Governance of Water Scarcity and Drought in the UK

Taking place at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, this research by Dr Bettina Lange is a socio-legal contribution to MaRIUS, a large interdisciplinary research program funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council. The program examines the management of the risks, impacts and uncertainties of water scarcity and drought in the UK.

Members of the cluster have also contributed to the UK NERC funded ‘Historic Droughts’ program.

The governance framework to deal with water scarcity and drought contains a clear commitment to evidence-based legal decision-making. However, we know little about whether and how key decision-makers actually make use of environmental science and economic knowledge, for example in order to decide how to write their drought plan or how to apply for a drought order.

This raises the puzzle of whether we should think of law as a powerful, interventionist tool for regulating the abstraction and use of water, or whether law merely provides a set of regulatory principles dependent on the conclusions of scientific reasoning.

Dry saltmarsh pan with cracking after drought Bridgewater Bay NNR Severn Estuary Somerset, England, August 2009

The projects thus examine the hybrid nature of state law. On the one hand water law can steer those whose behaviour is subject to legal rights and duties, ultimately through the use of sanctions. On the other hand law is powerless unless informed and rendered legitimate by relevant scientific expertise.

Hence, exploring the question of how environmental science and economic reasoning inform legal decision-making for the governance of water scarcity and drought informs a range of socio-legal debates that are not just topical but wider, fascinating and even fundamental.

First, there is the debate about the fact-value distinction, which has been central to understanding and criticising legal decision-making for environmental regulation. It has been argued that facts are assembled in specific ways and can contain implicit value judgments. The research sheds light on how the fact-value distinction plays out in practice when it comes to legal decision-making in relation to water scarcity and drought.

Second, there is a rich socio-legal literature which argues that law creates its own distinct ways of representing socio-legal worlds. That argument can be extended to law representing in distinct ways the natural world. This raises questions about whether environmental-scientific and economic thinking about water scarcity and drought are distinct from law's conceptualization of water scarcity and drought, and ultimately what the relationship between scientific and legal reasoning is.

Download the key reports here:

Governance of Drought and Water Scarcity

Water Efficiency in the Public Sector

Resilient Drought and Water Scarcity Management in England Wales Scenario Workshop Report

Related content

Introduction to ENDOWS Project

Presentation of ENDOWS work task results

MaRIUS Final Event Presentation - Bettina Lange

MaRIUS Final Event Presentation - Kevin Grecksch

MaRIUS Final Event Presentation - Chris Decker