Valuing water: what it is and why it’s important

In an interview, Huw Pohlner discussed the importance of valuing water. This article explores what valuing water is and why it is important. We value water every day whenever we use water and exploring and understanding these values from a personal use perspective, all the way up to the level of governmental decision-making can lead to improved water management.

The case for value-based water management, an Aither think piece, sets out how water’s value is more than monetary. Water’s value extends to keeping economies functioning, supporting community livelihoods, and maintaining healthy ecosystems. Without a holistic appreciation of water’s multitude of values, mater management decisions fall short of sustainability targets.

How to properly value water

Water’s value extends beyond monetary value. Water offers people benefits in many ways, from agricultural use to cultural traditions.

Water also plays an essential role in maintaining ecosystem sustainability, if managed correctly. In turn, a healthy ecosystem supports livelihoods. Some examples of this are fisheries; soil health; streamside vegetation buffering stream water quality from pollution by adjacent agriculture; and ‘sponge’ capacities of riverside plants and trees, to maintain regular flows during times of excess or inadequate rainfall.

Valuing water properly means to separate it from the concept of price, and instead, look at decisions around usage. When people choose to use water, or choose not to, they are assigning it a specific value at that time. If it’s better to maintain it for the future, that value could overtake the desire to use it right now.

When we think of water’s value in monetary terms alone, it is challenging to assign meaning to usage for cultural or traditional purposes. This means that important aspects of water usage are left out of the equation. Valuing water based on its benefits to people offers a more holistic look.

Valuing water improves outcomes

The Aither paper argues that water valuation should be included in decision making within water management frameworks.

Where water is scarce, it may be incredibly valuable, and water management needs to reflect that. The water users need to understand why the water is valued so highly, and how it can be best used to maintain that value.

Examples of decision-making when water is valued

Attaching value to water, especially in water-scarce countries, also allows for informed investment in infrastructure that supports sustainability. Water needs to be protected, and that is better understood when people realise it has value beyond price.

With each type of water usage having a certain value, we can understand more readily how choosing to use water, or not use it, can be a trade-off between various users. That makes decision making a far more informed process and better decision making positively impacts human and environmental wellbeing.

Proper water management can also enhance water’s value. By determining water availability and demand, reflecting value through allocation decisions, ensuring access to water is based on a system of water rights, optimizing water use, and engaging in adaptive and participatory management, the total value of a water resource may actually increase over time.

We attach a value to it every single time we turn on a tap or choose not to. These are the implicit decisions we make, and when we use water, we rarely realise that at the same time we are valuing water.

The key is to make these decisions an explicit choice, both personally and on a global scale through our water management practices. By valuing water in an explicit way, all of our decisions surrounding this resource become far more informed, evidence-based, and transparent, and both our water ecosystems and human wellbeing benefit as a result.

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