Entire sectors of the economy depend on water and functioning freshwater ecosystems. Nevertheless, we often overlook the high economic value of the resource, as a study now shows. According to her, the water used worldwide is worth around 55 trillion euros every year. This corresponds to 60 percent of the global gross domestic product and includes both direct and indirect benefits such as carbon storage. According to the study authors, the fact that the actual value of water has long been underestimated has led us to a global water crisis.
We need water for more than just drinking purposes. Without fresh water, food could no longer be grown, clothing could no longer be produced, and energy could no longer be generated. The rivers themselves serve as transport routes, carbon sinks, tourist attractions and biodiversity hotspots. But because water flows from the tap as a matter of course in our society, we often forget how valuable it actually is. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) also speaks of “water blindness” in this context.
On the trail of the value of water
In order to counteract this mental decoupling from the world’s most used resource, researchers have now determined for the first time in a study commissioned by the WWF what specific amount of money water was worth in 2021. To do this, they first divided the benefits of water into direct and indirect services. The former included, among other things, the amounts of water that we use every day in the household or that agriculture and industry use to irrigate fields or manufacture products. The profits that tourism, transport shipping and fishing make every year using water were also included in this category.
The indirect benefits that water and freshwater ecosystems provide us include more abstract services such as biodiversity, carbon storage, fertile soils or protection from extreme weather such as storms and droughts. In order to quantify these services with a specific monetary amount, the researchers, unlike in the first category, were not able to rely on how much money the world’s water brings us, but rather how much it saves us. For example: How high would the annual storm damage be without intact freshwater ecosystems? How much would it cost to artificially fertilize the soil? How high would the cost of CO2 emissions be if the world’s rivers and lakes suddenly no longer sequestered carbon?
Global water is worth 55 trillion euros – and is under threat
The result: All the services that water provides us directly and indirectly were worth a total of 55 trillion euros in 2021, as the researchers report. This corresponds to 60 percent of the world’s gross domestic product and shows how much the resource is still undervalued in many people’s minds. However, this could also be due to the fact that the share of directly recognizable economic benefits from water is comparatively small at 7.09 trillion euros. The more abstract services of water, which we hardly notice in our everyday lives, amounted to around 47 trillion euros in 2021.
Our “water blindness” is by no means harmless, as the researchers emphasize, but has already maneuvered us into an awkward situation. Believing that water is an infinite, virtually free resource, we have already straightened two-thirds of major rivers, drained wetlands and damaged ecosystems with toxic wastewater. “The state of freshwater ecosystems worldwide is in free fall,” summarizes Theresa Schiller from WWF Germany. We are in the midst of a global water crisis that threatens both ecosystems and people in water-stressed areas. The WWF is therefore calling for greater appreciation for this precious commodity, more sustainable water management and the renaturation of disturbed ecosystems. “The water crisis can only be solved together with nature, with healthy freshwater ecosystems, not against it,” said Schiller.
Source: WWF Germany; Study: High Cost of Cheap Water (PDF)