An international research team led by Oxford University has published a new paper in Science in which they chart a new framework to value water for the Sustainable Development Goals. They provide a four-part framework for valuing and managing water that requires parallel and coordinated action in measurement, valuation, trade-offs, and capable institutions for allocating and financing water.

Dustin Garrick, a professor at the University of Oxford—and the former Philomathia Chair of Water Policy at McMaster University—was the lead author of the study. Garrick said, “Our paper responds to a global call to action. The cascading negative impacts of scarcity, shocks and inadequate water services underscore the need to value water better. There may not be any silver bullets, but there are clear steps to take.” He added,  “We argue that valuing water is fundamentally about navigating trade-offs. The objective of our research is to show why we need to rethink the value of water, and how to go about it, by leveraging technology, science, and incentives to punch through stubborn governance barriers. Valuing water requires that we value institutions.”

The research states that there is a need to re-think the value of water for a number of reasons:

Water is not just about sustaining life, it plays a vital role in sustainable development. Water’s value is evident in all of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, from poverty alleviation and ending hunger, where the connection is long recognised—to sustainable cities and peace and justice, where the complex impacts of water are only now being fully appreciated.

Water security is also a growing global concern. The negative impacts of water shortages, flooding and pollution have placed water-related risks among the top five global threats by the World Economic Forum for several years running. In 2015, Oxford-led research on water security quantified expected losses from water shortages, inadequate water supply and sanitation and flooding at approximately $500B USD annually.

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Richard Damania, global lead economist for the World Bank Water Practice and a co-author of the study said, “We show that water underpins development and that we must manage it sustainably. Multiple policies will be needed for multiple goals.”

Damania said, “Current water management policies are outdated and unsuited to addressing the water-related challenges of the 21st century. Without policies to allocate finite supplies of water more efficiently, control the burgeoning demand for water and reduce wastage, water stress will intensify where water is already scarce and spread to regions of the world—with impacts on economic growth and the development of water-stressed nations.”

Co-Author Erin O’ Donnell ofUniversity of Melbourne added, “2017 is a watershed moment for the status of rivers. Four rivers have been granted the rights and powers of legal persons, in a series of groundbreaking legal rulings that resonated across the world. This unprecedented recognition of the cultural and environmental value of rivers in law compels us to re-examine the role of rivers in society and sustainable development, and rethink our paradigms for valuing water.”

The UN/World Bank High Level Panel on Water announced plans to launch a new initiative on valuing water in 2017.

The paper, Valuing Water for Sustainable Development, was published in the journal Science and is available online at 10.1126/science.aao4942

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