Water is essential for human life. For health, food, our environment and ecosystems. It is also plays a central role in our economies, from agriculture to energy production, and manufacturing to tourism.
Do we value water enough? OOSKAnews asked panelists in a 30 September aquaNOW Audience for their views on how we should value water from source to sea.
aquaNOW Audiences are interactive panel discussions engaging international water experts and Scottish expertise in global water-related challenges and solutions. The live-streamed panel shows are produced by OOSKAnews in collaboration with the government of Scotland, the Hydro Nation.
Dr David Molden, Director General of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), said that to find out what water is worth, we need to ask ourselves, “What would we do without it?”
“From a mountain people perspective, the value of water is limitless … it’s infinite.” David continued. “However, people downstream do not appreciate the water from the mountains nearly enough, so this puts a very low value on it.”
We don’t understand value until it’s gone
Stuart Orr, Leader of WWF’s Freshwater Practice, drives the freshwater strategy of the world’s largest independent conservation organisation.
The extent of humanity’s destruction of nature, and its catastrophic impacts on wildlife populations and human health, were revealed in the WWF’s recent Living Planet Report 2020.
The report found that freshwater biodiversity is declining far faster than that in our oceans or forests, with almost 90 Percent of global wetlands lost since 1700.
“So, what does this tell us about our water systems if the biodiversity in them is so impacted?” asked Stewart. “We don’t understand value until it is gone.”
Salmon is the aquatic canary
Wendy Kenyon, Assistant Secretary of North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation, said that the welfare of salmon gives a good indication of how much we value our water from source to sea because, during its lifecycle, it travels from river to sea and back again.
“Some people have said that salmon is like an aquatic canary. If salmon is doing well, it means the environment is doing well.”
The benefits of valuing water for public health
Craig McDougall, a Scotland Hydro Nation Scholar, who is studying the relationship between access and exposure to blue space (lakes and rivers), described a growing body of research arguing that water environments are beneficial for public health.
“Access and exposure to these spaces can be really beneficial for mental wellbeing,” said Craig. “But putting a value on that is very difficult because we don’t trade mental health. We don’t trade riverside walks on traditional markets. So that is the challenge for economists going forward.”
The role of water in the economy
The panel went on to discuss the role of water in the economy and issues around pricing versus value.
“Water is the engine of economies, whether that is in its use for energy or production in other senses,” Stewart said. “In a lot of places I work in, we are still suffering from twentieth century engineering thinking. We are not moving quickly enough into understanding, or using, the better science.”
However, Stuart believes that climate change is forcing us to look at systems, to look at river basins, and connectivity. “This is a positive thing, because it makes us question the value from source to sea.”
“I don’t think you can work in a silo when you are involved in water management … because what happens on the land, what happens in agriculture, crucially impacts what happens in the water,” Wendy added.
The poorest pay the biggest price for water
David is based in Kathmandu, Nepal, in the Himalayas. “A lot of the time, the poorest people in the world pay the biggest price for water, and that comes out in so many dimensions,” he said.
“Mountain communities often have to create their own water infrastructures, which is an incredible investment on their part… Mountain people add very little to the world’s greenhouse gases and yet they are the ones who bear the brunt of climate change.”
Research shows how the public values water
Craig has undertaken research in Scotland to get an insight into how the public values water.
“We asked people if they would take a slight increase to local taxes to manage the loch side spaces,” he said. “And we found that both users and non-users of lochs were willing to do this.”
Engagement with the financial industry is increasing
Stuart observes signs that the finance is industry is starting to invest more in water – an example is the establishment of a biodiversity financial fund.
“Over the last decade, we have seen increasing interest from the financial industry in water – first as a resource and commodity, but increasingly as a risk and an opportunity,” Stuart said.
What is on our panelists wish lists for valuing water better?
For Craig, it is raising awareness and improving the methods for quantifying the value of water.
David said that he would like to see more focus on mountains in valuing water from source to sea, as well as countries working together and sharing ideas.
Innovation in finance, incentives and raising awareness are on Stewart’s wish list.
For Wendy, it is about funding and communications.
“If you don’t know about a thing, you can’t care about it.” said Wendy.
Scotland's Hydro Nation vision builds on recognition that water is of central importance to the economy of Scotland, both as a sector in its own right and as a critical resource in Scotland’s manufacturing, agriculture, food and drink, tourism and energy sectors. The aim of the Hydro Nation is to maximise the value of these resources in every sense, whether that be the contribution they make to the economy, or in how the quality of the country’s water environment contributes to citizens’ overall wellbeing and sense of national identity. This approach to water, and climate change is understood to be unique to Scotland.