Stark report highlights the ‘high cost of cheap water’

The true economic value of water is much greater than one might think and we’re in danger of paying a huge cost by taking it for granted — that’s the warning of a recently published World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report.

While the full value of water is infinite, for the first time ever, WWF’s The High Cost of Cheap Water report provides an estimate on the ‘economic use value’ of freshwater. It stands at US$58 trillion, the equivalent of 60% of global GDP. The report’s opening paragraph lays out the global challenge we must face up to if we are to preserve this resource into the future:

Water is the world’s most precious and exploited resource. Yet it has always been undervalued – along with the rivers, lakes, wetlands and aquifers that store and supply it. This water blindness – the lack of awareness and understanding of the importance of water resources – has come at an immense cost: the world is facing a pervasive and worsening water crisis that is undermining human and planetary health.

Billions of people still lack access to safe water and sanitation, food insecurity is rising, water risks to agriculture and industry are escalating, and We are losing freshwater species and ecosystems at alarming rates. Growing populations, economies and urbanisation are putting additional pressure on water supplies and freshwater ecosystems – as climate change drastically disrupts the world’s hydrological system.

Freshwater ecosystems provide a home to 10% of all known species on earth. Since 1970, the population of these species has dropped by a staggering 83%. One in every three freshwater species are now at risk of extinction. This is without even taking account of the amount of species on land and sea that rely on freshwater for their survival.

Economic use value

The ‘economic use value’ of freshwater is divided into two categories. The ‘direct use value’ encompasses its tangible benefits and uses for society, such as drinking water consumption, irrigation and fishing. The ‘indirect use value’ equates to the benefits that freshwater ecosystem services provide, such as a good water quality, biodiversity, flood regulation etc.

Remarkably, the research finds that the indirect use value ($50 trillion) is seven times greater than the direct use value ($7.5 trillion) of freshwater.

For the GWS sector, this is perhaps the most resounding vindication yet for its prioritisation of drinking water source protection. Along with raw water quality improvements, many of the co-benefits evident from recent NFGWS source protection pilot projects fall under ‘indirect use value’. According to the report, these benefits underpin economic and social development, and are ‘chronically undervalued and overlooked’.

Water availability

Along with pollution, climate change and over-abstraction are significant threats to water sustainability. The world has lost one-third of its wetlands since 1970, two-thirds of the world’s largest rivers are no longer free-flowing and half of the world’s population is already exposed to water scarcity at least once a month.

The report repeatedly mentions the problem of ‘water blindness’, an issue many group water scheme personnel would also highlight as being significant. WWF says that ‘Inspiring and mobilising people and communities across the world is critical to ending water blindness and driving decision makers to take urgent action on water and freshwater ecosystems.’

Given its strong, community-driven ethos, the GWS sector is well-placed to contribute positively to meeting this challenge.

This article originally featured in the most recent edition of the Rural Water News magazine. To read the full edition and to sign up to our magazine mailing list, click here.