Notions of fairness, justice and equity are frequently included as ideals to be attained in societal arrangements, but how do we determine what is fair, what is just and what is equitable? Even though ideas about justice and equity have been discussed for centuries, they are still elusive concepts that are infrequently put to practical use in day-to-day decision-making processes. Yet calls for justice in environmental conflicts are commonplace. These range from localised perceived injustices, such as the siting of waste dumps and energy infrastructure, to ethical concerns about responsibility for greenhouse gas production and disproportionate impacts of climate change. How to allocate and share natural resources equitably is a question that preoccupies governments and policymakers in many areas such as water allocation, mining and energy production. How then can notions of justice and equity be put to use in a practical way in decision-making processes? This paper addresses this question by exploring a complex social conflict over water allocation in the state of Victoria, Australia.
The 2008 case study centres on the diversion of water from the Goulburn River in the north of Victoria to the state's capital, Melbourne through a new 75 km pipeline. The rationale was that Melbourne could run out of water by 2010 if the current drought persisted. In return the State government would partially fund modernisation of irrigation infrastructure in the food bowl area in the state's north, an outcome the government assumed to be fair. Nevertheless, conflict arose between stakeholders including the way the decision was made, the diversion of the water, the building of the pipeline, the impact on the environment, and aspects of the food bowl modernisation. The fieldwork involved interviews with stakeholders to understand their concerns and their thoughts about fairness, justice and injustice. A range of perceived injustices emerged. These included disdainful treatment of communities, lack of consultation and information, and inadequate justification for the water diversion. The paper describes how perceived injustice can harm community well-being and outlines three constructs of justice that can reduce perceived injustice in decision-making processes. The paper concludes that being treated with respect, fairness of process and fairness of outcome are essential in gaining stakeholder support and achieving broad outcome acceptance. Those who advocate behavioural change for sustainability must recognise that the crucial importance of outcome does not obviate the need to routinely address perceptions of fairness and justice in change processes.