Water - world’s most valuable asset?

Global food security depends on the availability of fresh water, and good policy is the key to better water management


Countless new developments increase the demand for water or prevent enough water getting to the right place at the right time. Comprehensive policy and good control and management, based on economic analysis, are essential for better water management, says Professor Petra Hellegers on the occasion of her appointment as Special Professor of Economics of Water and Climate Change at Wageningen University, part of Wageningen UR.

Water covers two-thirds of our planet. Having said this, only two-and-a-half per cent of our water stock is fresh water, only one per cent of which is available for use by humans. By 2050, we will need to provide more than nine billion people with clean drinking water and food. But the alternatives for obtaining fresh water are limited. It is not yet feasible to use desalinated water to produce food, and in future this will depend on the price of crops, energy prices and technological innovation. Up until then, food will have to be produced in places where fresh water is widely available. So it is hardly surprising that in 2008, a country like Saudi Arabia announced its intention to put billions of dollars at the disposal of companies in African states (such as South Sudan) to invest in agriculture. At the same time, Saudi Arabia cut back its own production of wheat by 12 per cent. All these moves were aimed at saving valuable water in its own country.


The value of water

The price of water represents a mere fraction of its value, which, according to Prof. Hellegers in her inaugural address entitled Water: the world’s most valuable asset, is the most valuable of all basic commodities and raw materials in the world. As water is no ordinary economic commodity, economic instruments such as water pricing and water markets do not always provide the solution. We have to make well-considered choices that will benefit society as a whole.

Future demand for water is set to rise even further. Population growth combined with increased urbanization (70 per cent of the global population will live in a town or city by 2050) implies changes in lifestyle and eating patterns (meat) that require more water. In addition, processes such as globalization and the liberalization of the world market are making countries more inter-dependent for their food supplies. As a result, agriculture and trade policies could have a greater impact on the demand for water than policy on water itself. Climate change also increases uncertainty about the demand for water and about how much water will be available, and when. The final factor cited by Prof. Hellegers is that of rising energy prices. These do not only affect the cost of transporting and purifying water, but also the demand for water to produce alternative sources of energy such as crops for bio-energy and hydropower.

All these factors require a broad, integral strategy. Being able to cope with drought, flooding and water pollution as management problems is not enough. The key question should be how society as a whole can apply better water management. Prof. Hellegers is convinced that good control and management and integral water policy based on economic analysis can bring about improvement, which will in turn generate considerable savings.

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