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‘We never know the worth of water, till the well is dry,’ the British intellectual Thomas Fuller wrote in 1732. And he was right. So often, water appears self-evident. For many of us it doesn't even occur to us that water might not flow when we turn on the tap or flush the toilet. In many parts of the world, people face water shortages or, conversely, frequent floods. But however different national and regional circumstances may be, water is something that is easily taken for granted.

And yet water is crucial to us all: economically, socially and environmentally. In my country, the Netherlands, we are particularly aware of that. Water has shaped our past and it will shape our future. Because the Netherlands literally means ‘the low countries’: a quarter of it lies below sea level. For centuries we have managed to keep our feet dry and salt water out. We built our governance system around water, to negotiate amongst city dwellers, farmers and environmental interests. And nowadays we are constantly developing new water solutions to offset the effects of climate change and tie in with the energy transition. Our water experts travel the globe helping other countries devise long-term plans and short-term innovations, addressing water-security and economic, social and other issues related to water.

The World Economic Forum ranks water crises, such as scarcity, floods and pollution, among the main risks for the global economy in the coming decade. I myself joined the High-Level Panel on Water (HLPW), an initiative launched by former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank President Jim Jong Kim at the World Economic Forum in 2016. It is a unique platform, with 11 leaders of governments from across the globe, from developing and developed countries, from North and South. And since water is crucial to the huge ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals agenda, now is the time to act.

The 2017 Global Risks Report
Image: World Economic Forum

Making the right choices for the future starts with awareness. We need to make water’s social, environmental and economic values more explicit, so as to include them in decision-making processes. That’s why the HLPW launched the ‘Valuing Water Initiative’ to spark the debate. The HLPW will be the curator of good practices from across the globe that do justice to the various values of water. Game-changing practices in one society may inspire similar changes in others. By compiling them, the HLPW will build a basis for recommendations that have the potential to change the game globally.

The bottom line is this: not valuing water comes at a cost. It has for instance been estimated that if we don’t find ways of managing water better, water scarcity might lower the GDP of some countries by 6% by 2050. In practice, all water management decisions value water and make trade-offs between sectors, countries and generations. So what we need is a common language among water users in different sectors and regions to improve decision-making and transparency.

An obvious and direct way of valuing water is the pricing of water usage, pollution and protection against flood risk. In the Netherlands, raising the price of discharging polluted water led to a considerable level of improvement of surface water quality since 1975. In the Murray-Darling river basin, the main agricultural area in Australia and home to several endangered species, the pricing of water has proved very effective in optimising water allocation at times of scarcity. And these are only two of many examples.

Yet, these water pricing initiatives only cover part of the values of water. Other values are more difficult to monetise such as social development and cross-boundary and cross-generation trade-offs. While you can put a price on scarcity, it’s much harder to put a monetary value on ritual bathing, water recreation, passing on a healthy ecosystem to future generations or enabling more girls to go to school by making water and sanitation easily available. Yet these factors all need to be considered.

As a global community, we need to find governance mechanisms that factor in the various values of water usage and take account of how our decisions impact on society. The public sector, the private sector and civil society all have a role in this process. In a world where clean, fresh water is growing ever scarcer, every drop of water will increasingly have to be used, re-used, and then re-used again. This can only be done if every user is considerate of the needs of other and subsequent users.

So I call on the Forum's community to engage with the Valuing Water Initiative. Our goal is to present a comprehensive and hands-on tool by as early as 2018, to improve global practices on valuing water. For that we need contributions and best practices from around the globe. You can find more information here.

Water shaped my own country’s past and will shape its future, too. Let’s join together in valuing this most important public good worldwide, and make sure that water shapes our common future for the better.