Balancing Cost And Value In Earth's Water Preservation And Distribution

In industrialised nations, water is a prevalent substance which requires little thought on behalf of the consumers as to its origin or its use. The so-called ‘water footprint ’ of common objects and services is often hidden for the average consumer, whether it ’s in the clothes they wear, the products they use or even browsing social media.

In regions where water is scarcer, its importance is far better recognised but, when it comes to assigning value, other factors can still come into play where different priorities are incompatible. From an economist ’s perspective, “value” can be defined as the perceived worth of a product or service, whilst “cost ” is simply what an item or service is sold for. 

It ’s estimated that the average smartphone requires 13,000 litres (13 tonnes) of water for production.

Valuing Water

In terms of water, the “value” is highly subjective with political, socioeconomic, and environmental factors all impacting the perceived value of water. Water is specifically intriguing as even in one location, different “types” of water could be valued differently.

General categories for water classification:
-     Drinking water and Household water
-     Wastewater
-     Run-off water
-     Surface water (Rivers and Seas)
-     Groundwater

Generally, the importance of drinking water is largely accepted, but in a direct comparison, groundwater might be ranked as comparatively lower in value in the same instances; even though treated groundwater extracted and from aquifers can be the primary water for drinking and household use. Whilst controls on drinking water quality are often stringent and require extensive treatment, the controls on factors that cause pollution of groundwater can be more lax or inconsistent. 

This disjointed approach to both value and regulation of water resources contributes to the disparity in water quality and the challenges facing water resources across all nations. Considering surface waters which have monumental importance, both in the water cycle and water provision as well as in climate and ecosystem regulation; the level of “value” placed on surface waters is drastically different both within and between nations. 

Value must be considered in both immediate and longer term impacts; i.e. access to water and sanitation facilities can positively impact living conditions, health and productivity as well as life expectancy.

In the UK, there has been a substantial shift in public perspective, boosting recognition of the poor quality of our rivers and seas and the resulting pressure on government to change this. In nations where sanitation and sewer systems are lacking or more informal, rivers can serve as both a sewer and a water supply for households. Whilst value will likely have been attributed to the river as a water supply, barriers to infrastructure override the extent to which that value can be recognised on a large scale. Smaller schemes can come into play here with local initiatives focusing on improving water quality but often lacking the support of long-term funding and infrastructure change. 

Indeed, even apportioning an economic “value” to water and other nature resources is a relatively recent concept, with natural capital only being introduced in the 1990s. Nature and economics have been impacting on each other since societies first started to develop, a most recent example demonstrated that for the contiguous USA, an improvement by 10% of the water quality would equate to a value of $6-9 billion to property owners (Mamun et al., 2023). 

Natural capital includes the earth’s 'stocks' of natural assets: geology, soil, air, water and all living things

The cultural value of river systems has often been at odds with other methods used to assign value such as economic value; as a result, they are often excluded from official planning and resource valuing attempts. Given the cultural value of water sources to communities is often intrinsically linked with the services the water provides, it is remiss not to be able to factor this into the overall value of the water source.

The Ganga River has immense importance in the Hindu faith as the personification of the Goddess Ganga. It is a symbol of hope, faith and culture as well as providing a livelihood for many across national borders.

The Cost of Water

As always, doesn’t everything seem to boil down to cost? In the SDGs, the cost of water should be termed as ‘affordable’ meaning that the cost should not be prohibitive to accessing water. Unfortunately, in many cases this is currently unachievable, with developing nations and water scarce areas being the most to suffer high costs in relation to their household income. In comparison, the more industrialised nations are more likely to enjoy lower price of water per household in relation to percentage of income. Those who are in support of improving the water quality in the environment may not be in support of a direct increase to their bills as a result, with many other factors contributing to this stance.

The World Bank estimates that loss of water before reaching the consumer costs Utilities $14 billion per annum

Conversely, what is the cost of not having access to water? What is the cost in terms of health, mortality, suffering, education, and economic potential? The cost of not having access to water can bleed into many different areas of life affecting people both on an individual level and a societal level. As of 2019, 1 in 3 people still lacked access to clean drinking water and a 2022 report found that around 3 billion people do not have access to adequate hand hygiene facilities. On a practical level, the cost of water infrastructure is one of the factors preventing access to water but it is rarely the entire reason. Complex political landscapes, geographical location and societal structures are just a few of many factors that can also come into play when considering lack of access to clean water. In situations where water is scarce, the importance and value of clean water is understood but it remains unattainable for a variety of reasons, not just the economic cost. More understanding of the impacts of the absence of water and the ultimate “cost of loss” can be useful in motivating action but it cannot be the only factor. Even in the absence of every social, political and economic factor, the environment itself can still be a barrier where water is scarce or becoming scarce through overuse and a changing global climate. 


Cost vs Value

In considering the loss of water, the value becomes inherently clearer. Water is a fundamental part of all life on earth and its value cannot be constrained to just one of it ’s services , nor is it something that can be quantified in a series of equations based on assigning economic functions. As with anything that exists on a large scale, the complexities of solving it can become part of the issue itself. The partitioning of water into categories based on origin and use is helpful in learning but restrictive when it encourages thinking of Earth’s water as a series of disconnected issues. There will never be one solution for the preservation and distribution of the earth’s water resources but, a more holistic approach that is able to consider both the smaller scale challenges and that on a whole-system scale would be positive. How we understand the value of water and the associated cost is potentially a key part of future water management. After all, for something as integral to our lives as water, can we really afford not to recognise its true value?


Bateman, I.J. et al. (2023) ‘Perspectives on valuing water quality improvements using stated preference methods’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 120(18). doi:10.1073/pnas.2217456120.

Mamun S, Castillo-Castillo A, Swedberg K, Zhang J, Boyle KJ, Cardoso D, Kling CL, Nolte C, Papenfus M, Phaneuf D, Polasky S. Valuing water quality in the United States using a national dataset on property values. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2023 Apr 11;120(1 5):e2210417120. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2210417120. PMID: 37011190; PMCID: PMC10104588.

UNESCO (2021) UN World Water Development Report.

What is the value of water? And it’s price? (2022) We are water.