Public Reason: Vol. 3, No. 2, December 2011
The Commodification of the Public Service of Water: A Normative Perspective
Adrian Walsh

This paper examines some key normative issues that arise from the commodification of the public supply of water. Since the end of World War Two, the provision of water for domestic consumption has, in most Western countries, been regarded as a fundamental public service and, as such, has typically been supplied by the State cheaply or free of charge to users. (Water for agricultural and industrial purposes has also often been so provided.) However, in recent times, in many parts of the world, water markets have been established. This clearly has distributive implications and, potentially, depending upon one’s theoretical framework, raises problems of distributive justice. However, questions concerning the proper distribution of water have garnered little attention from political philosophers and applied ethicists, nor has there been much discussion of the moral permissibility of commodifying water. This is surprising given the centrality of water to human civilisation. In the early sections of the paper I outline several of the normative and conceptual puzzles surrounding water. I then explore a number of plausible objections that might be raised against commodifying water and consider what role they should play in our all-things-considered judgments about the moral permissibility of water markets. I conclude with some reflections on the role of philosophical inquiry in applied public policy-making.

Key words: commodification, water, distributive justice, public services, environmental values.



Walsh, Adrian. 2011. The Commodification of the Public Service of Water: A Normative Perspective. Public Reason 3 (2): 90-106.