Water: how to stop undervaluing a precious resource and be ready for the future

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Anna Huber, Specialist, Water and Environmental Resilience, World Economic Forum


  • The importance of water – and its vital role in tackling global challenges – is not fully understood or communicated within water-rich nations.
  • On a personal, political and global level, there are many actions we can take to change the way we use and manage water.
  • World Water Day 2021 focuses on the value of water and how it impacts our everyday life, social and economic stability, climate change and the achievement of SDGs.

Today’s World Water Day revolves around the social, economic and environmental value of water, and the essential role it plays in everyone’s life. From determining where the world’s oldest cities were built and where conflicts break out, to ensuring that we can access internet services and stop the spread of COVID-19 today, the significance of the role that water plays in the world cannot be understated. Water means equality: local water resources and separate toilets can determine whether a girl accesses education, while globally, it impacts the distribution of wealth.

Access to water shapes economic development. An estimated $260 billion is lost globally every year due to the lack of basic water and sanitation. Neglecting water risks (pollution, over-usage, climate change impacting freshwater) will amount to US$301 billion in costs – five times higher than if we would face them. Without clean water, one-fifth of the US economy would come to a stop.

Water also carries significant implications for climate change: improved wastewater treatment can reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also supplying us with energy – being already the most renewable source. Recognising its scarcity value, water is now being traded as a commodity on the wall street next to oil and gold.

Yet, water is often still treated as an infinite resource in water-rich nations, being polluted to worrying levels. Its importance drownsunder the range of diverse global issues that compete for our attention. Let’s get this right: in order to have enough water for a continuously increasing population, we must manage water more wisely. Without water, we cannot grow food, continue industrial production, stop climate change or achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

How can we ensure water is properly valued? Here are steps individuals, governments and companies can take to prioritize water and create positive outcomes.

1. Steps individuals can take to prioritize water

Valuing water as an individual means we must stop polluting and start reducing daily water use (SDG 3, 13, 14).

Did you know that millions of people still dispose of their medicines in toilets, and that discarded plastics pollute our rivers and oceans, with microplastics found in 81% of our urban drinking water. Or that contrary to popular belief, water pollution does not decrease with economic growth, but expands? Tackling water quality can be simple: think before you flush or throw anything into waterways.

Map of the world showing risk of poor water quality.
Global risk of poor water quality. Image: World map: World Bank, Invisible Water Crisis (2019)

Did you know that a running tap wastes 4-8L of water/minute, while showers take up 9-19L/minute? Each T-shirt absorbs 2700L of water, while red meat production consumes 5,000-20,000L per 1kg. By closing the taps and shopping mindfully, collective action by individuals could have a significant impact on saving water.

As a citizen of your country, you can influence political decisions by signing petitions, such as the Water Act in the US, or contacting your local government representatives to support or challenge water allocations. You can also join social movements, such as the youth organisation MyH2O that collects, measures and uploads water quality data in rural China on to an open platform, or voice your water solutions on UpLink.

2. Measures governments can take

Valuing water on the policy level implies featuring water as a key element in cross-sectoral policy documents and enforcements (SDG 10, 11, 16).

Only a few countries, such as South Africa and Slovenia, have water access written into their constitution as a human right. Many have signed a water charter, such as the US or the European Union, that recognizes the importance of water, but do not enforce their guidelines.

Governments can raise awareness of their citizens’ water footprint and offer tax incentives to be less wasteful e.g. financially rewarding water conservation rather than charging for its consumption, while also engaging businesses to establish water-positive behaviour. This might include setting limits for water consumptions and pollution, but also collecting data on the national water footprint. A clearer water statistic can help inform water resource management, governance and policies.

Globally, governments can demand that water be featured as the enabler to achieve the SDGs and Paris Agreement.

3. What companies can do to improve their water management

Valuing water in the private sector relates to practices, pollution and partnerships (SDG 7, 8, 9, 12 and 17).

Many companies have improved their water usage in innovative ways. Companies such as Colgate- Palmolive have set their own internal water pricing, paying more than the current below-cost price for industrial water supply. Not only does that prepare companies for the inevitable cost increase, but it also signals that water should be valued more. Others have committed to give back more water than they consume, such as Microsoft, or are working on a transformational investment framework for water, such as DWS.

Graphic showing percentage of companies changing their water management policies.
Private sector action to reduce water pollution is still dangerously lacking. Image: Water pollution: CDP, 2020

There has been much less progress in relation to water quality, however, with only 4.4% businesses showing improvement in their water pollution reduction targets. If current available technologies were fully utilized, companies could aim to release water in an even cleaner state to the environment than how it was extracted.

