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Coursework Human Development Economics by Giuseppina Fancellu

maggio 18, 2011

Journal of Human Development and Capabilities

Capability, Sustainability and Collective Action: An examination of a River Water Dispute

P.B. Anand

Table of Contents

Table of Contents……. 1

Introduction……. 1

Reasons for addressing water disputes……. 1

Definition of Approaches……. 2

Economic Approach….. 2

Collective Action….. 2

Sustainability….. 2

The Capability Approach….. 3

The Role of Identity……. 3

Water Disputes: from the Economic to the Capability Approach……. 4

The Example of the Cauvery River in Southern India……. 5


This composition provides a synopsis of the paper by P.B. Anand entitled “Capability, Sustainability and Collective Action: An examination of River Water Dispute” which was published in the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities.

The paper written by P.B. Adnan talks about the various approaches to policies for water disputes, including economic, collective action, sustainability and the capability approach.  The paper does a fine job of fully defining each of the approaches, and then uses simple examples of each to help the reader understand how the similarities and differences of the each of the approaches.  The papers main focus is water disputes, although it does go further stating that these approaches can be used for most natural resource disputes.  The paper uses the example of the water dispute of the Cauvery river in India to illustrate the different approaches and how they effect the various stakeholders.

The main focus of the paper considers how identity, in the sense of how people perceive their claims on water disputes, can be used as a way of understanding how people affected by the water dispute identify with themselves with the issues of the dispute, via an open dialogue.  It goes further by analysing how citizens are able to present their demands to the state and how policy action can reflect their voice.

This composition presents how the capability approach offers a larger scheme, which can encompass the other approaches, including the economic, collective action and/or the sustainability approach (by Solow).  It also explains the different type of conflicts, which can arise over water disputes, such as intra-state and international conflicts.

Reasons for addressing water disputes

The United Nations has defined Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to help address development needs in the world.  One of the MDGs has been defined as “reducing by one-half the proportion of the populations without access to improved sources of water and basic sanitation recognizes the instrumental role of access to water in guaranteeing some of the more substantial freedoms, including the right to life and well-being of infants and children”.

In trying to meet the goal of this MDG, the paper talks about how the capability approach can address the needs of this goal.  It does this by looking at how the water allows individual to achieve, as apposed to looking at water only as a commodity.  In doing so, they break down the argument into three parts.

1.     Trying to balance the “well-being of freedoms” among the various groups of users in the water dispute.

2.     Addressing the potential value conflict between the “well-being freedoms” and the “agency freedoms”

3.     Finally looking at the well-being of the current deprived and the poor in the area of the water dispute and ensuring that there opportunity to achieve their goals.

Definition of Approaches

There are four approaches described in the paper that can be applied to natural resource disputes.  The approaches include the economic, collective action, sustainable and the capability.  Each approach has is positives and negatives although the capability approach tries to incorporate the three others by looking at the individual identity of the people directly involved in the dispute.

Economic Approach

The maximization of the use of the natural resource is the basis of the economic approach.  The decision process is based on the “comparing marginal benefits” and “costs of allocating the commodity to different uses.” Based on quantities, the economic approach presents a narrow rationality, where each of the stakeholders tries to maximize the benefit.  In the economic approach sustainability is not considered, so it compromises the ability of future generations to use the same resource fulfil their needs.

In the example of the water dispute, the economic approach present a slim margin where is it considered the need of one of the users, in this situation both of them would like to use as much water as possible obviously the upstream users would have the advantage.

Collective Action

The collective action approach brings together various groups of users together to come to a common goal, which might not meet everyone’s needs but goes far enough to make sure that the needs are documented and that there is some what of an agreement amongst the outcome.

With a collective action we open the debate of balancing the needs of both the users, we remain linked to the view of natural resource only as a commodity but we open up the consideration of the well-being freedoms of the people in each states.

With respect to the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), creating a balance (or equilibrium for each state for the different uses of the natural resource.  In this case for water there are several uses of water, including: agriculture, domestic consumption and drinking water supply and environmental flows.


The World Commission on Environment and Development definition of sustainability as inter-generational fairness states “the use of natural resources to meet the needs of the present population does not compromise the ability of future generation to meet their needs”.  There are different interpretations of sustainability, but in this case, we are going to considered the interpretation of sustainability presented from Solow where it request to “leave future generations as well off as the present generation”.

