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World Water Day 2021: What is the value of water?

World Water Day is celebrated every year on March 22 to highlight the importance of water for the planet, and hence, for our lives. Achieving Sustainable Development Goal No 6: Water and sanitation for all by 2030, is a crucial task we must tackle in order to overcome the global water crisis we are in. The truth is, even though all social and economic activities depend to a great extent on the supply of freshwater and its quality, there are still 2.2 billion people living without access to drinking water.

We cannot ignore that water is one of the resources that suffers most from human activities, but it is also in our hands to undo that. Looking at the consequences of our actions on water resources, United Nations has used World Water Day to draw attention to the issue of wastewater (2017) to then remind us that the answer is in nature (2018), that we can leave no one behind (2019) and that climate change is today's challenge (2020).  

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The value of water

With the theme “Valuing water”, this year the idea is for each person to reflect on the role of water in his/her daily life, thus valuing the importance it has and learning what water means for the planet, to be able to find the best solutions to ensure water conservation and protection.

It is a highly threatened resource by population growth, the increasing demand for the agriculture and industrial sectors, and the effects of climate change, which are becoming more severe, resulting in irregular patterns of water availability. In the midst of all this, societies try to balance the demands on water resources but, according to the UN, "many people’s interests are not being taken into account". The truth is how we value water determines how water is managed and shared.

How do we value water?

With this year's World Water Day campaign, the UN considers that “by recording – and celebrating – all the different ways water benefits our lives, we can value water properly and safeguard it effectively for everyone.”

World Water Day 2021 focuses on what water means to people

Water has enormous and complex value for our households, culture, health, education, economics and the integrity of our natural environment; without a comprehensive understanding of waters true, multidimensional value, we will be unable to safeguard it. This is why at the United Nations they emphasize five different perspectives:

World Water Day 2021 infographic
Aurora Ortega Tello/Smart Water Magazine

Water sources: natural water resources and ecosystems

All water is generated by ecosystems. And all the water we abstract for human use eventually returns to the environment, along with any contaminants we have added as we use it.

The water cycle is our most important ‘ecosystem service’, and a higher value must be given to protecting the environment to ensure a good quality water supply. In fact, working with nature improves water resource management; Nature Based Solutions have great potential to address current water management challenges in all sectors, and finding a way to return to ecosystems the water we obtained from them is in our hands.

Water infrastructure: storage, treatment and supply

The complexity of the urban water cycle is overwhelming. Within it, water infrastructure stores and moves water to where it is most needed, and helps clean and return it to nature after human use. However, where this infrastructure is inadequate, socio-economic development is undermined and ecosystems and human lives are endangered.

An outstanding issue for the sector as a whole is cost recovery. Valuations of water infrastructure typically include the operating costs, but not the social and environmental costs. Therefore, we need new financial frameworks or models that integrate an appropriate tariff system based on cost recovery, enabling income generation, at the same time as it fosters water use efficiency, in order to ensure the sustainable management of water resources and water services that are efficient, sustainable and resilient.

World Water Day

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Water services: drinking water, sanitation and health services

Related to the above, the role of water in households, schools, workplaces and health care facilities is critical. Furthermore, WASH – water, sanitation and hygiene – services also add value in the form of greater health, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though there has been substantial progress in terms of expanding access to drinking water and sanitation, there are still billions of people that still lack these basic services. SDG 6 seeks to ensure access to water and sanitation for all, focusing on sustainable water resource management, but there is still a long way ahead.

Water as an input to production and socio-economic activity: food and agriculture, energy and industry, business and employment

Traditionally, the energy, industry and business sector has valued water based on the volume used, without taking into considerations all the aspects that are part of the supply chain. The concept of water footprint has changed that and increasingly more and more organisations adopt integrated water resources management planning approaches as they improve their sustainability.

Concerning agriculture, not only is it the sector that places the biggest demand on global freshwater resources, but also it is a major contributor to environmental degradation. Despite being fundamental to food security, the UN warns that water in food production is generally given a low value when assessed purely through the economic lens of value produced in relation to water used. Indeed, there are wider benefits such as improving nutrition, generating income, adapting to climate change and reducing migration, and thus it is essential to overcome agriculture-related water challenges.

Socio-cultural aspects of water: recreational, cultural and spiritual attributes

Water can connect us with notions of creation, religion and community, as an intrinsic part of every culture. But the values we attribute to these functions are difficult to quantify.

Economics often considers water to be a resource for practical human usage and pays little or no attention to its socio-cultural or environmental value. Still, we need to fully understand these values by involving a more diverse group of stakeholders in water resources management, and emphasizing on environmental education.