The Myth of ?Tragedy of the Commons' in Sustaining Water Resources

Author:Ayele Hegena Anabo
Pages:309-350
SUMMARY

With growing concerns regarding natural resources security over the last fifty years, a range of movements, including the notion of the tragedy of the commons suggest how to enhance sustainability of natural resources. A case in point is the discourse on the necessity of introducing regulatory and market schemes for the challenges to the sustainability of the commons. This article, inter alia,... (see full summary)

 
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The Myth of ‘Tragedy of the Commons’
in Sustaining Water Resources
Ayele Hegena Anabo
Abstract
With growing concerns regarding natural resources security over the last fifty
years, a range of movements, including the notion of the tragedy of the
commons suggest how to enhance sustainability of natural resources. A case in
point is the discourse on the necessity of introducing regulatory and market
schemes for the challenges to the sustainability of the commons. This article,
inter alia, highlights the literature on the tragedy of the commons, in order to
understand its theoretical and practical strengths, and examine the applicability
of its core ideas to current issues of water security. As contemporary water
security problems are interconnected and complex, the article challenges the
adequacy and effectiveness of coercive regulatory arrangements to individual
water users’ behavior in sustaining water security. It also examines the
variation of new initiatives (in natural resources management) from the
traditional perspectives of the tragedy of the commons. It is argued that
introducing coercive regulatory institutional arrangements is not by itself
sufficient because water security may require comprehensive regulatory and
non-regulatory institutional arrangements at national and transnational levels
(supplemented by comprehensive implementation strategies) to address a range
of water pressures.
Key words
Tragedy of the Commons, the Commons, open- access, institutional
arrangements, water security, water pressures
DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.4314/mlr.v7i2.5
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Introduction
Where natural resources experience little pressure and in the absence of scarcity
problems, regulatory intervention may not be so important.1 The theory of the
tragedy of the commons calls for the commons to be appropriated. When such
LLM (Addis Ababa University Law school), MSC (University of Kent, School of
Anthropology and Conservation), PhD candidate at Kent Law School, University of
Kent The author is available at aha24@kent.ac.uk
1 James Salzman and Barton H. Thompson (2010). Environmental Law and Policy, 3rd
Edition, Thomson Reuters, p.47.
310 MIZAN LAW REVIEW Vol. 7 No.2, December 2013
appropriation is not possible, the theory suggests the introduction of regulatory
intervention, which limits the access to and use of the commons. Hardin’s
coercive regulatory remedy focuses on the behaviour and control of individual
users in limiting access to and use of scarce natural resources. From a water
security point of view, the focus of this theory is to introduce coercive
regulatory schemes for the demand of water users. The implication of this
remedy is that a lack of coercive regulatory instruments for water demand
management is a root problem for the water resources tragedy.
This study argues that approaching water resources problems in terms of the
regulation of individual water users’ demand management may have its own
positive contribution to enhancing water sustainability, if the institutional
arrangements for demand management are comprehensive enough to address a
range of water over-exploitation problems. However, contemporary water
security challenges are diverse by their nature, and these problems do not
always stem from lack of coercive regulatory institutions for water demand
management.
Enhancing water security needs to be approached through multifaceted
regulatory and other institutional arrangements, which are beyond the regulation
of individual water users’ behaviour. Such institutional arrangements should be
introduced more inclusively and comprehensively to address the range of water
security pressures, including controlling the behaviour of riparian states, which
the tragedy of the commons has barely addressed. More importantly, regulatory
rules by themselves may not bring about change without introducing effective
implementation strategies. Considering all these challenges, the central
argument of this study is that lack of proper institutional arrangements for water
demand management may be part of the problem for contemporary water
security challenges.
The academic inquiry in this article re-frames the tragedy of the commons
debate in relation to water security, in the orientation that the regulatory
arrangements themselves for the demand of individual water users should be
comprehensive enough to address a range of water pressures. However, present
day water security challenge may need non-coercive regulatory institutions. It is
argued that the tragedy of the commons theory should be re-framed to an
orientation that understands water security challenges from the perspectives of
the interconnected and complex problems that need integrated water resources
management with a view to addressing a range of water security threats.
The Myth of ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ in Sustaining Water Resources 311
1. Basic Assumptions of the Tragedy of the Commons
Theory
1.1 The concepts of the tragedy of the commons
The fear of the ruin of scarce natural resources by human action is not a new
idea. Hardin published an article in Science Journal in December 1968, entitled
‘The Tragedy of the Commons’.2 Subsequently, this notion has been widely
discussed and has dominated scholarship in different disciplines. Since its
publication, the article has been widely reprinted in scientific journals and
quoted across disciplines.3
The tragedy of the commons theory embodies two key words: ‘tragedy’ and
‘commons’. The word ‘tragedy’ is not seen in the usual theatrical sense. Hardin
stated that ‘[t]he essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the
solemnity of the remorseless working of things.’4 Until the commons are ruined,
rational individual users generate the maximum possible benefits, whilst leaving
the cost of over-exploitation of the commons. Hardin further underlined the idea
that ‘[t]his inevitableness of destiny can only be illustrated in terms of human
life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that
the futility of escape can be made evident in the drama.’5
Similarly, the tragedy of the commons uses the word ‘commons’ frequently.
Hardin described ‘commons’ as a common pool of resources where access to
natural resources is open to all persons.6 These resources are freely available to
anyone in the system and are unregulated. Similarly, Crowe defined the concept
‘commons’ as ‘a social institution…some environmental objects, which have
never been, and should never be, exclusively appropriated to any individual or
group of individuals’.7 In his description, Crowe includes such things as water,
the atmosphere and living space as ‘commons’.8An example that Hardin used is
that of open-access pastureland, in which no user has the prerogative to exclude
others from use, and all users are equally entitled to use it without any
2 Garrett Hardin (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons, 162 SCI. 1243, 1244.
3 Ian Angus, Socialist Voice: Marxists Perspectives for the 21’st Century, August 24,
2008.
4 Hardin, supra note 2, pp. 1243-1248.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Berly Crowe (1969). ‘The Tragedy of the Commons Revisited’, Science, News Series
166(399) 1103-1107.
8 Ibid.

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