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Valuing water in the HKH

Pema Gyamtsho

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On 22 March each year, World Water Day reminds us of the important role that water plays in society and in the natural world. The theme for World Water Day 2021 is “valuing water”. The United Nations, sponsor of World Water Day, points out that the valuation of water includes economic definitions but extends far beyond to embrace social and cultural values from many personal and societal perspectives. So, on a day like World Water Day, we at ICIMOD ask from an institutional perspective: How do we value water?

An initial answer is an implicit one: We often convey the scope and importance of our work in terms that are defined by, or are influenced by, water. When describing our regional mandate, we depict the HKH as the water tower of Asia that supplies water for 1.9 billion people. The gravity of the issue of climate change is starkly illustrated by descriptions of receding glaciers and drying springs across the HKH. The value of water is further demonstrated through the content of our work: Water components are embedded in nearly every regional programme and theme in our institutional structure.

It is through our research and implementation, alongside our partners, that the value of water comes into sharper focus through more explicit forms of valuation as well. In our work, this valuation can take various forms. Quantifiable economic valuation, such as estimates of the productivity or the marginal value of water, may result from analyses of situations where water is scarce or where there are competing uses. In the HKH, this valuation might include water uses that are ubiquitous across mountains and lowlands alike, such as water supply, ecosystem services, and irrigation, but also water uses and hydrologic processes associated with mountains specifically, such as hydropower and changes in glacier mass, that may impact water supply downstream in the future. However, the concept of water valuation must not be limited to beneficial uses of water. Water can have “negative” value as well. Consider, for example, the economic damage caused by glacial lake outburst floods, an active area of our research, or the recent flood caused by a massive rockslide in Uttarakhand, India, that resulted in the loss of lives and the destruction of hydropower facilities.

Yet, some values of water defy quantification. How do we quantify the value of monsoonal rainfall in supporting biodiversity hotspots in the HKH, the social and cultural value of mountain springs in supporting a way of life for mountain peoples, or the intrinsic value that snow-capped ridges yield for ecotourism? These intangible values of water must also be considered and are integral to the work ICIMOD does to improve the wellbeing of people and the environment in the HKH.

World Water Day this year is about “valuing water”. In the end, only by holistically considering the value placed on water from all of its users and across all of its dimensions of its use and impact, whether those values can be quantified or remain intangible, can we approach a true valuation of water in the HKH. This is precisely our aim at ICIMOD. Let us acknowledge the value that water holds in our lives, in the HKH and across the globe.


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