Provide space for the environmental and social value of water
The United Nations is hosting the UN Water Conference in New York this week – the first such conference in nearly 50 years. One important item on the agenda is Valuing Water, an international initiative launched in 2016 that aims to encourage a paradigm shift in the way our societies interact with water.
Until now, policy makers and the private sector have mainly approached water from a traditional economic perspective, focusing on the economic value of water and the risks and opportunities of generating profit. This is a very narrow understanding of the value of water, one that often prioritizes economic and political interests over social and environmental needs, which hinders sustainable development and increases inequalities.
We are rapidly reaching and exceeding the environmental limits of our planet and depleting our resources, making a wider understanding of water and its various environmental, social and cultural values essential. This means that water should be valued, protected, used and priced differently when it is an input to economic activities, such as industry, agriculture and employment; when it is a service, such as the supply of drinking water; when it maintains natural habitats; and when it has a cultural and spiritual purpose. Understanding water through the current economic prism is too limited and contributes to its mismanagement.
Instead, the paradigm shift Water Valuation advises decision-makers to design policies that are long-term, cross-sectoral, and for the benefit of society as a whole. For example, when expanding agricultural land or permitting industrial complexes, policy makers should not only consider the economic benefit of the project, but should also assess, with equal weight, the opportunities and risks that it could be about water use efficiency, biodiversity, equitable water allocation, and the consequences for vulnerable groups in society. Such a comprehensive, long-term, society-wide approach to water management is critical to achieving sustainable development, combating the climate and environmental crises, and ensuring economic security. Although clear in theory, this broader approach is sorely lacking in policy planning and economic investment in practice.
One of the aims of the United Nations Water Conference is to mobilize political and financial commitments from both private and public sector actors to encourage a paradigm shift in how we value water. As the most water-scarce region in the world, MENA has much to gain from such a change. Across the region, scarce and poorly managed water resources cause environmental degradation and food insecurity, affect jobs, reduce social inequality, and make societies less resilient to climate shocks such as floods, droughts and fires. Tensions over scarce resources, mismanagement, and inequitable water allocation can often further destabilize already conflictual contexts.
The well-being of people, the economy and the environment are closely intertwined, and they all depend on sustainable water management. It is hoped that the UN Water Conference will be a step in the right direction towards a better appreciation of this balance.
Megan Ferrando is a Non-Resident Scholar with the Climate and Water Program at the Middle East Institute. She is currently based in Lebanon supporting the work of the development cooperation NGO WeWorld-GVC, among others, on projects related to sustainable water management.