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A re-evaluation of water’s values is needed to transform global systems

  • re-evaluation of water’s values is needed to transform global systems
    A farmer with her solar irrigation pump in Nepal Balahar Daha Village, Saptkoshi Minicipality, Saptari District of Nepal. Photo credit: Nabin Baral / IWMI

About the entity

International Water Management Institute (IWMI)
The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) is a non-profit, scientific research organization focusing on the sustainable use of water and land resources in developing countries. IWMI is the lead center for the CGIAR Research Program on Water

The theme of this year’s World Water Day on March 22 is ‘Valuing Water’. Water has an intrinsic value – we need it to survive, as do all other organisms in the biosphere. We can call this its survival value. But water is also ubiquitous, with value to all of the socio-economic systems comprising human society. In other words, its total value is much more than its monetary cost.

And herein lies a fundamental challenge: through systems of water capture, storage, movement and use we have developed different management tools to unlock a huge range of values from climate and food security, to health, and environmental protection. But with management ‘power’ comes governance responsibility.

Values often compete between, or are co-opted by, specific user groups and interests. And these wide-ranging stakeholder groups might not be neutral, frequently sit side-by-side and often compete.

So, the values ascribed to water are constructed by market systems, by different social and legal institutions, and those that are embedded within the mosaic of human cultures, societies and religions. Yet nothing is static and there is a constantly evolving tussle over the value of water and nature. The current global climate and health crises facing the planet ensure that these tussles are increasingly played out in international politics with impacts from local to global.

But water is also ubiquitous, with value to all of the socio-economic systems comprising human society

And arguably water and value lie at the heart of the two greatest challenges facing humanity today – the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. For that reason, water’s many values are now also intrinsic to critical decision-making across the sustainable development goals (SDGs), and we, therefore, need to support countries to implement effective multi-level water governance to ensure we meet a range of SDG targets.

As we move to ensure water is appropriately valued in the face of the climate crisis, pandemic and future uncertainties, three things should be considered:

  • Water’s intrinsic value is so fundamental and important that we must consider ourselves merely co-custodians of the resource, for ourselves but also for all other uses and users on the planet, now and in the future. The concept of private ownership must not impinge on the shared nature of water systems.
  • Complexity will always be a part of valuing water and so we must work collectively to untie the Gordian knot of associated values associated so that we can reconcile competition, promote cooperation and protect key values in different parts of the system.
  • In order to achieve effective custodianship, we must govern water wisely at all levels, in order that we truly reflect a multiplicity of values – including climate safety, health provision, environmental protection, and sustainable and equitable economies and social systems.

So, on this World Water Day 2021 dedicated to Valuing Water by the United Nations, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) calls on the global community for a comprehensive approach to remapping the ever-changing mosaic of water values that surround us, including in both spatial and temporal dimensions, and across the many and varied social, environmental and economic spheres of life.

At the heart of this systematic mapping and understanding we need to reinforce and support effective governance of water systems, where effective means systems that truly reflect, bridge and reconcile water’s many and often competing values and, in the process, reinforce cooperation and collective action between diverse interests and user groups. In the long term, only in this way can we protect water and truly reflect its most intrinsic and important value - ultimately the survival value it holds for humanity and the rest of the biosphere.

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