Valuing water for sustainable development: a student perspective

Students from Oxford University’s Water Science, Policy and Management MSc share their experience of Valuing Water for Sustainable Development, a one-day forum hosted by Oxford University on 7 November.

All 28 Master’s students from the Water Science, Policy and Management course attended the high-level forum on Valuing Water for Sustainable Development, where we got to experience the closest thing in academia to feeling star-struck. The lineup of presenters included many of the authors on our course reading lists.

So, did we get the magic number for the true value of water? Unfortunately, no. Throughout our course, and at this forum also, it has been reiterated that water’s value is not synonymous with any given price that water-users pay. The value of water includes the social, environmental, and economic benefits it provides to society in its multiple uses. The forum presenters made the case that taking this holistic approach to valuing water is what will improve water resources management and help achieve the SDGs.

Dr Michael Hanneman has been a formative contributor to the field of environmental economics. He shared a pragmatic perspective on this topic. He noted that there are at least two key moments in policy-making when you have to explicitly value water. First, there’s the process of developing a benefit-cost analysis for a given policy or project, which should take into account both efficiency and equity considerations. Second, there’s the moment when society actually makes users pay for water by setting a price.

He explained that the process of setting prices is typically difficult, and this is especially true if the goal is to set a price that accounts for the full cost of water delivery and services. In theory, water prices could be based on an assessment at the municipal level of the infrastructure costs, the operations and maintenance costs, and the depreciation costs. This might sound straightforward, but water is an essential good: it is essential to life, and pricing water for full cost-recovery always brings up social equity issues.

In addition, Dr Hanneman noted that water utilities are more capital intensive than other utilities (i.e. gas, electricity, telecommunication) and water projects have to be financed upfront. That means that today’s water users have to pay for infrastructure that is going to serve three or four generations into the future. Therefore, distribution of water infrastructure costs and benefits across time also brings up questions of intergenerational equity.

To make things even more complicated, Dr Giulio Boccaletti from the Nature Conservancy reminded us that water management is not all about capital investments in cement and pipes. Achieving the SDGs requires an understanding of the connection between ecosystems and infrastructure. Across the globe, innovative schemes incentivise watersheds upstream to deliver water downstream, blending ecosystem-infrastructure management.

At the end of the day, what is an MSc student to think about valuing water and the prospect for achieving the SDGs? Well, we have a lot more to learn. The Oxford MSc student contingent definitely felt privileged to participate in the forum and extend our learning beyond the classroom.

This post was written by Adrienne Lane, with contributions from Silvia Cardascia, Sagar Dhakal, and Esteban Boj Garcia: current students of Oxford University’s Water Science, Policy and Management (WSPM) MSc programme. 

A second WSPM student blog exploring themes emerging from the forum can be found here. 


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