New research shows a transformation in the way we value water is needed for future sustainable development.

Oxford University has produced a four-part framework for valuing water, and co-author and University of Melbourne Law School Senior Fellow Dr Erin O’Donnell said the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal No. 6 [Water and Sanitation] it highlights a fundamental need to reassess how we measure, manage and govern water use. 

“Water is really embedded in most of the other goals, indirectly, because it underpins basic human needs,” Dr O’Donnell said. 

“If we think specifically about SDG6, we need to spend US$114 billion over the next 10 years to meet that goal of universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation. That’s a pretty substantial sum. 

“It’s starting to put a lot of pressure on how we are managing water and how we are actually going to deliver safe, affordable, quality water services to all of the people in the world.”

Dr O’Donnell said a failure to value water in light of sustainability measures leads to waste and inefficiency. 

“We are starting to see evidence of what this ‘missing’ information means for the value of water, particularly as we start to put numbers around how much water is ‘lost’ from our water systems in leaks and theft,” she said.

“We are already seeing this very issue play out in the Australian context, as the Murray-Darling Basin Authority attempts to strengthen compliance and enforcement of limits on individual water use. ‘Missing’ information on water use undermines accountability, which leads to waste and inefficiency.

“That is driving a need to rethink some of the institutions around the way that we manage, measure and govern water use.”

Valuing water for sustainable development’ published in Science, outlines four steps for sustainable development of water resources; measurement, valuation, decision-making, and governance. 

“The way the framework hangs together is around the concepts of institutions, information and infrastructure. And it’s about investing in all three of those,” Dr O’Donnell said. 

“The first step hinges around the idea of measurement: how we measure, what we measure and how we use that information. The second step is valuation and trying to progress the idea of valuation beyond just the economic value, to include social, cultural, and ecological value. 

“Decision making is about acknowledging that there will always be winners and losers, and it’s about how we manage that process equitably, fairly, and transparently. 

“And the fourth step is around institutions and governance, which attempts to build a much stronger framework that operates across multiple scales. It’s also about engaging with the issue of ‘voice’: how we bring in different sectors of the community, particularly disenfranchised groups and minorities that have previously been excluded from water resource management.”

The valuation of water came into the spotlight in 2017 when a set of rivers were given the status of legal persons, Dr O’Donnell said. 

“In 2017, we had four rivers that were classed as ‘legal persons’. This is a fundamental legal transformation of the role of those rivers,” she said.  

“The rivers themselves, represented by their guardians, can go to court, they can sue people to uphold their rights, they can potentially be sued by people, they can enter into contracts, and they can hold property rights. 

“Historically, and still for all the other rivers around the world, in the eyes of the law they have no rights, they are objects which are managed by people. Suddenly these rivers are a core focus of the law, and that transformation requires a fundamental re-think in terms of the way that we govern water.”