Advancing the global dialogue on the value of water


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Two weeks ago, on World Water Day (March 22), I was privileged to represent the World Bank’s Water Practice at a conference called: “Watershed: Replenishing Water Values for a Thirsty World” in Vatican, sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture of the Vatican, the Circle of Blue and the Club of Rome.

Pope Francis opened the conference and gave a special welcome. “I am happy that this meeting is taking place, for it represents yet another stage in the joint commitment of various institutions to raising consciousness about the need to protect water as a treasure belonging to everyone, mindful too of its cultural and religious significance,” he said. 

While I went to the event with high expectations, I had not expected the rush of emotion that I felt as the Pope delivered this message on water - and how intensely personal these words felt to me in my 30th year of working on delivering water and sanitation services to communities in developing countries.

Following the Papal blessing, Watershed Conference participants spent the next 6 hours sharing personal stories of successes as well as of urgency related to the value and values of water.

We heard that the one thing that ties all life on Earth together is water.  Water is central to human existence and dignity. Water is needed for food, energy, and manufacturing. And water is an underpinning of peace and security. 

Yet, today, we live in a world with a looming water crisis.  Unless we change the way we live, consume and produce, there won’t be enough clean water to sustain all of us in the future. While there will still be water in 30 years, water will become scarcer, much dirtier, and much more unpredictable to manage  because of rapid population growth, expansive urbanization, industrialization, migration, and accelerating climate change.

This calls for a fundamental shift in how we value water and manage water resources.  At the Watershed Conference, I spoke to three deeply intertwined aspects of water: 

·         The first is Ecological.  Water is the essential natural resource that sustains all planetary functions.  We need to learn much better how to share this finite resource amongst ourselves, as well as with all other species on Earth.  Not only do we consume too much and leave too little for other beings, but by doing so we undermine the very ecological systems that keep rivers flowing. We need to develop a “water conservation ethic”.
·         Spiritual, cultural and social. Water is also central to the flourishing of all human cultures.  The quest for water has always determined where people live, where cities were built, and it still influences the migration of humans and animals alike.  It has shaped legends, cultures and has united – as well as divided - societies. And sitting in the Vatican, one of the most spiritual places on Earth, we cannot help but to be reminded how closely water is linked to profound spiritual beliefs across the world.  Water represents our common humanity.
·         Economic. And finally, water is the common currency that connects all sectors of the economy  and most of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.  Inadequate water management can constrain economic growth, exacerbate poverty and make worse the negative effects of water shocks like floods and droughts. 
When we consider all of these aspects of water, what we are looking for is that sweet spot in middle of these three circles that brings us all together: a place of shared value that a society has towards water. 

We then need to translate ‘shared value for water’ into water management systems that can deliver efficient, affordable, sustainable and inclusive services, while at the same time safeguard the ecological integrity of the resource. We need to stop wasting water, stop polluting it, and enable universal access to those humans and ecosystems in need.
At the end of a very long day, I reaffirmed our commitment to advancing this global dialogue on the value of water on behalf of the World Bank. 

At the World Bank, we recognize that high level political leadership and commitment is required to tackle the magnitude of the global water problem, and will work through the High Level Panel on Water convened last year by President Kim and UN Secretary General to continue to raise awareness and talk openly with all members of society about how we should value water. 
In two weeks, on April 20, we will also be cohosting the 2017 Sanitation and Water for All High Level Meetings, during the IMF-World Bank Spring Meetings. Finance Ministers, global thought leaders and civil society representatives will come together to search for solutions to close the financing gap for universal access to water and sanitation, which is estimated to be $114 billion per year until 2030. We'll discuss how to tap into additional sources of financing for the water sector, particularly domestic private finance, and how to use existing resources more effectively and efficiently.  

I look forward to this discussion, which will again inspire a global dialogue on the value of water as we are moving toward a water-secure world for all. 