The sustainability approach in itself remains in a “limited universalism” regarding only the use of one state but protecting the use of the natural resources of the future generation.  Two of the main limits of the sustainability approach are:

1.     It doesn’t count for the necessities of the other users, this represent a important problem especially when the sustainability to preserve it is mainly in the other country.

2.     From the users point of view this approach is seen only as a limit to their possibilities of development, they are treaties passively.

The Capability Approach

The Capability approach is based on substantial freedoms. It requests to put an emphasis on each of the individuals and their capabilities.  The capability approach asks us to change the point of view of both approaches.  First considering the use of the natural resource not just in terms of a commodity therefore perceiving only the quantity but the functioning that this resource allow people to do.  Second switching the definition of sustainability from what the people “need” to peoples “capability”, in this way sustainability is interpreted not only as a limit in life of people and possibilities of development.

The capability approach requests people to use their substantive freedom by balancing the use of a natural resource while respecting the freedom of other users. People are not treated passively but they became actors able to use their freedom.  This includes considering the freedom of more vulnerable users (deprived users or poor and species or biodiversity).  Considering both the present and the future generations.  This gives the users the recognition that is needed to influence the process.


With the capability approach we can move forward requesting that each actor is guaranteed the expansion of the substantive freedoms and assess which functioning the use of a natural resource gives people the possibility to achieve.  This provides the necessity of fairness and justice amongst the users in a broad manner.   Finally the practice of the capability approach requests to value people as actors, because to achieve substantial freedom is necessaries people recognise others users capabilities.

The Role of Identity

The role of identity to help understand the capability approach is important.  Identity is the sense of how people perceive their rights, in this case to a natural resource, water and it’s different uses. In most of the water debate, water is not the only source of conflict. Generally there are historical, cultural and/or economical disagreements that the water dispute becomes the platform for disagreement. Identity can play crucial role to reinforce inequalities and hinder sustainability considerations, especially when the environmental advantage are mainly in other state.

Moreover, different cultures interpret the uses of water in good or bad ways.  For example in the Indian culture water used for agricultural purposes is seen positively, because it is perceived as promote well-being.  On the other side of the argument is water that is used for building dams to transport water to towns and cities.  This is seen negatively in the eyes of Indians.

Sen’s capability approach promotes a broader interpretation of identity, recognising the primary role of public policy to use their sense of justice both in the sense of redistribution, giving everybody the same opportunity, as it respects different identities. Identity, even at a personal level, can promote the understanding between different groups. If identity is recognise, it can play a crucial role in person freedoms adding value to the debate of natural resource debates.

Water Disputes: from the Economic to the Capability Approach

In this section of the composition we take a look at water disputes and logically go through the various approaches, starting from the economic and finishing with the capability approach.  This will give the reader the ability to see how identity can be used to encapsulate most of the approaches into one capability approach.

Let’s start with the economic approach, which focuses on property rights and quantity, considering only the need of one group of users.  In this situation both groups of users would like to use as much water as possible, but both try to exploit the water uses to their advantage.  In this case, obviously the upstream users have the advantage.

If we take as a generic example, a conflict between upper riparian and downstream users of a river water basin, we can develop our discussion moving from a narrow rationality to the broader universalism of the capability approach.  To follow this scheme we need to recognise at first that to resolve the debate it needs to be open the debate between the two stakeholders with a collective action.

Taking a look at water disputes using the collective action approach we open the debate to balancing the needs of both the users.  While we remain linked to the view of water only as a commodity, we do open up a consideration of the well-being freedoms of the people in each of the groups of users.  Note that the collective action approach doesn’t incorporate the view of future generations as they aren’t able to negotiate due to their inability to be represented at the present time.

Next let’s look at the sustainability approach presented by Solow, which requests to “leave future generations as well-off as the present generation”.  The main resolve here is that it remains in a “limited universalism” regarding only the use of one group of users, although it does protect the use of the water resource of the future generation.  Which means it doesn’t include both groups of users in the negotiations and is viewed from the users point of view as limited to their possibilities of develop by keeping the potential needs of future generations in mind.

Finally the capability approach incorporates the three previous approaches: economic, collective actions and sustainability.  The capability approach takes a different point when looking at the water dispute, instead of looking at the dispute from economical and/or sustainability point of view, it looks at the identity of the users themselves.  It asks the users to articulate their potentiality to achieve using the natural resources available, in this case water.  By defining these identities a case is built for resolving the water disputes based of the individual substantial freedoms.

