The theme of World Water Day 2021 is valuing water.
Economic development and a growing global population means agriculture and industry are getting thirstier and water-intensive energy generation is rising to meet demand. Climate change is making water more erratic and contributing to pollution.
As societies balance the demands on water resources, many people’s interests are not being taken into account.
How we value water determines how water is managed and shared. The value of water is about much more than its price – water has enormous and complex value for our households, culture, health, education, economics and the integrity of our natural environment.
If we overlook any of these values, we risk mismanaging this finite, irreplaceable resource.
1. Valuing water sources – natural water resources and ecosystems.
All water is generated by ecosystems. And all the water we abstract for human use eventually returns to the environment, along with any contaminants we have added.
The water cycle is our most important ‘ecosystem service’. Higher value must be given to protecting the environment to ensure a good quality water supply and build resilience to shocks such as flood and drought.
2. Valuing water infrastructure – storage, treatment and supply.
Water infrastructure stores and moves water to where it is most needed, and helps clean and return it to nature after human use. Where this infrastructure is inadequate, socio-economic development is undermined and ecosystems endangered.
Typical valuations of water infrastructure tend to underestimate or not include costs, particularly social and environmental costs. It is difficult to recover all costs from tariffs (known as full cost recovery). In many countries, only part or all of the operational costs are recovered, and capital investments are covered by public funds.
3. Valuing water services – drinking water, sanitation and health services.
The role of water in households, schools, workplaces and health care facilities is critical. Furthermore, WASH – water, sanitation and hygiene – services also adds value in the form of greater health, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
WASH services are often subsidized, even in high- income countries. However, untargeted subsidies can benefit people with existing water connections, rather than improving the situation for poor and underserved communities.
4. Valuing water as an input to production and socio-economic activity – food and agriculture, energy and industry, business and employment.
Agriculture places the biggest demand on global freshwater resources and is a major contributor to environmental degradation.
Despite being fundamental to food security, water in food production is generally given a low value when assessed purely through the economic lens of value produced in relation to water used. Many of the wider benefits – improving nutrition, generating income, adapting to climate change and reducing migration – are often not reflected in the cost of water.
For the energy, industry and business (EIB) sector, water-related threats such as water scarcity, flooding and climate change can push up costs and disrupt supply chains. Corporate mismanagement of water can damage ecosystems and harm reputations and affect sales.
Traditionally, the EIB sector has valued water by the volume used, plus the costs of wastewater treatment and disposal. More organizations are adopting integrated water resource management (IWRM) planning approaches as they improve their sustainability (see box below).
5. Valuing socio-cultural aspects of water – recreational, cultural and spiritual attributes.
Water can connect us with notions of creation, religion and community. And water in natural spaces can help us feel at peace. Water is an intrinsic part of every culture but the values we attribute to these functions are difficult to quantify or articulate.
Economics often considers water to be a resource for practical human usage and pays little or no attention to its socio-cultural, or environmental, value.
There is a need to fully understand cultural values around water by involving a more diverse group of stakeholders in water resources management.
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