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The importance of valuing water

Water is essential for all life, yet as human activity changes the climate, we threaten this finite, irreplaceable resource. What can we do differently today to safeguard this valuable resource? How can our actions and policies ensure equitable access to water, both for humans and for ecosystems?

Six researchers from four different SEI centres working with water issues. Image: SEI.

Six researchers from four different SEI centres working with water issues. Image: SEI.

As we celebrate World Water Day today, it is clear that the world has a long way to go to fulfil the provisions set forth in the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 on water and sanitation. More than 2 billion people still lack safely managed drinking water services and if nothing is done, intense water scarcity could displace 700 million people by 2030 – less than nine years from now.

Reversing this trend, and ensuring water access for all, means recognizing – and acting on – the reality that water’s value is far more than its price, and that access and sanitation are deeply inequitable. For some, water scarcity is a crisis they may have only heard about; for others, it defines their daily experience.

Since World Water Day coincides with Women’s History Month, we asked six female SEI researchers who work on water issues in four of our centres around the world — US, Asia, Africa and HQ – about how they see the value of water and lessons learned on how to equitably manage and protect this valuable resource in a changing climate.

Can you place a value on water? Does value mean money, or economics? Or is it broader than that?

Annette Huber-Lee: The importance of water – the value of water – is best understood by the people, largely women and children, who carry water in their hands, on their backs, or on their heads for long distances. What is the value of water? It is so valuable that these families sacrifice their children’s education – with the burden placed more on girls than boys. They sacrifice precious time that could contribute to more diverse and sustainable livelihoods. They sacrifice their very well-being, with women in particular at risk of rape while collecting water. Even more profoundly, these same families are collecting wood for energy, damaging the landscapes that could provide more reliable and clean water. This leads to a vicious cycle that further impoverishes the most vulnerable people in their ability to access water, food, energy, education and health.

How we value water is an expression of how we – as societies – value human life.

Annette Huber-Lee is a senior scientist in the Program on Water for Ecosystems and Livelihoods and has expertise in water resource management and policy.

Profile picture of Annette Huber-Lee
Annette Huber-Lee

Senior Scientist


How does gender affect water availability and access, and how do we value that in water planning?

Laura Forni: There is a tremendous value in the equitable access to water. Safe drinking water is a human right, and it can also ensure food security and protect valuable ecosystems that we all depend on. In a watershed, these values are interdependent, adding to the complexity and the challenge of ensuring equitable access for all.

Not having access to safe drinking water in people’s homes puts an enormous burden on women and children that must collect it. This comes at a huge cost to them, robbing them of time that can be used for other productive activities and education. I hear stories of women and girls that are verbally and physically harassed by men when they go to collect water. That brings tears to my eyes, when I think that we live in a world where instead of women being valued and thanked for such a crucial and difficult task, they are humiliated.

Gender inequalities go beyond domestic water use. Women hold less power in water planning decisions and are often not included in community-based decision-making activities or in government positions, municipalities, or water utilities. They also bear the greatest burden of climate-change-driven disasters, such as droughts and floods; in the aftermath of disasters, for example, women are more likely to lack access to credit or disaster relief mechanisms.

The good news is there are ways, today, to tackle these inequalities. We can ensure that water valuation and analysis takes into account existing social inequalities – including in water models of watersheds. By baking that into the planning process, decision-makers can make better, more equitable decisions.

Laura Forni

Acting Water Program Director


What can policymakers do to ensure equitable water access, now and in a climate-changed future?

Marisa Escobar: I am convinced that robust policy solutions need to come from a diverse perspective, which can be achieved by bringing women and a diverse set of stakeholders to the table. Current policies will benefit from integrating those diverse perspectives, which in turn will prepare the policy environment to deal with future climate challenges.

By moving from extractive science to participatory action research, we benefit from the insights of stakeholders who represent both the demographics of a given area and various group’s interests; this collaboration produces better, stronger, more robust policies that fit the unique context of a region. For instance, in Bolivia WATCH, we are working with communities to define their watershed plans for the next 5-10 years. The planning and policy definition process involves gender and poverty considerations so we can tackle the existing inequalities from the bottom up, and at the same time, we can connect these solutions to action through the implementation of water security strategies.

Marisa Escobar is the Water Program Director at SEI US, leading a team of water scientists applying tools like WEAP to solve water challenges around the world.

How is water availability changing as the climate changes? How can we ensure we manage water sustainably for the future?