Again with the capability approach we can move forward requesting to each actor to guarantee the expansion of the substantive freedoms and assess which function the use of water makes people possible to achieve.  With regard the need of the poor or vulnerable (whether human or not human) and whether of present and future generations.

The Example of the Cauvery River in Southern India

Let’s use the example used in the paper to elaborate on identity and the capability approach.  This part of the composition will enable the user to learn through a common and simple example.  The Cauvery River in Southern India is a sacred river, it was born on Brahmagiri Hill, flowing in a south-easterly direction for 765 km in the stream it crosses two states: Karnataka on the upstream and Tamil Nadu on the downstream.  The Cauvery dispute is a typical example of an inter-state conflict concerned with water allocations.  Each of the states presented at the Cauvey tribunal their side of the debate.

The paper explains that the documentation presented to the Cauvey tribunal is not of public domain so, to analyse the main arguments Karnataka state offer publication from which we can understand main point of the debate.

One central theme to the debate is an agreement from 1924, which the Karnataka state was under the Maharaja’s administration while Tamil Nadu was under the British administration.  It is true that in that situation the State of Karnataka didn’t have the power to defend its rights against the British administration.  It is also true that in most of the cases agreement tend to protect the rights of the downstream riparian mainly because they represent the weaker party.

Karnataka state argue also his lakness of benefit from the october-november monsoon while the state of Tamil Nadu receive rain as from this monsson as from the one of june-september.  That state would have the freedom of release water to the other state only when there is a suffice quantity of water in its own state. The governement of Karnataka is facing a strong difficult being forced to release wantity a water especially in the summer time when their own farmers reclaman strong shortage of water.  It is evident that Karnataka state would reassess riparian rights in proportion of the basin area and the contribution to river flow.

Unfortunately the state of Tamil Nadu doesn’t offer any kind of government documentation so it is possible to summeraise the main point only from media and newspaper.  Regarding the old agreement of the 1924, on the other side, Tamil Nadu doesn’t see the necessities to review it, indeed they affirm the importance of that agreement for the development of both the states. They offer possibilities of implementing the agreement without changing the base of it.

An important problem is the quantity of water rice cultivation request; this is common problem in many development countries of this area. Tamil Nadu in fact recognizes recognise the rights of Karnataka farmers to produce rice but the also want to put limits on the quantity of water volume and area utilize for this crop.   Tamil Nadu state strongly points against the claim regarding the monsoon as is not possible to based the discussion on a natural phenomenon like the monsoon and also the idea that Karnataka state release water to Tamil Nadu only when they water necessities are totally fulfilled.  About the basin area, Tamil Nadu recognize it has to take in consideration without forget the downstream rights.

Each State claims regarding the water allocation are presented by political parties, they are tempted to use different aspect of identity to present themselves as the protector of people rights and in this way collect votes.  Analysing the macro-economic data the two countries is quite similar.  Note that the two different area the speak different language and have different tradition. The legal approach focuses only on property rights and quantities to reinforce singular request and do not open the dialogue to a possible collective action.  And even still more difficult is the discussion about the sustainability of the basin area.

Another specific problem in the area is the paddy cultivation; it is growing recently in the upstream area because of the low price of coffee cultivation. This crop represents an important source of income for small farmers but on the other side it requests a strong quantity of water.

The paper present different point to which the capability approach can be used at the specific level:

1.     Focusing not on property rights but speaking about functioning that water allow people to achieve and how and which alternative can be considerate.

2.     Assessing the process to how identity create a limit to a certain social group to achieve some functioning,

3.     Promoting a collective action as a internally a singular state to value different water allocation as between the two different countries. To do that it is important to involve at first local institutions.

4.     Finally the capability approach offer the possibilities of evaluate how starting from the individual point of view (substantial freedom) it is possible to encourage a collective action.

The capability approach for water focuses its strategy in a participatory process, promoting discussions and understanding between the involved parties. It requires a water policy because institutions at local and at states level are the one able to embrace this process, but it request at first the citizens are directly involve as an expression on specific interest and requests.  Also the capability approach includes a focus on sustainability, a values and a rights of future generations.

In many cases, water disagreement are able to became reason for ethnic conflict, promote opportunities of dialogue and educations makes people able to have a better understanding of the situations at a broader point a view.


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