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Last Updated: 11/05/2008
Education for water rights and environmental justice
Kevin Kester

This essay discusses an abbreviated model of education for peace and water rights.

Parts of this essay are adapted from the author's earlier book: The Young Ecologist Initiative: Water Manual: Lesson Plans for Building Earth Democracy (Navdanya, 2007), co-authored with Vandana Shiva and Shreya Jani.

In response to the October 2008 Peace and Conflict Monitor, on the dialectic of food and water issues, I would like to raise the topic of the necessity of forming curricula and teaching strategies to address urgent issues surrounding water rights (i.e. water access, pollution control, and privatization). In this regard, the UN Economic and Social Council (2002) wrote: “Water is a limited natural resource and a public good fundamental for life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights….” Therefore, education for water and human rights should be an integral component of education for peace, whereby necessary resources for human survival are mediated through the commons. The commons refers to those resources and supplies that are shared and managed equally by an entire community (e.g. a common water-supply system). Commons are shared in the spirit of interdependence, cooperation, and through participatory decision-making. 

As a “prerequisite for the realization of other human rights,” citizens should begin to address water rights and resource conflicts through creative and holistic means. Educators might focus on education that values and teaches the skills of containing aggression, working together, and resolving conflict without violence. Noted peace educator Betty Reardon recently stated:

When thinking of conflict, there are two arenas of action which are important. One is education in           the sense of systematically cultivated learning. And the other is political structures in which     conflicts play out. These structures are set within a paradigm of essentialism… the idea that human beings can be summed up in a set of characteristics that are in fundamental opposition to another set of characteristics. Education can help unpack that kind of thinking, but education per se cannot deal with the structures out of which it comes (2008, n.p.).

Education for water rights and peace should encompass dialogue on water issues (as a major subtopic within human rights) that “unpacks thinking” toward human needs and inalienable rights, free-markets, democracy, globalization, violence, and governance. Additionally, education for water rights could assess international documents that articulate and give strength to these rights, and prepare alternative futures where resources (and the governance over these resources) are shared. Such an education, within traditional school systems, could further propel conflict management education and human rights education (i.e. water rights) into mainstream schooling.

Water is perhaps the most obvious evidence of our human interconnectivity—connecting people of all ages, races, caste, class, religions and creeds. Everyone needs water. Therefore, peoples must learn (through intentional, directed teaching and learning) to share this common, and other food resources, in the spirit of cooperation and respect for all life. This necessitates a civil society that prevents water from becoming a commodity controlled by private groups and sold for profit.

The privatization of water is one of the foremost threats to the right to life. When the essence of life, or a common, becomes a commodity then a democracy and its people are disenfranchised. Privatizing water by putting the control of water distribution and supply in the hands of private companies threatens the basic need of all for nurturing a prosperous and healthy life. Water belongs to all and the lack or inability of the state to provide it to its citizen does not mean that the problem is one for the private sector to solve, but rather is an indication that communities have to be empowered through education to take corrective action themselves.

Equally important is the reality that youth today (under the age of 25) now represent nearly half the global population (UNFPA,, and certainly it is not youth who control governments, dams, and multinationals that are making contemporary decisions about water, who gets it and who does not. Modern critical education must raise dialogue around the issues of water, food rights, and civic participation. It is the future of youth at stake in which critical education demands to have students active in the preparation of a shared common future. Youth should not be omitted from dialogue as though they compose an inconsequent sector of society. We borrow the Earth from our children. With this loan of the Earth’s environment and resources comes great responsibility to leave the Earth in a better condition than we were born into, which includes participation of the young in decision-making processes around the state of the environment.

In our recent book, The Young Ecologist Initiative: Water Manual: Lesson Plans for Building Earth Democracy, Shiva, Kester, and Jani (2007) contend that education for water rights should be directed especially toward youth and conducted through democratic means. If students are to comprehend conflict and its root causes, and cooperatively prepare feasible solutions through civil society institutes and international organizations, then education meant to prepare learners for these specific tasks should be participatory, creative, and dialogical itself. The objectives of educating for cooperation and respect for the commons, then, are:

  1. [To] Promote care for the whole community of life with understanding and compassion
  2. Build democratic societies that are just and participatory
  3. Raise awareness among the young about the importance of water and the values associated with it
  4. Understand the multiple perspectives of peace and water issues
  5. Discuss the role of nationality, gender, class, and other forms of identity in water conflicts
  6. Know national constitutional rights and human rights instruments that protect water rights and social justice
  7. Practice respect for the diversity of all life and empathy for others
  8. Contemplate universal and individual responsibility within the commons 

Therefore, comprehensive education for human rights, water rights, and the commons should explore and formulate knowledge content, values, skills, and activities designed to capacitate citizens with an understanding of water conflicts throughout the world, as well as the skills to resolve myriad conflicts without violence.  This includes the paramount task of relating water issues to the lives of learners, and motivating within and with youth the engagement in possibilities of creating peaceful personal lifestyles and a commitment to preventing and resolving resource conflicts through nonviolent means. Therefore, an abbreviated model of education for peace and water rights might include the following six strategies:

1. Raising the issues

To approach water conflicts, brainstorm, with learning participants, talking points to engage students in discussions around contemporary water issues. Some talking points related to water rights may be: one’s livelihood, national boundaries, dams and internally-displaced persons, gender and water, class and caste, decision-making mechanisms, access and scarcity, population and conservation, privatization of resources, sanitation, and depletion of groundwater, among others. These issues are inherently encapsulated in political and social constructs and objectives. Educators should extract for classroom dialogue the underlying values and policies that inform such water issues. Through asking learners to suspend their judgments, facilitate an honest dialogue (i.e. not a debate, persuasive discussion, or lecture) where learners may become aware of the multiple perspectives that surround water rights, the distribution of resources, and the sharing of the commons.

