Standing for the value of water

Standing for the value of water

Last week, water practitioners gathered in Stockholm for World Water Week. This is an annual meeting to discuss the world’s water issues, organized by the Stockholm International Water Institute. And if any reminder were needed as to the urgency of water challenges, this year’s event took place against a backdrop of Tropical Storm Harvey in the United States, monsoons and flooding in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, and an ongoing drought in the Horn of Africa. Billions of dollars’ worth of damage to economies, communities displaced and people killed – it’s a terrifying window into the devastating impacts of water-related extremes.

It’s for these reasons and others that the World Economic Forum categorizes water scarcity as one of the main global risks facing humanity today. Around the world, 4.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation and 2.1 billion people lack access to safely managed water. And new World Bank research provides a wake-up call about the scale of the challenge in low and middle-income countries.

If we are to manage these hazards to minimize future suffering, urgent action is needed. One of my main reflections post World Water Week is that valuing water must be an essential part of the policy agenda if we are to bend the curve towards a water-secure world.

As I have written before, water is a unique issue because it has an economic aspect, an ecological aspect, and a spiritual, cultural and social aspect. These three all interlink with one another so the solution needs to be cognizant of this complexity.

Historically, water has been undervalued. Perhaps that’s because so many of us take it for granted – we turn on the tap and it flows. But this undervaluing has led to misuse and misallocation – because water provides multiple uses and services, all too often it is it is used for purposes that do not maximize wellbeing and regulated in ways that do not recognize scarcity or promote conservation.

So how do we translate the individual and community-level values into a common value system for societies and countries? Institutional mechanisms to manage water and deliver services are crucial.

Released earlier this year, the Bellagio Principles on Valuing Water encourage us to do a number of things. Firstly, they encourage us to recognize water’s multiple values principle by considering the multiple values to different stakeholders in all decisions affecting water. Secondly, to build trust by conducting all processes to reconcile values into management systems in ways that are equitable, transparent, and inclusive of multiple values. Thirdly, to protect water sources by valuing and protecting all sources of water, including watersheds, rivers, aquifers and associated ecosystems for current and future generations. Fourthly, empowering people by promoting education and public awareness about the essential role of water and its intrinsic value. And finally, to invest and innovate by putting resources behind our institutions, infrastructure, information and innovation to realize the full potential and values of water.

All of this involves broadening our outreach and turning up the volume. With so many important issues in the world and so much content competing for public attention, events like World Water Week are crucial for raising awareness, highlighting the scale of the challenge and showcasing solutions. But we need to go beyond talking to those in the water sector and engage those from other sectors. And we need leadership

on this topic to catalyze action, such as from the High Level Panel on Water, which presented some of its global initiatives at World Water Week and launched a consultation on the Bellagio Principles.

In conclusion, I believe we need a seminal shift to value water based on the values necessary to chart an inclusive course that respects culture, religion, and environment.

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