Water is a collective resource and we face a number of shared water security challenges, but understanding our many and varied water values can help.
This year’s World Water Day campaign (#Water2me) highlights that people value water in many different ways including for health and hygiene, spiritual and cultural practices, recreation and economic production. Individually, we can value water in a multitude of ways simultaneously. The rural farmers I worked with in Zambia on a UK Aid matched-funded programme valued water for growing crops, for washing and cooking, but also for its role in enabling their children to access educational opportunities. Access to safe water and sanitation opened up possibilities: it reduced the disease burden and freed up girls time, which was previously spent collecting water, allowing them to attend school more often. Support for new manual drilling teams also opened up new income opportunities.
However, all users in a basin are connected so how we value water and how we choose to use it affects both quality and quantity in another area. Within a basin individual uses by a person, a farm, a company or a sector can have cumulative impacts: all uses and users are also at risk from shared water security challenges. Water use can also be driven by demand outside the basin, as users participate in global supply chains for agricultural commodities. Adopting good water stewardship can allow users such as companies and producers to understand their water use and its impacts in a wider context and enable all water users to work in partnership to support shared water security.
The politics of water
Whilst we all individually value and use water, decisions about water management and governance, about who has water and who does not, how much water costs, how it is funded and how it is used or developed, are made collectively. Often the political economy of a region drives unsustainable water use. Despite its inextricable links with socioeconomic development and human well-being, water is often under-valued as a resource.
A better understanding of different water values is therefore vital to understanding why it is under-valued. However, we also need to tackle the politics.
When water flows across international borders, its value to policymakers often increases, as can tensions between countries. Power asymmetries can determine the use of water, the distribution and control overflows. International water law is one tool that can help mediate these power asymmetries, whilst technical cooperation can help to build trust between riparian states and open up dialogues about water use.
The climate change crisis is a water crisis
How we value water is changing as we face the reality that the climate crisis is a water crisis. Climate change is altering the global water cycle and people, communities, societies and economies will experience it through water insecurity. Risks from climate-related hazards are increasing and interact with other water-related risks, such as ecosystem degradation, pollution and growing water use: systems thinking can help us to analyse adaptation options and improve resilience.
Climate change is a deep uncertainty problem, thus to develop deep resilience we need to ‘lump’ problems instead of ‘splitting them’ and develop solutions by finding synergies across sectors, institutions and problems. Water is ideally suited to this as it flows through all sectors and aspects of life. Integrating water’s many values may offer the solution to move from water2me to shared water security.
Join the University of Birmingham’s World Water Day Symposium on 22 March to find out more about how we can achieve shared water security.
Rachel Cooper, based at University of Birmingham, is a researcher on the IDS-led Knowledge, Evidence and Learning for Development programme (K4D). She is the Lead Researcher of the K4D Learning Journey on Water Security for the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO). The Learning Journey aims to increase FCDO staff’s learning on water security and climate change, related resources are available on the Learning Journey webpage.