Chayanis Krittasudthacheewa: Climate change — combined with other factors related to development — affects water availability in many parts of the world. In the Mekong Region, extreme floods and droughts are happening more frequently, and water quality is getting more degraded as compared to the past. It has been very difficult for the local communities who rely on water resources for their livelihoods to cope with the changes. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation even worse.

We can reduce water insecurity by improving policies and practices through research and collaboration. Under the Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET), which consists of more than 300 individual members, we  conduct collaborative research, engage with the policy process, and promote scientifically sound research and innovation, while taking into account gender and social equality, human rights, conflict sensitivity, environmental integrity and poverty reduction in the Mekong Region.

For example, one of the 20 projects being supported by SUMERNET works closely with community-based schools and the public health office in Thailand, as well as ethnic minority women in Myanmar, to examine the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the water and livelihood security of vulnerable groups, specifically women. The project also considers how water insecurity can be better mitigated through co-creating knowledge on how to govern rivers inclusively, post-COVID-19. This helps accelerate progress towards women’s leadership in river governance and enhance women’s livelihood resilience in time of crisis.

Apart from supporting individual projects, we are also building the partnership and cooperation with existing regional mechanisms, such as the Mekong River Commission and Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Framework. To manage water sustainably, we need the joint effort and long-term commitment of all parties.

Chayanis Krittasudthacheewa is the Programme Director of SUMERNET and Deputy Director of SEI Asia Centre based in Bangkok, Thailand.

Profile picture of Chayanis Krittasudthacheewa
Chayanis Krittasudthacheewa

Deputy Director, SEI Asia

SEI Asia

How can policymakers best plan for the future, when there are various possibilities in how climate change might impact water availability?

Rocio A. Diaz-Chavez: Water management and climate change adaptation plans need to be based on the outcomes of research and consider all the stakeholders that are using the resources and are impacted by climate change. When policymakers work on future plans, there needs to be engagement with all stakeholders’ views and perspectives.

Co-designing solutions is the future of governance: in the Africa Centre, for example, we often collaborate with local governments and authorities to help integrate climate change adaptation measures in local planning efforts, such as the Chew Initiative in Nakuru and the IMARA project in the North of Kenya. In both projects, women’s participation has been key for the planning. We also collaborate across centres to collect better information about the climate conditions in the region and what to expect in the next 20 years.

This information helps the policymaking process. For example, in northern Kenya, droughts are growing more common; knowing this, policymakers can consider development measures such as the construction of sand dams to ensure essential access to water for these pastoralist communities.

Policymakers still need to have better integration with the local communities to govern essential resources, such as water, and prepare for the impacts of climate change through clear adaptation plans at the local level. The IMARA project is gathering information so policymakers are able to better craft and implement development plans that benefit the local population.

Rocio A. Diaz-Chavez is the Deputy Director and Energy and Climate Change Programme Leader at the Africa Centre.

How can we create a sustainable recovery path that ensures we significantly reduce negative impacts on marine and coastal biodiversity for decades to come?

Karina Barquet: Marine pollution is, to a large extent, land pollution that has made its way into the ocean through the coast. Coastal planning that bridges water governance with marine spatial planning is therefore fundamental if we are ever to achieve the mission of healthier seas.

However, transforming how countries view and manage their coasts requires major changes in public policy and spatial planning. For example, the BONUS RETURN work carried out in the Baltic Sea found that preventing pollution from reaching the ocean required “circular” solutions, including the recovery of valuable substances that today are considered waste, and an increase in water reuse. It is simply too naïve to think that we can stop producing waste while consumption increases.

Yet, our decision-making structures favor linear approaches for the lowest cost. We also need to be ready for diversification: of infrastructures, of the use of space, of solutions. Coastal areas are dynamic spaces that are traditionally met with rigid planning responses: rigid infrastructures, single-purpose use of space, and solutions addressing single problems. Though this is starting to change, planning approaches remain reactionary instead of anticipatory.

Our current and future work is therefore geared towards exploring coastal planning approaches that build on hybrid infrastructures, multi-purpose use of space, and solutions that maximize co-benefits for a wider range of challenges.

Karina Barquet is a Senior Research Fellow at SEI HQ in Stockholm and lead for SEI’s Strategic Policy Engagement for the Ocean.

Karina Barquet
Karina Barquet

Team Leader: Water, Coasts and Ocean; Senior Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

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