22 March 2021
Water Development Report Explores Water’s Value
Photo by Chalo Garcia on Unsplash
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The 2021 World Water Development Report finds that, unlike most other natural resources, it has proven difficult to determine water’s "true" value.

The report concludes that, "while there may be scope to reduce complexities and standardize metrics in some circumstances, the reality is the need for better means to recognize, maintain and accommodate different values".

“Recognizing, measuring and expressing water’s worth, and incorporating it into decision-making, are fundamental to achieving sustainable and equitable water resources management.” The 2021 World Water Development Report opens by identifying this challenge and proceeds to explore the need to broaden the notion of the “value” of water, stressing that we cannot confuse the concepts of “price,” “cost,” and “value.”

Titled ‘Valuing Water,’ the WWDR 2021 explores this topic through chapters focused on:

  • economic valuation,
  • valuation of hydraulic infrastructure,
  • valuing water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in human settlements,
  • the benefits of water for food and agriculture,
  • water valuation in the energy, industry and business sector,
  • culture and the values of water,
  • multi-value approaches in water governance,
  • challenges and opportunities for valuing water, and
  • knowledge, research and capacity development as enabling conditions. 

The WWDR highlights that water is not like other raw materials that can be treated as commodities and openly traded through stock markets. The value of water for domestic use varies from the value placed on the human right to water, for example. These and other uses limit the application of traditional economic accounting for the value of water, as the recorded price of water often reflects attempts for cost recovery and not the value delivered. 

The report 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 socio-economic activity, such as food and agriculture, energy and industry, business and employment; and other sociocultural values of water, including recreational, cultural, and spiritual attributes.

The report suggests that nations can transition into multi-value governance “by building on existing governance frameworks such as [Integrated Water Resources Management], which integrates interests of diverse stakeholder groups operating at various political levels and policy sectors.” With regard to investments in water supply, sanitation, or irrigation services, the report highlights that multiple policy goals will need to be taken into consideration when designing an appropriate water tariff structure, and while care should be taken to ensure affordability for the poor, expansion to the widest number of individuals, and funding to ensure reliability and network improvements, large, untargeted WASH subsidies can be counterproductive. 

The report concludes that, “while there may be scope to reduce complexities and standardize metrics in some circumstances, the reality is the need for better means to recognize, maintain and accommodate different values.”

UNESCO and its World Water Assessment Programme coordinated the production of the 2021 World Water Development Report, with contributions from UN-Water Members, Partners, and others. The report was launched on World Water Day 2021, which focused on the same theme: Valuing Water. [Publication: WWDR 2021][UNESCO WWDR 2021 webpage]


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