Water Diplomat Voices: "The Value of Water Revisited"

Guest Column: Alexis Morgan, WWF

20 Mar 2021 by The Water Diplomat

OOSKAnews Voices is a series of guest columns written by participants in different parts of the international water community. 

On World Water Day 2021, Alexis Morgan discusses our framing of the value of water, and revisiting our language around this.

Alexis leads WWF’s global water stewardship efforts, a role that includes oversight of WWF’s Water Risk Filter tool. A global thought leader on water stewardship, he has authored numerous publications over the past 15 years and developed corporate partnerships on water across a range of sectors. He currently sits on CDP Water’s advisory board and is the chair of the board of the Alliance for Water Stewardship. He lives in Vancouver, Canada and holds a masters in hydrology from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the Schulich School of Business at York University.

Alexis Morgan
Alexis Morgan
To value something is not only to “estimate the monetary worth of (something),” but also to “consider (someone or something) to be important or beneficial; have a high opinion of.” (Oxford definition). For World Water Day 2021, we are celebrating the “value of water” but let’s check ourselves as we do so. 

Take a moment and clear your mind. If someone were to say to you: “swamp”, “bogged down”, “flooded”, or “drought” – even “wet”, what feelings come to mind. Do they bring to mind positive notions or are you reminded of negative things? Deep down, do we all need to recalibrate how we value water?

Language is only one way in which we need to rethink valuing water; we need to dig deeply to also consider the process of valuation. When you think about how water brings value to your life, what comes to mind? In a year when the value of water has been perhaps been focused on how water (& soap!) is critical in the fight against disease, perhaps it brings to mind the social value of water to provide us with health and well-being. Perhaps you are one of the growing many who continue to see evidence of how water, climate and biodiversity work together to preserve ecological value. Or how clean and dirty water often parallel the growing inequity of economic value distribution. The value of water can take many forms – and therein lies one of its most powerful traits.

While under the spotlight this year, we’ve long talked about the value of water, so it is perhaps a good time to step back and reflect on what we put out over a half a decade ago when we [WWF] published our framework thinking on this issue: The Value of Water (WWF & IFC, 2015). This discussion paper recognized and outlined not only differ forms of value (at differing scales), but also began to link the narratives of risk and opportunity to water stewardship.

Furthermore, the framework began to outline thinking on how to begin to better measure the value of water – be it at a corporate level or beyond.

Value of Water Graph
WWF 2015: Value of Water

Since this time, WWF has seen a lot of people grappling with the same kinds of questions and challenges:

  • How do we get financial markets to better value how water impacts financial value?
  • How do we get regulators and central banks to better value how water impacts economic value?
  • How do we get governments to better value how water impacts societal well-being value?
  • How do we get humanity to better value how water impacts ecological value?

Efforts ranging from the Task Force for Climate Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) to the emergent Task Force for Nature Related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) have started to advance these issues. The understanding of the linkages between water (as a front-line impact of climate), adaptation and the value of water resilience has grown.

Indeed, we have seen tools emerge to better explore how various future climate-driven water scenarios may impact a company’s activities. With World Water Day 2021, we [WWF] are also launching a new report with Germany’s largest food retailer Edeka, looking at how scenarios from WWF’s Water Risk Filter can be used to explore how water may affect global agricultural supply chains. Companies such as Edeka are explicitly recognizing that understanding future water risks to key agricultural commodities is central to preserving financial (shareholder) value.

In the coming week, WWF will also be releasing a second report on how water (and its contextual nature) can be better integrated into corporate strategy. This report, which will be accompanied by a linked report on contextual water target setting, emerged out of our learnings that target-setting, borne in a risk-mitigation logic, misses the point on value. Put differently, if a company is to maximize the value creation from water, it is critical that water be linked back to corporate strategy. As one considers how to create value within a corporate strategy, the lenses from the Value of Water framework become quite useful. Considering how water can enhance societal and ecological value is a central aspect to driving “purpose”, an issue that is increasingly being adopted by the world’s most sustainable (and often best performing) companies.

Yet our (WWF's) Value of Water report was also rooted in the notions of different forms of value – not all value is monetary. Our recent report The World’s Forgotten Fishes highlighted that freshwater fish do not simply represent an important source of protein for many countries, but rather represent something much, much more. They are a source of inspiration, they are pets and companions, they are the basis for treasured past-times (fishing), and they are massively under-valued. As a core part of our freshwater ecosystems, freshwater fish embody the value of water in many regards: critical to humans and life, yet criminally undervalued and forgotten.

As we’ve explored the issue of value over the years, the issue of value to whom has always been central. Who provides value; who receives value. Linked to this, for a long time women have been disproportionately impacted by water challenges and like water, they are systematically undervalued in society. To better value water, we must link issues together such as women, water, and value. That’s precisely what we’re seeking to do under our #ApparelOpenLetter work with a consortium of actors, including the US Water Partnership in April when we will have a series of panels focusing on how women can be forces of value creation through water in the apparel sector. Stay tuned!

Reflecting upon our journey in #ValuingWater, I believe we need to revisit our framing of value as much as we must revisit our language. Swamps are life-giving sources of huge ecosystem service benefits. Bogs are some of the most treasured assets for trapping and sequestering carbon. Floods deliver critical nutrients, sediment to protect our coastlines and replenish our groundwater systems. Droughts too can be positive; they lower pollution levels, and help to “reset” systems (not unlike forest fires) and establish conditions for life to return and flourish again. We need to see freshwater systems in a new light, and bring forth new, positive associations that indeed “value” water.

No matter who we are, all of us value water in one way, shape or form. There is ultimately no way to escape how fundamentally important and beneficial water is – it is the basis of life, so what more must one say. And yet through our words, we undervalue water on a daily basis. Through our actions, we undervalue water in our investments and even our business strategies. We must reconsider water as not just a risk, but as an opportunity. So whether you are a farmer, a fisher, a factory owner, or a financier – let’s rethink water. Consider all of the benefits it brings to your life. You might even improve your opinion of yourself. After all, you’re more than 60 percent water.