Join the Conversation

Alan Strong
April 09, 2017

At the heart of the Nexus of Life's 3 essentials (Water we drink, Land we live off for Food & Energy and the Air we breathe) lies an imperative for Sustainabilty Joined-Up thinking to become implicit and respected in the working of EVERY Government & Institution. Wirld Bank is therefore a Key Player among many

Ed Bourque
April 10, 2017

Scarcity and value are tricky and complicated notions to dissect when it comes to water.
Firstly, there is of course a difference between the source/bulk/in nature water that most of us speak of when we think about rights to water. Then, people make conclusions about drinking water using bulk water conceptualization. Drinking water is a different animal. It's a service not a common property good in most cases.
In the crudest sense, there is the same amount of water on the globe at all times, but what we are talking about at this point is clean drinking water, which is a higher cost/value service for most.
In terms of scarcity, of course water is not equally distributed across the globe (if it were, we'd all be submerged in the ocean!) nor is water (drinking water) equally handed out to everyone on the planet. At the IWRM scale, there are certainly struggles to commandeer water for agricultural, industrial, and municipal use. Unfortunately, there is very little market fluidity (pun intended) across sectors. I recently had a blog discussion with David Zetland on the topic ( ) of inter-sectoral trading and why it isn't happening. Honestly, you would think that water would flow (pun intended again) to the highest value uses, but it is the uncertainty in the mind of agricultural water users that prevents this from happening more than markets would tell you it would. The per unit value of purified and delivered water is much higher than bulk water, as you think it would be.
At the scale of utilities/ WASH/drinking water, I think access is more important than broad discussions of scarcity or water security.
In my blog post at WRI, I argue that it's more about access and the affordability & accountability that leads to clean drinking water access.…
Another article to point to is this 2003 article by Cairncross on myths of water scarcity. He rightfully critiques the neo-Malthusian IWRM-scale source water perspectives that have infected the discourse about access to drinking water.
There are so many popular myths about water and scarcity. These neo-Malthusian perspectives are too simplistic and often misleading. I just think that one should be precise when talking about them.
I think the point of entry for 'right to water' discussions when talking about drinking water (not bulk IWRM level talk of sharing surface and ground water) are the rights and responsibilities between citizens and their governments, because, honestly, other than the most rural (who carry buckets out of common property surface waters) most people access water through provision or purchase. I think we should all go back to the framework of water service provision described in the 2004 World Bank World Development report (WDR)
I write about a lot of this sort of stuff - access, governance, and accountability for water/sanitation at my blog. Feel free to say hello.

Bill Young
April 18, 2017

Ed - as I read it, the blog was not focused on the narrow issues of drinking water supply or even drinking water supply and sanitation, but rather on the challenges of water resources management ("water writ large") as global demands begin to outstrip sustainable supply. You are right that domestic water supply is a small fraction of the total demand and so water scarcity is not the driving issue per se, but rather governance, financing and technology. The biggest "consumer" is irrigation for food, although most projections show irrigation demand by 2050 or 2100 to be either a small increase or even a decrease compared to current demands. The big increases are expected in the energy and manufacturing sectors as well as domestic; collectively these sectors are projected to move from 1/3 of total demand to 2/3 as total demand grows from ~4000 km3 to ~6000 km3. The projected level of withdrawal/consumption approaches the estimated "safe" planetary boundary values. Given spatial variability the "safe" boundary for water withdrawal has already be passed in some places. Much of the increase in withdrawals of the last few decades has been from GW, the majority of which is unsustainable leading to major GW depletion. While the Bank continues to contribute to the critical WSS agenda, increasingly our clients are seeking assistance of the bigger challenges of "water writ large" to ensure growing relative water scarcity does become a drag on economic growth. Here the nexus of the environmental, social and economic costs and benefits of water are central.

John Turner
April 10, 2017

Hi Great and inspiring write up thank you for being at that historic meeting and reporting back to us. I have been in water for over 50 years as an apprentice in 1960, VSO, 1970, engineer 1973 Professor until 1983, then back in industry.I am now in the Philippines we are part of an initiative "Angat Buhay" by the VP Leni Robredo here. In some of the poorest provinces/townships up to 60 70% of the populations do not have access to safe water.Consequences are high child mortality, aged morbidity rates, sickness and diarrhea, e,coli etc. No proper sanitation - Latrines needed. As a small company we are water treatment specialist where and how do we access funds to help us change at the very basic levels this situation for these communities??

Rosemary Jones
April 10, 2017

There are zero carbon desalinizers and water boilers which are low cost and low maintenance. Please email for details of a large buoyant design, and a fresnel lens domestic version. Rosemary. [email protected]

Srinivasa Rao Podipireddy
April 11, 2017

Excellent posting - an 'easy to understand' message for global leaders