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Learning to value water will unlock its potential to bring about better health, less migration, more food security and stronger climate action
The past 12 months have shocked many of us into re-examining our stewardship of the planet. From the origins of the pandemic to deadly floods, fires and hurricanes, it is now clear that humanity needs to raise its game, and work with nature rather than against it.
One of the ways we can do this is by putting a true value on water. Changing the way we perceive and value water offers an opportunity to bring about real change and build a better, more inclusive future.
In 2021, 2.2 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water. This is important because the water vulnerable suffer not once, but many times: women and children walk hours daily to fetch water from wells many kilometers away. In Nigeria, over 60 percent of the rural population lives more than 30 minutes from a working water source. Girls in particular end up dropping out of school.
Moreover, an estimated 4.2 billion people lack access to safe sanitation. For them, the simple act of handwashing that offers basic protection against disease is beyond their reach. Climate change, meanwhile, is playing havoc with our water cycle, disrupting agriculture and increasing desertification.
This situation is both unacceptable and completely within our power to change. The challenge is not just about money - which, of course, is vital and at present woefully inadequate.
Valuing water means, more than anything, understanding water's potential. It means fully grasping that with adequate water, we have better health, less migration, more food security, and more effective climate mitigation and adaptation.
Water, when it is available, can lift the most vulnerable out of distress and into shared prosperity. Investing in water is investing in a better future for all.
But to achieve this we need a radical change in our approach to the water challenge. We must become much more inclusive in the way we develop and manage this resource.
That is the aim of the Valuing Water Initiative (VWI), launched by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the World Economic Forum in 2019. Since then, the initiative has sought to put the UN Valuing Water Principles into practice - and to inspire others to do the same.
One of the five principles that guides our work is that valuing water lies not just in a raw economic value, but in recognizing that water's value means different things to different groups and interests, spanning the economic, cultural, spiritual, and environmental spheres.
This means it's necessary to engage stakeholders broadly, to identify water's worth in all its numerous, competing uses, and to reflect this multiplicity of views in decision-making.
This may sound more like an art than a science, and in many ways it is. The good news is that it works. VWI has been using this approach in a series of projects to identify the most effective levers for crystallizing water's intrinsic value, and ensuring that all stakeholders agree.
In the Colombian Andes mountains, for example, coffee farmers have been trained in the importance of water management and biodiversity preservation to improve their coffee crop. This intervention has resulted in higher incomes, improved soil fertility, and better water quality.
In Chennai in India, meanwhile, the City of 1,000 Tanks initiative will tackle the inter-relationships between flooding, water scarcity, and pollution through a range of measures including rainwater collection and wastewater treatment. Together, these are designed to help prevent climate-change-induced droughts and saline intrusion through sea-level rise, as well as mitigate risks from high-frequency floods and sewage pollution.
Improving water stewardship has many different faces, but dependence on water is a common thread linking humanity. It underpins every single one of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. Solving our water challenges will help solve other global problems, too.
This is why the Netherlands is committed to raising awareness about the importance of harnessing the power of water for a secure and sustainable future for all in the run-up to the UN Water Summit in 2023, which it is co-hosting with Tajikistan.
Amid all the calls to 'build back better' with the trillions of dollars of stimulus money, we need to appreciate that there can be no better building block than water. The response to COVID has shown us the power of collective action. What could unite humanity more than building back 'bluer' and learning to fully appreciate the true, shared value of this most critical of resources?
Henk Ovink is Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands.