What does it mean to value water?

We all use water every day – to drink, to wash, to clean. But we may not always value it. So why should we value water, and how might that help us long into the future?

For those who live in parts of the world where access to water is safe and affordable, it can be easy to take it for granted. But, by undervaluing water, we contribute to its poor management, and increasing scarcity.

Why do we all need to think more deeply about the different ways water is of great value? It’s a human, environmental and economic imperative.

Valuing water is financially savvy

When something is considered to have little value, there is limited impetus for institutions to invest in its care. But although not always recognised, water has real economic value, and water scarcity has led to financial risks for individuals, companies, and nations: poor water stewardship puts an estimated $301 billion of business value at risk.

By understanding and acknowledging the economic value of water, Governments and industry are more motivated to improve its protection and infrastructure. Investing in infrastructure projects becomes not just a moral obligation but a financially prudent one: the UN estimates that for every $1 invested in safe drinking water in urban areas, more than $3 is saved in medical costs and added productivity.

Understanding competing uses leads to more informed decision making

Water is valuable to different people in different ways, and all these varied interests must be taken into account.

Sustainably managing water for future generations means understanding the value of water from the perspective of all stakeholders, and building shared trust. Hearing from all who use a water source is vital, because water does not just have monetary value, it can have environmental, cultural, and spiritual value too that might not be immediately apparent.

By making decisions about water policy and investment together, we can reduce conflict between stakeholders rather than incite it.

In Kenya’s Tana Delta, for example, tensions arose between local farmers and cattle herders over water scarcity. The UN’s Restoration Initiative introduced stakeholder engagement and facilitated discussions between competing groups, ultimately jointly developing land-use plans that better enable access to water for everyone.

And longer-term policy is also strengthened by learning from all those who use water. In Bolivia, the WATCH programme sees local communities, industry, and government working together to understand local water risks, in order to establish sustainable 5-10 year watershed plans.

Water is essential to healthy ecosystems

Water is not only essential to human life, but underpins the health of entire ecosystems.

For a long time, natural ecosystems have not been fully considered as holding inherent value. Uncontrolled degradation of woodland, for example, has left many areas vulnerable to flooding – where traditionally. woodlands would have provided a natural defence.

Damage from flooding has incurred global costs of $1 trillion in the past 40 years alone.

Demonstrating and promoting the value of water, can lead to greater harmonisation which considers  financial interests as well as the importance of long term health of ecosystems for biodiversity. 

Adapting to climate change

From increasing instances of severe drought to erratic rainfall and flash flooding, the effects of climate change are felt through our water systems. Coastal communities – a tenth of the world’s population – are at particular risk from rising sea levels. 

Adapting to climate change means protecting water. From freshwater sources, to healthy aquifers, the sustainability of ecosystems relies on healthy water systems. This in turn will protect people’s lives and homes. Around Lake Victoria, in East Africa, agroforestry systems have been introduced to increase the resilience of ecosystems. Planting trees decreases soil erosion, which in turn improves water retention and reduces water runoff. It’s a positive feedback loop: the water retention in the soil makes the land more fertile.. I think this needs to be more on how water underpins successful adaptation.

Understanding the value of water makes us all better stewards

Unless we all know the worth assigned to water, it will be hard to truly protect our water resources, or vote for policy changes that lead to better water management. This is why education on water value is so important.

The Values-based Water Education Project is one example of water education in action. This UN education programme aims to teach young people the value of water, and the importance of protecting water at all stages of the water cycle. Similar projects exist across the world, and will hopefully help raise a generation who can further fight for appropriate water use.

Placing a value on water can be challenging. But that value already exists; we only need to recognise it. Through policy, investment, and collaboration, we can improve water infrastructure and better manage watersheds that provide life for humans, animals, and drive the economy. Water has an inherent value. We need to recognise it’s multifaceted.

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