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.

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