2. Linking Ecology to Social Justice

Ecology is deeply linked to social justice and environmental care.  The discourse often centers on the mismanagement and privatization of water, yet this single issue has numerous consequences including the health of communities, degradation of the environment, and increased poverty of the disadvantaged, with women and children experiencing the brunt of the consequences. Draw links between the care of the environment and its effect on communities, particularly communities that are economically disadvantaged. Consider how natural and healthy environments support healthy lifestyles. Also, discuss modern chemical and biological warfare as a means of destroying communities through degrading the environment (e.g. Agent Orange during Vietnam, or the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack on Tokyo). This latter point is a direct link between conflict, ecology, and the employment of physical violence.

3. Framing our common humanity

Exploring water as a commons also explores that other common that links us all, within our families, our communities, our nations, and across the globe: our common humanity. Common humanity is reflected in the sharing of the commons. The recognition of our common human bond is necessary to protect and realize water rights; for, when global citizens come to regard all life as equal in worth, dignity, and the right to a decent life, social and political conflicts buttressed by disrespect for others may be mitigated.

4. Integrating international documents

Integrating supporting documents into curriculum as a complement to the knowledge content, or as the content itself, is an approach to add perspective to global conflicts and the policies that contain them. International normative documents articulate shared aspirations among the world community for peace and social justice, and often describe individual and group rights. Learners could read international documents (e.g. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948; National Constitutions; Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989; Earth Charter, 2000, etc.) to identify articles that expressly state water rights. Learners might also chart violations of these rights through mapping current resource conflicts. 

5. Role-playing and group reflection

Role-plays help learners experience events from multiple perspectives. This approach to education for peace may build empathy, understanding, trust, cooperation, and further respect of other worldviews and ways of life. To realize substantial learning, role-plays and other emphatic learning exercises (e.g. socio-dramas) should be repeatedly conducted in the classroom. It is vital that in-depth reflections accompany these learning activities. The reflections reveal assumptions about Self and Other. Typically, reflection sessions have three parts: 1) questions about what participants observed and felt, 2) inquiry into what lessons the activity, or how the activity was completed, teaches participants about themselves, their environment, and society, and 3) linking/revealing the applicability of the activities to participants’ lives and social institutions.

6. Envisioning alternative futures

Ultimately, education for peace aims to address current conflicts through formulating preferable future alternatives. This includes possible futures (all the realities that could exist), probable futures (the futures that will materialize without substantial change to the current global system), and preferable futures (those that citizens should strive for as members of humanity—through which process it is necessary to suspend one’s selfish desires as a member of a particular government, ideology, or corporation). As learners conceptualize alternative futures they begin to draft action plans for working toward their preferred futures.

In conclusion,the intentional protection of water as a human right had been omitted from education and human rights instruments (e.g. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948; International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, 1966) that supported the right for food but not expressly for water. This deliberate omission from the classroom and international policy weakened the case for citizens and civil society groups that wanted to pursue civil and legislative action toward ensuring water rights for all. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), Millennium Declaration (2000), and UN International Decade for Action “Water for Life” (2005-2015) are international instruments now specifically stating and protecting the right to water. Consequently, to combat the continuance of environmental utilitarianism at the expense of disadvantaged peoples and future generations, educators must also begin to educate for human rights, water rights, and the protection of the commons.


Earth Charter Initiative, The (2000). Website:  

It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way: Interview with Betty Reardon (2008, April). SGI Quarterly. Retrieved Oct. 28, 2008, from

Shiva, Vandana, Kester, Kevin, and Jani, Shreya (2007). The Young Ecologist Initiative. Water Manual: Lesson Plans for Building Earth Democracy. New Delhi, India: Navdanya.

United Nations (1989). Convention on the Rights of the Child. General Assembly resolution 44/25.

United Nations (1966). International Convenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. General Assembly resolution 2200A(XXI).

United Nations (2004). International Decade for Action, ‘Water for Life', 2005-2015. General Assembly resolution A/RES/58/217.

United Nations (2000). United Nations Millennium Declaration. General Assembly resolution 55/2.

United Nations (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. General Assembly resolution 217A(III).

United Nations Economic and Social Council (2002). Substantial Issues arising in the Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. General Comment No. 15. E/C.12/2002/11.

United Nations Population Fund (n.d.). Supporting Adolescents and Youth. In United Nations Population Fund: Population Issues. Retrieved October 28, 2008, from

Kevin Kester is Adjunct Lecturer at SolBridge International School of Business, Daejeon, S. Korea, and sessional Instructor with Northwestern University’s Civic Education Project. He holds a Master’s degree in Peace Education from UPEACE, and is a graduate of Teachers College Columbia University and the University of Louisville.