Story | 26 Mar, 2021

Why are we valuing water?

Blog by James Dalton -- Monday this week saw the 28th annual World Water Day. The Day celebrates water and raises awareness about the global water crisis, the theme this year was valuing water.

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Photo: ©Shutterstock/Vietnam stock images

The value of water is not about economic price or financial worth. Instead, the theme aims to raise awareness about the myriad of connections we have with water, be it for social and economic use but also for our natural systems and cultural values. Not valuing something can lead to mismanagement, poor investment, externalities, and ultimately loss and failure.

In response to the UN’s High-Level conclusion in 2018 that the world was off-track to meet the sustainable development goal on water and sanitation (SDG6), a new High Level Panel on Water developed five principles to better recognise the value of water. Championed since by the Dutch Government’s Valuing Water Initiative, these principles should now form part of any water strategy, whether for water resource management, freshwater species protection, or water services and governance. 

Under the #Water2me initiative, UN Water asked people to submit what water means to them, crowdsourcing people’s perspectives and emotions about water. I have seen many of these submissions on social media. By far the majority are very personal, they reflect on people’s childhoods, times with family and friends, outings, activities, fun, spiritual, personal tales and emotions. I have not seen one that says ‘it’s my job'. It is of course, my job, but it is also much more. 

In my role I get to work with, and meet people obsessed with water, fully committed to their cause and that of their role with water. These are inspiring people working across a wide range of entry points water provides, such as regulation, drilling wells, freshwater fish protection, sustainable hydropower, flood protection, glacial retreat and so forth. The diversity of interest alone demonstrates the multiple values of water.

Reading the many comments on social media about what water means to people tells me that there are four main areas of value:

Negotiation – water is so valuable that it is valueless. Bond movies, water on Mars, hexavalent chromium, all demonstrate that when we fully recognise our reliance on water and then value the resource, it is perhaps the most powerful motivator for action. Water is so valuable that only in extreme cases (and often caught up with other issues) is water ever used for violence or forceful domination. It is so valuable that we intrinsically know that three days without is our limit. We know that negotiation is a must to ensure access to ideally clean, safe, reliable, and sustainable water for whatever we need it for. Negotiation and governance therefore is key to ensure access and to recognise that water is a rare substance. Only a small fraction of the freshwater on this planet is naturally available to us. If we cannot negotiate over rare resources critical to life, we will not last long.

Stability – to allow negotiation to happen we need stability in how we function as institutions and stakeholders. We need to be able to dialogue and collaboratively exchange, and we need to demonstrate measured diplomacy.  Water is a shared resource. Like it or not, where it falls as precipitation is determined by many climate factors, and where it hits the ground and is used by society, is dependent on how we manage the land, our ecosystems and infrastructure. All of this requires solid institutions. It does of course need financial investment, data collection, and human capacity, but the point is, countries that are able to better manage their water resources tend to be more stable, and this provides the bedrock for developing our economies and societies, and for protecting our natural environment.

Adaptation - Climate change throws a curve ball at the above, hydrology changes, the stability is challenged. So water management is about change, understanding how to manage and protect a resource that never sleeps. Where we have failed is to understand how trying to make water management stable can lead to disaster: droughts will happen, floods do occur, dams break, pollution is happening – where did the Aral Sea go, where are the great irrigation systems of Mesopotamia? It is great to see Sandra Postel being awarded the Stockholm World Water Prize this year. I value her books, and in 'The Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity', from 1992, the title of her Chapter 1 says it all: An Illusion of Plenty.

Complexity to simplicity – water revels in complexity.  It allows water organisations to keep a semblance of control.  Our relationship with water is complex – hence the difficulty in determining the value of it.  The diverse range of ways people have responded to the #Water2me campaign illustrate the complexity: we so heavily and functionally rely on water, but when asked what it means we get personal and spiritual. Focusing on value has helped simplify our messages on water. And this is urgently needed. It remains a constant, but unwelcome surprise as to how hard it is to explain water to those not involved in it. I put this down to its importance, it is so critical that it is forgotten because we cannot consider being without it. 

We need more people to value water, and we need more institutions working on it to solve the challenges we face, but we need to do this collaboratively. We need to grow how water management is delivered across a far wider range of institutions and sectors, and for this we need to be able to make the complex issues around water into more practical and simple ways forward to get the buy-in from others. The key then is communication and collaboration (see our visual story: 'The Value of Water - Precious Public Good or Profitable Private Asset'). Pushing a perspective is weakening someone else’s, and I believe water is the most traded-off commodity there is.

Once you’ve figured all that out and maybe realised you know less now than you thought you did – then you are one step closer to understanding why the value of water is so difficult and at the same time why it is so fundamental.  Not one person, not one organisation has the full picture, and this is why we must recognise the value we can all bring to protect and better manage our water resources.


Blog by James Dalton, IUCN Director Global Water Programme