safety, as experienced in Walkerton, ON in Canada and Flint, MI in the US.

Whether or not the trade-off between infrastructure investment and health and safety is made explicit, it exists. The assumptions, biases, and potential pitfalls of current asset management practices is not always clear. According to the Water Environment Research Foundation, asset management practices should answer the following six big questions:

  • What is the current state of my assets?
  • What are the lifecycle costs?
  • What is the required level of service?
  • What is the risk of failure?
  • What are the best O&M and capital improvement strategies?
  • What is the best funding strategy?

Even though these questions should be answered based on detailed data and stakeholder engagement, assumptions are usually made to simplify the process. If decisions lack inclusion and diversity, however, they may continue to favor affluent areas. Furthermore, the questions themselves focus on financial impacts instead of broader social and environmental impacts. If the concerted efforts of municipalities and engineers reinforce systemic discrimination and other social and environmental impacts, then reinvestment plans should be reviewed with the same attention to detail and external impacts as multi-million-dollar construction projects, even if plans are eventually completed in a piecemeal fashion.

For example, A CBC news investigation in 2015 revealed that two thirds of all First Nations communities in Canada have been under at least one drinking water advisory at some time in the last decade. It also found that 400 out of 618 First Nations communities had some kind of water problem between 2004 and 2014. On the other hand, communities with municipal service agreements are 11% less likely to be under a boil water advisory.

In order to highlight how existing biases can skew outcomes, make assumptions more explicit and consider systemic impacts, the questions listed in the figure below should be asked at each stage of asset management.

This discussion and the proposed list of questions are based on a chapter of the same title, published in “Ethical Water Stewardship” (Stefanovic, I. and Adeel, Z., 2021). For more details and general recommendations, please refer to the original chapter.