Published on The Water Blog

Charting a path to valuing the world’s most precious resource

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Fish caretaker, Ghasa trout farm, Nepal  | Credit: ADB

Most people agree that water is an extremely valuable resourcefor farmers who depend on it to grow crops, for factories that need it to cool machines and spin turbines and, of course for life itself. But unlike most other valuable resources, it’s hard to place a price on water . The very fact that water is so important to people, economies, and the environment means that it is tough to even agree on a common way of valuing it.

No less an economic mind than Adam Smith was stumped by this challenge. As he famously observed, “Nothing is more useful than water: but it will purchase scarcely anything. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarcely any use-value; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it.”

The problem of valuing water is far from academic. Societies around the globe are increasingly facing the task of difficult tradeoffs between different uses of water. While in most countries the majority of human water use goes to growing crops, cities and ecosystems are getting thirstier as a result of growing populations, economic development, and climate change.

Water quality, too, is deteriorating in many areas because of pollution, and far too many people still lack access to safe and dependable sources of clean water.

Without a common set of principles for valuing the contribution that water makes to both people and the planet, it’s hard to tackle these challenges.

Last week, the United Nations High Level Panel on Water gathered a group of experts to chart a path towards agreeing on a set of common principles for valuing the world’s most precious resource. The Panel, co-convened the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the President of the World Bank Group, is charged with mobilizing action to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, many of which depend on managing water more effectively. The Panel recognizes that action is critical, and aims to build momentum toward a common vision for better stewardship of our water.

Participants agreed that valuing water is an important part of that visionbut that previous attempts to value water more effectively have encountered a number of challenges , including the difficulty of capturing its importance to so many different sectors, activities, and species. The meeting concluded that valuing water effectively means developing an inclusive, consultation-driven process  to articulate a set of principles for how to capture the many different values of water, including for economies, ecosystems, cultures, and religions. It also means building on the efforts of many groups around the world who have tried to tackle this issue in the past. The participants agreed on the need to develop a roadmap for soliciting views from all segments of the water stakeholder community, including agriculture, energy and other sectors, on how water should be valued.

Going forward, the Panel will call on the global water stakeholder community to put forward ideas on how water should be valuedand how we can integrate the full range of these values to manage water more effectively. Based on this roadmap, the Panel’s Valuing Water initiative will develop a process for seeking and integrating this input into policy reform. Eventually, the hope is to put forward a common set of principles, fully informed by this wide-ranging consultation, for the Panel’s endorsement, which can then inspire and catalyze policy action around the globe.

So watch your inboxwhile we’re hard at work on charting a path toward better valuing the world’s most precious resource, we’ll need your help to get there!

Editor's Note:

We invite you to sign up to receive news from the High Level Panel on Water (HLPW). The Panel is celebrating its one-year anniversary this April, and it invites stakeholders to participate in a dialogue on 17 action areas, that together will fulfil its goal. By signing up, you will have the opportunity to follow and engage with the Panel as members work to fundamentally shift how the world thinks about water.


Richard Damania

Chief Economist, Sustainable Development Practice Group

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