Valuing water differently

As individuals and as societies, how should we value water? Depending on who you ask, the answer to this question might be very different. Traditionally, valuing water has been the domain of economists. Where scarce water resources needed to be allocated to different water users, economists were tasked with deciding what might be an efficient, sustainable and fair distribution of water, using often complex economic valuation methods.

Yet other perspectives on valuing water are growing in importance. The cultural and social values of water are increasingly being recognised. For example, water plays an important role in religious ceremonies around the world, and some rivers such as the Ganges are important sites of pilgrimage. The Whanganui River in New Zealand has even been granted legal personhood. The Netherlands as a country is shaped by its unique relationship with water. Water resources also sustain non-human life on the planet, a value that is not easily captured in economic categories of euros, dollars or yens.

This year’s theme of the World Water Day was ‘Valuing Water’ and 2021 has seen the publication of a UN report on Valuing Water as well as many webinars and workshops on the topic. The ground for this was prepared in 2018, when the UN and World Bank-led High Level Panel on Water proposed five Valuing Water Principles, the first of which calls for “recognising and embracing water’s multiple values to different groups and interests in all decisions affecting water”.

The Dutch Government has been an early supporter of these activities, which are hosted by its Valuing Water Initiative. This initiative is based on the understanding that building partnerships with stakeholders from many different sectors and countries will lead to better outcomes and decisions on water management.

Yet there is no doubt that both the strategic level of defining water policy priorities and the day-to-day management of water resources can involve difficult choices. Sometimes it is not possible to meet everyone’s needs and demands at once. When it comes to water, the stakes are often high, especially, but not only, in areas facing water scarcity. Climate change will further complicate the management of water resources.

How we, as professionals and as citizens, make these choices may often be informed by our personal values. There is a growing evidence base that our preferences for different water management options can be traced back to the fundamental level of personal values. These values act as guiding principles in our lives, far beyond the field of water. Caring about the wellbeing of others or celebrating achievements might be examples of such values. Curiosity, respect for traditions, or personal safety are others.

Crucially, these values are universally recognised by people across cultures, age groups, and genders. This holds the potential that values-informed water governance may find solutions that every stakeholder dependent on a certain water resource can accept. What may differ between people is how values are prioritised.

In this context, the Valuing Water Initiative has invited a team of researchers from several universities in the UK to develop a global survey to understand the values that guide water professionals in their decision-making about water. As part of the survey, respondents are also invited to express their opinions on the major strategic questions for global water policy.

This survey will help us understand in how far some of the choices that the global water sector is facing are underpinned by competing or complementary personal values. Although case studies have established this at the regional scale for individual water policy questions, a global survey represents new territory. For example, we know that whether a person prefers to develop water infrastructure or not can be linked to their personal values, but many other questions have not been explored thus far.

The survey covers several new themes, for example, what are the best principles for good water governance and management, that is, what makes good decisions about water. Others relate to debates on strengthening public participation or the need to find the right balance between public and private management of water resources.

Values-informed water governance will not provide simple answers. Indeed there is no one correct way to organise water governance and policy. But with this survey we can know more about where and why we may agree or disagree on certain ideas. We will find out what matters to those who take decisions about water on a daily basis, and which areas of water management might require more work.

We hope this will mark the start of a global conversation on valuing water, not its conclusion.

Author bio

Dr Christopher Schulz leads the development of a global survey on valuing water for the Valuing Water Initiative with colleagues at the University of Leeds, the University of Bath, and Scotland’s Rural College in the UK. He is a Research Associate in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge and a Lecturer in Ecological Economics for the University of Edinburgh/SRUC. His PhD research investigated the conceptual foundations for valuing water. He has carried out fieldwork studying water values and governance with water professionals and citizens in Brazil. His most recent project reviewed the history, legacy and impacts of the World Commission on Dams, for which he interviewed stakeholders based on all continents. For a list of his research outputs, see here. He can be contacted at:

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