No more free rides: How to value and govern water for the future

Efforts to provide the world with clean and accessible water unravel when people try to determine how much water is actually worth, according to a paper published Nov. 24 in the journal Science. The paper’s 13 authors lay out four steps for valuing and governing water sustainably. Based at institutions and universities around the world — including Princeton University — the researchers wrote the paper for the Valuing Water Initiative announced in May by the United Nations and the World Bank, which intends to identify methods for determining the value of water.

Water has long been taken for granted as being cheap and abundant, but global threats to its quality and availability are reframing water as a finite resource in need of close regulation. Around the world, people and societies are suffering from water scarcity and water pollution.

But efforts to provide the world with clean and accessible water unravel when people try to determine how much water is actually worth, according to a paper published Nov. 24 in the journal Science. The paper’s 13 authors are based at institutions and universities around the world — including Princeton University — and wrote the paper for the Valuing Water Initiative announced in May by the United Nations and the World Bank, which intends to identify methods for determining the value of water.

“The main thrust of the paper is that water is both undervalued and valued in different ways by different users,” said co-author Andy Dobson, a Princeton professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and associated faculty in the Princeton Environmental Institute.

“People assume water is freely available, yet we suffer from too little water in many areas and occasionally way too much in others,” Dobson said. “There is a very finite supply of water and increasing demand for this. The only way we can develop wiser use of this supply is by finding better ways of pricing it.”

The authors lay out four steps for sustainably valuing and governing water.

Placing a value on water is intended to lead to better control of its supply, as well as encouraging the significant investment needed supply the world’s population with adequate water by 2030 — which the United Nations estimates would cost $114 billion per year.

But, the authors write, current governance is so bad that identifying the true value of water — and thus getting the public and policymakers to appreciate that value — is difficult. Effective water policies are stymied by politics, inefficiencies in water storage and delivery, and a lack of knowledge about how natural water systems work. The authors report that 32 billion cubic meters of water are wasted because of leaky pipes in cities. Water theft is rampant in developing nations.

“The limitations in our knowledge about the volume, flux and quality of water in lakes, rivers, soils, aquifers and human-constructed storage and distribution facilities are remarkable given the importance of water,” the researchers wrote in Science.

In other words, if no one really knows how much water is in human control or available through natural sources, how could one possibly assign a value to it?

Valuation and regulation must occur together, the researchers
report. They lay out four steps for achieving sustainable water use,
as seen in the graphic at right.

The paper has so far received a lot of interest in the United Kingdom, Europe and Southeast Asia, Dobson said. Much like issues facing the future of water availability, the paper’s authors represent numerous disciplines, he said.

“It is a multi-faceted problem. I have focused on pushing the two areas closest to my skill set: the first is the importance of water to human health,” Dobson said.

“The second is the urgency of protecting watersheds as the main sources of our water,” he said. “Human life and agriculture cannot persist without water. Thus, watersheds and the biodiversity that allows them to function as stores of water are essential to a constant supply of clean water.”

Dobson worked on the paper with Dustin Garrick and Jim Hall, Cameron Hepburn, Robert Hope and Alex Money from the University of Oxford School of Geography and the Environment; Richard Damania from the World Bank’s Global Water Practice; R. Quentin Grafton from the Australian National University Crawford School of Public Policy; Rosalind Bark from the University of East Anglia, School of Environmental Sciences; Frederick Boltz from the Rockefeller Foundation; Lucia de Stefano from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and the Botín Foundation Water Observatory in Madrid; Erin O’Donnell from the University of Melbourne Law School; and Nathanial Matthews from the Global Resiliance Partnership in Nairobi, Kenya.

The paper, “Valuing water for sustainable development,” was published Nov. 24 in Science. This work was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (grant no. 430-2014-00785); the U.K. Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) (grant no. NE/L010364/1); the U.K. Department for International Development (grant no. 201880); and NERC, the U.K. Economic and Social Research Council and DFID (grant no. NE/M008894/1).