The many values of water

Keith Hayward

As this year’s World Water Development Report makes abundantly clear, it does not really make sense to think of the value of water. There are a great many values attached to water and its uses.

The report helpfully groups these in terms of five perspectives. We can value water sources, including their essential function of supporting ecosystems. Water resources infrastructure, use of water in food and industry, and water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services each have their own values. Then there is the cultural perspective, spanning religion to recreation.

The report calls for far better acknowledgement of these different values. What is needed, it says, is multi-value governance. This may seem like a somewhat abstract aim – idealistic, even. But the problems we face today can be seen as a failure around values and the valuing of water, with great gaps in our ability and willingness to take account of diverse values and the interests behind them.

In surveying each of the perspectives, the report draws attention to many of these gaps, which include failures to take account of negatives and positives.

On water resources infrastructure, for example, the report notes that past valuation has been “seriously flawed”, especially for large dams. Ecosystem services and social impacts remain insufficiently addressed in major water engineering projects – a concern, given the need to provide for a growing global population.

On WASH, the report notes the relatively low investment in sanitation and hygiene compared to water supply, despite the health gains that higher investment would be expected to bring, and it raises concerns over the extent to which subsidies tend to reach the richest, rather than poorest, in society.

Energy, industry and business have, unsurprisingly, focused on monetary value. The journey to becoming a good steward requires a reorientation to think not in terms of ‘my water supply’, but ‘our water basin’, the report says.

There has been progress in each area, but failings around valuing water will grow in significance as global challenges intensify.

Failings around valuing water will grow in significance

The central call of the report is that valuing water is not just about higher prices, or even promoting the highest-value use – where the measure of that value is purely monetary. It is about finding a way to better accommodate diverse values.

In this context, the report offers welcome leadership, inviting all actors to take a broader view. As it notes, current perspectives are often biased. Some values go unacknowledged, others are sidelined. There is a need to raise the level of expectation around valuing water. Water should be valued more highly. The challenge is also about valuing water more fully – taking account of a wider range of values.

Keith Hayward, Editor