Finally, valuing water means to foster partnerships, such as 50L Home or the Mobilizing Hand Hygiene for All Initiative. This includes engaging local communities that sit at the source of water, following policy guidelines and collaborating with other private-sector companies.

In a nutshell, if individuals, governments and companies want to tackle our biggest global challenges, we should start by taking concrete actions to value water.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

EU budget: Reinforcing Europe’s cultural and creative sectors

Is there a way out of the next financial crisis? Can more printed money or austerity save us all?

A Sting Exclusive: “Digital and mobile technologies are helping to achieve an economic success in Spain”, the Spanish Secretary of State for Telecommunications and Information Society Víctor Calvo-Sotelo reveals to the Sting at Mobile World Congress 2015

These are the world’s best cities to be a cyclist

Nitrate pollution of water sources: new impulses for EU Water Policy?

The United Nations, 75 years young: Engaging youth social entrepreneurs to accelerate the SDGs

Can climate change action lead to better inclusion?

Is Germany yielding to pressures for more relaxed economic policies?

How we planted more than 5,000 trees during the COVID-19 pandemic

‘We must fight terrorism together’ without sacrificing legal and human rights, declares UN chief

These are the 5 most exciting cycling projects in the world

From bison to birds: How animals can help stop wildfires

YOUTH WILL BE A KEY FOCUS IN THE NEXT EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT

Generalist practicing: is it worth it?

UN chief welcomes prisoner exchange between the Russia and Ukraine

‘Young people care about peace’: UN Youth Envoy delivers key message to Security Council

Electric vehicles are half the market in Norway

Commission Statement: European Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Terrorism

Fashion has a huge waste problem. Here’s how it can change

Banks promise easing of credit conditions in support of the real economy

Baby foods high in sugar, inappropriately marketed in Europe, reveal two UN studies

European Commission welcomes political agreement on new €14.2 billion Pre-Accession Assistance Instrument (IPA III)

VW emissions scandal: EU unable to protect its consumers against large multinationals

Who would pay and who is to gain from the EU-US free trade agreement

The Liquefaction of Healthcare Services: Consequences and Possible Solutions

Stronger European Border and Coast Guard to secure EU’s borders

Thursday’s Daily Brief: Women in peacekeeping, the arrest of Sudan’s leader, updates on Libya, Nigeria and Syria

MEPs strongly welcome the Global Compact on Migration

‘Historic’ new Syria talks should focus on relief for war-weary civilians, says UN negotiator

Progress made in UN talks to end Yemen war, Envoy lauds ‘positive and serious spirit’

How businesses can realize the benefits of the cloud

Nearly two million Cameroonians face humanitarian emergency: UNICEF

The South China Sea Arbitration: Illegal, Illegitimate and Invalid

Ambitions are affordable for Asia and the Pacific

Commission issues guidance on the participation of third country bidders in the EU procurement market

Chatterbox Rome Declaration cannot save the EU; Germany has to pay more to do that

Cholera prevention efforts underway to protect millions in Sudan’s Khartoum state

Banking on sustainability – what’s next?

Technology can hinder good mental health at work. Here’s how it can help

Bureaucracy in the member states again the obstacle for long due strong European Hedge Funds

Why we need a mindset shift to combat the new wave of supply-chain cyberattacks

Why it’s time to take central banks’ digital currencies seriously

Eurozone recession subsides

Portugal: Budget MEPs back €4.66 m in job-search aid for 730 redundant workers

90% of plastic polluting our oceans comes from just 10 rivers

Digital Single Market: EU negotiators agree to set up new European rules to improve fairness of online platforms’ trading practices

Chatbots are on the rise. This approach accounts for their risks

Scientists have a new suggestion to create more climate-friendly cows

Parlamentarians to “break up” with reality in the Google antitrust case

What are underwater farms? And how do they work?

COVID-19: first go-ahead given to the new Recovery and Resilience Facility

Myanmar Government side-lining democratic reform, resorting to military era repression: UN expert

US must abide by humanitarian refugee accords: UN refugee agency

The community and a decent working conditions for the young health workforce

SMEs are driving job growth, but need higher investment in skills, innovation and tech to boost wages and productivity

Joint UN, OSCE engagement can address crisis in Ukraine, other ‘dark spots of conflict’ in Europe

Quality of air in Bucharest-Romania: is it fog or is it smog?

Early healthcare investment is our best chance at healthy ageing

MEPs want to boost energy storage in the EU to help spur decarbonisation

The British “nonsense”, the relaxed Commissioner and the TTIP “chiaroscuro” at this week’s Council

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s