The failure of governments around the world to place a clear value on water is leading to widespread water waste, shortages and high prices for poor and vulnerable people, the UN has warned.
In many countries, water is treated as a low-cost resource for uses such as irrigation, but this is leading some farmers to use too much, causing scarcity for other users. In other places, rich people receive heavily subsidised water to their homes, leading to further waste, while the poor struggle to gain access to water for essential uses.
Some of the current problems have been highlighted by the Covid-19 crisis, as 3 billion people around the world lack access to basic handwashing facilities, and a similar number are now affected by water shortages.
If governments placed a clear value on water, these misuses and misallocations would become more apparent, and it would be possible to share water resources more equitably to where they are needed, according to the World Water Development Report 2021, published on Monday.
Audrey Azoulay, director-general of Unesco, which published the report on behalf of UN-Water, said: “Water is our most precious resource, a ‘blue gold’ to which more than 2 billion people do not have direct access. It is not only essential for survival, but also plays a sanitary, social and cultural role at the heart of human societies.”
Richard Connor, editor of the UN World Water Development report, said the cost price of water often did not reflect its true value as a resource. “As long as we do not value water correctly, we will not achieve sustainable development,” he said.
Water waste is an increasing problem, as climate breakdown and rising populations place more pressure on water resources. But in many instances, waste is ignored because governments fail to place a value on water, said Connor.
The report also found widespread failure to account for the benefits of water, compared with the costs. Providing universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation in 140 low and middle-income countries would cost $114bn a year, but bring enormous economic, social and health benefits. These benefits are often not taken into account when public spending is allocated, however.
Incorporating a system of valuing water, in its costs and benefits, into government policymaking would bring greater clarity to policy measures, and their impacts, said Connor.
Virginia Newton-Lewis, director of policy and advocacy at WaterAid, a charity which was not involved with the report, said that valuing water correctly was essential. “Like most human rights, those fortunate enough to be able to rely on the human right to water often do not fully appreciate its true value in making life healthier, better and more prosperous. Not having clean water at hand destroys opportunities to create a better future for yourself, your family and community by eating up time,” she said.
“Every hour spent trudging to fetch water or recovering from waterborne disease is an hour lost for education, work or just doing something more fulfilling. People today don’t have clean water to drink because no one has thought it important enough, showing that the transformative power of water has been undervalued,” she said.
WaterAid is calling for the UK government to devote more of its climate finance budget for poor countries, which will total £11.6bn over five years, to giving people access to water. The charity, in a report entitled Turn the tide: the state of the world’s water 2021, found that people were losing access to water because of climate breakdown, as longer droughts dry up springs, seawater infiltrates groundwater supplies, and landslides damage water pumps.
Kelly Ann Naylor, associated director of water, sanitation and hygiene at Unicef, added to the call to value water correctly: “The world’s most precious resource, water, is often undervalued, misused, mismanaged and over-extracted. Undervaluing water has many forms, from poorly developed tariff structures to high rates of leakage and inefficient use – these are the main drivers of water scarcity. Decades of poor water management, compounded by climate change, is putting children’s very survival at risk.”
Unicef has found that one in five children around the world do not have access to enough water to meet their everyday needs, for drinking water and sanitation.