UN-Water – On March 22, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), on behalf of UN-Water, released the UN World Water Development Report (WWDR) 2021. It states that the inability to recognize the value of water is the main cause of water waste and misuse.

Despite the difficulty of attributing an objective and indisputable value to a resource which is fundamental to life, it seems necessary to examine water’s various dimensions in order to understand the various aspects of its “value”. This is especially true in times of growing scarcity and against the backdrop of population growth and climate change.

“Water is our most precious resource, a ‘blue gold’ to which more than 2 billion people do not have direct access. It is not only essential for survival, but also plays a sanitary, social and cultural role at the heart of human societies,” Director-General of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay said.

This year’s WWDR addresses the question of the value of water. It shows that waste and careless use stems from the fact we all too often think of water exclusively in terms of its cost price, without realizing its tremendous value, which is impossible to price.

“The devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic remind us of the importance of having access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, and highlight that far too many people are still without them. Many of our problems arise because we do not value water highly enough; all too often water is not valued at all,” Gilbert F. Houngbo, Chair of UN-Water and President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) said.

The report emphasizes the great need to broaden the notion of the “value” of water stressing that we cannot confuse the concepts of “price”, “cost” and “value”.

Although price and cost are potentially quantifiable, the concept of “value” is much wider and includes social and cultural dimensions.

Indeed, water is not like other raw materials which can be treated as commodities and openly traded through stock markets. The challenge is to determine a value for a resource whose importance varies in different areas of economic activity, at different times, without forgetting to take into account its social, environmental and cultural dimensions.

While monetary valuation has the advantage of convenience and easy legibility in agriculture and industry, it presents the disadvantage of underestimating, even excluding, other aspects which are more difficult to monetize.

Some societies reject the idea of viewing nature and its benefits from an economic perspective, putting the rights of “Mother Earth” to the fore, thus rendering such economic readings of the value of water woefully inadequate.

Faced with these views and those of investors, who consider that resources such as water can have an economic value put on them, it becomes difficult to develop a standard system to measure the value of water in all its aspects. Nevertheless, it is possible to develop an integrated approach that allows the different dimensions of water to be considered together, so as to identify appropriate policy choices. A key element of such an approach is to ensure that all stakeholders, regardless of background or gender, are involved in evaluations and decision-making. If we want to enrich our approach to water and stop reducing the resource to its mere monetary value, we must be enriched by the views held by all, especially the people directly concerned.

Valuing water for food and agriculture

Agriculture uses the major share (69 per cent) of global freshwater resources. However, water use for food production is being questioned as intersectoral competition for water intensifies and water scarcity increases. Moreover, in many regions of the world, water for food production is used inefficiently. This is a major driver of environmental degradation, including depletion of aquifers, reduction of river flows, degradation of wildlife habitats, and pollution.

The value assigned to water in food production is generally low compared to other uses. It is usually very low (typically less than US$0.05 per cubic metre) where water is used for irrigating food grains and fodder, while it can be relatively high (of the same order of magnitude as values in domestic and industrial uses) for high-value crops such as vegetables, fruits and flowers.

Estimates of values of water for food production normally only consider the direct economically beneficial use of water (i.e. value to users of water), while many of the other direct and indirect benefits associated with water, which may be economic, sociocultural or environmental, remain unaccounted for or only partially quantified. Some of those benefits include improving nutrition, accommodating shifts in consumption patterns, generating employment and providing livelihood resilience especially for smallholder farmers, contributing to alleviating poverty and revitalizing rural economies, and supporting climate change mitigation and adaptation. The food security value of water is high but rarely quantified – and it is often a political imperative irrespective of other values.

Several management strategies that could maximize the multiple values of water for food production could be implemented, including improving water management in rainfed areas; transitioning to sustainable intensification; sourcing water for irrigated agriculture, especially from nature-based and non-conventional sources; improving water use efficiency; reducing demand for food and its consequent water use; and improving knowledge and understanding of water use for food production.

Improving water security for food production in both rainfed and irrigated systems can contribute to reducing poverty and closing the gender gap directly and indirectly. Direct effects include higher yields; reduced risk of crop failure and increased diversity of cropping; higher wages from enhanced employment opportunities; and stable local food production and prices.

Indirect effects include income and employment multipliers beyond the farm, and reduction of migration. Enhanced and more stable incomes could help improve education and the skillsets of women, and thus foster their active participation in decision-making. Although increasing water productivity can have substantial positive impacts, care should be taken to account for possible perverse effects and implications on poverty alleviation (i.e. land grabbing and increasing inequality).

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates, based on a business-as-usual scenario, that the world will need about 60% more food by 2050, and that irrigated food production will increase by more than 50% over the same period (FAO, 2017a). The necessary amounts of water for these developments are not available. FAO recognizes that the amounts of water withdrawn by agriculture can only increase by 10 per cent.

The 2030 Water Resources Group (2009) concluded that the world would face a 40 per cent global water deficit by 2030 under a business-as-usual scenario.

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