18 March 2021

While everyone recognizes that water is “essential to all life”, including humans, it is often taken for granted, at least by those who have easy and affordable access to a safe and abundant water supply. As a result, it is frequently misused, polluted or wasted. Giving “value” to water is a way to better recognize its importance—to us as individuals, but also to societies and the environment from which it comes and to which ultimately returns.

But what does “value” mean in this context? What is water “worth”? These are the main questions addressed in the 2021 edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report (WWDR 2021).1

The current status of water resources highlights the need for improved water resources management. Recognizing, measuring and expressing water’s worth, and incorporating it into decision-making, are fundamental to achieving sustainable and equitable water resources management and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

While the term “value” and the process of valuation are well defined, there are several different views and perspectives on what value specifically means to various user groups and stakeholders. So, the question “value to whom?” is also a critical one. There are different methods for calculating value and different metrics to express it. The question of how value can be determined thus becomes fundamental. As described throughout WWDR 2021, the terms “price”, “cost” and “value” are by no means synonymous. Whereas the first two are easily quantifiable from a primarily economic, monetary-based perspective, the notion of value encompasses a much broader set of often intangible benefits. While monetary valuation is arguably easier than most other approaches, and has the advantage of using a common metric by which values of different uses can be quantitatively compared, it can lead to the undervaluation or exclusion of benefits that are more difficult to monetize.

WWDR 2021 groups current methodologies and approaches to the valuation of water into five interrelated perspectives: valuing water sources, in situ water resources and ecosystems; valuing water infrastructure for water storage, use, reuse or supply augmentation; valuing water services, mainly drinking water, sanitation and related human health aspects; valuing water as an input to production and socioeconomic activity, such as food and agriculture, energy and industry, business and employment; and other sociocultural values of water, including recreational, cultural and spiritual attributes.

Photo by Katja Just from Pixabay, 26 August 2015.

Differences in the way water is valued not only exist between stakeholder groups but are widespread within them. These divergent perspectives on water value and the best ways to calculate and express it, coupled with limited knowledge of the actual resource, present a challenging landscape for rapid improvements in valuing water. It is, for example, practically impossible to quantitatively compare the value of water for domestic use, the human right to water, customary or religious beliefs, and the value of maintaining flows to preserve biodiversity. None of these should be sacrificed for the sake of achieving consistent valuation methodologies. While the often-intangible nature of some sociocultural values attributed to water regularly defies any attempt at quantification, such values can nevertheless be regarded among the highest ones.

Furthermore, efforts to value water are likely to suffer from some level of bias, even when unintentional, on the part of those directly involved in valuation processes, as the perception of the values attributed to water and its related benefits can be highly subjective. The fundamental question about value is then (as mentioned above) "value to whom?". Valuations often tend to target specific beneficiaries, while other stakeholders may benefit less or even be negatively impacted.

As described in WWDR 2021, good water governance recognizes multiple values and the active participation of a varied set of actors. The use of multi-value approaches to water governance entails acknowledging the role of values in driving key water resources management decisions as well as a call for the active participation of a more diverse set of actors, leading to better integrated and equitable decision-making.

The political will to consider all value sets for water, and to then act on that basis, is critical, necessitating the transformation of political processes and a redistribution of power and voice through the building of public awareness and pressure for change. Addressing conflicting views and overseeing potential trade-offs are among the greatest challenges to water management. Various water use sectors, from water supply, sanitation and hygiene, to agriculture, energy, industry and the environment, stand to benefit over the longer term from an improved integration of the values of water across the full development cycle, from planning through to improved efficiencies, adaptive management and monitoring. But in the near term, there will be trade-offs and a need for adjustments through a set of controls and incentives for certain sectors to use water more efficiently in particular instances. The initial phases of water resources planning and infrastructure design present considerable but underused opportunities for introducing various aspects of water’s value.

Savita Devi, an Accredited Social Health Activist, demonstrates hand-washing techniques to Mamta during Home-Based Newborn Care in Ahiran Purwa Barkat, Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, India. 24 November 2020. UNICEF India/2020/Prashanth Vishwanathan

Once identified through stakeholder processes of engagement and empowerment, acknowledging the various aspects of water’s value can help ensure their equitable treatment in subsequent stages of water management. Similar opportunities to further address trade-offs exist in later stages of decision-making. In the short term, not all sectors will benefit every time, and some sectors, if not all, will need to adapt in response to the different values of water.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development emphasizes the integrated nature of development and the need to balance economic, social and environmental considerations, as well as the need to mitigate trade-offs and maximize synergies between the SDGs and their policy domains. Recognizing and embracing water’s multiple values is essential to finding mutually supportive solutions across the majority of the Goals.



1 The United Nations World Water Development Report is the UN-Water flagship report on water and sanitation issues, focusing on a different theme each year. The report is published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on behalf of UN-Water, and its production is coordinated by the UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme. The report gives insight on the main trends concerning the state, use and management of freshwater and sanitation, based on work done by the members and partners of UN-Water. Launched in conjunction with World Water Day (22 March), the report provides decision-makers with knowledge and tools to formulate and implement sustainable water policies. It also offers best practices and in-depth analyses to stimulate ideas and actions for better stewardship in the water sector and beyond.


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