This paper and Special Issue build a case for why justice matters in water governance and why it should be explicitly accounted for in water management and allocation. It describes four characteristics of water and their implications for social and environmental justice. These four characteristics – the spatial and temporal uneven distribution of water; the fact that water is essential for all life, with minimums needed for the survival of both the environment and humankind; water's added benefits to human well-being through the goods and services it provides; and the ensuing political dimensions of power asymmetries affecting water governance – have resulted in a plethora of disciplinary interpretations of justice in an attempt to capture its relevance and importance. The collection of papers in this Special Issue provides a glimpse into the diverse range of issues that can emerge when justice considerations are taken or not taken into account in water governance. Water justice is particularly significant when societal change occurs because of altered allocations, institutional rules of the game or in the underlying hydrological regime. We summarise 10 steps that contribute to the continuing articulation of a ‘water justice framework’ by researchers interested in this field of research and practice.