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World Water Day 2021: Recognising the value of water for people and ecosystems

22 March 2021


For this year’s World Water Day, our affiliated researchers tell us more about the way they value water, personally and in their research, and the importance of preserving this precious resource.

Every year, World Water Day is an opportunity to acknowledge water and its benefits to people, ecosystems and the environment. This year’s theme, Valuing Water, reminds us of the importance of addressing the grand challenge of sustainable water management locally and globally.

Today, some of our affiliated researchers share with us what water means to them personally and in the context of their research, highlighting the value of this resource to us all. The few voices highlighted in this piece only give a glimpse of the diversity of expertise that the Institute brings together. Our research themes, which connect researchers and PhD students from different schools, reflect the larger breath of knowledge and opinions that constitutes the Institute. These themes allow for a mix of experiences and foster collaborative working to find the interdisciplinary solutions necessary to address current and future water challenges.

'Water is one of our most precious resources and it is crucial that we understand its value. In partnership with a broad range of stakeholders, the Cardiff University Water Research Institute academics and postgraduate students are delivering fantastic science to tackle the complex challenges of sustaining water resources for people and ecosystems in such a changing world.'

Professor Colin Riordan, Cardiff University President and Vice-Chancellor

Understanding the impact of climate change on water resources

Dr Michael Singer, Deputy Director of the Institute, reminds us of the vulnerability of water resources in the face of climate change.The climate controls the presence and absence of water at or near the Earth's surface, potentially generating regional hazards such as floods and droughts. Regional climate outlook forecasts are crucial to make decisions on how to address water-related hazards and their risks to society.

Countries in the Horn of Africa are composed of drylands, which are plagued by devastating droughts and that bring about water scarcity and food insecurity, often requiring food aid and water aid in rural areas. And subsequent seasons may bring floods, inundation, and locust swarms.

'On this World Water Day, I am thinking about the value of water, learning about how the changing climate affects the presence and absence of water for many, and pondering how societies adapt to a more uncertain world.'

Dr Michael Singer Reader
Deputy Director of the Water Research Institute

Samuel Rowley, PhD student from the WISE Centre for Doctoral Training, acknowledges that we are not immune to water issues in the UK: ‘Water is vital to us all, but it can also pose a serious danger in the wrong circumstances. Flooding is a major global issue which causes billions of dollars of damage worldwide every year. It is crucial to examine the effect of urban development on flooding and changes in weather patterns from climate change, abroad and in the UK.’

Learning to value water

Despite common beliefs, the UK is also facing water challenges that require the establishment of resilient water systems and question our current perception of water availability in the country.

Dr Adrian Healy, Future Leaders Fellow, focuses on the resilience of societies in the face of different challenges, including water shortages. He says: ‘How we choose to access water underpins the long-term resilience of our towns, cities and societies. The choices that we make says a lot about how we value water, both as a source of water supplies, but also for its wider environmental and intrinsic significance. But who makes these choices and who gets to decide on the value of water for different uses?

I have become very aware of how in the UK we tend to take access to our water supplies for granted. Yet, our demand for water is such that towns and cities in England are likely to experience recurrent water shortages in the future. How we choose to meet this increasing demand will shine a light on the relative value that we ascribe to the many different forms that water can take.

One thing is for sure. The value of water to our society cannot be measured by its economic cost.

'I think that water reflects our values in society. How we choose to manage our water resources speaks volumes as to where our values lie.’

Dr Adrian Healy Senior Research Fellow

Research Communications Officer, Dr Julia Terlet adds: ‘The water flowing through our pipes and the process of getting it to our taps is invisible, which can disconnect us from our consumption. During lockdown, we realised the central part that water plays in satisfying our essential needs, but also in improving our wellbeing. However, the way we value water needs to be translated into water-saving behaviours in our everyday life and our changing lifestyles make it all the more crucial to be mindful of our consumption habits.'


Considering the hidden impact of our water consumption

Our consumption of water goes beyond the water we drink and includes the water embedded in the products that we use. Reshaping the way we value water also implies understanding our water footprint. Prof Max Munday from Cardiff Business School says: ‘I believe that this World Water Day is a good opportunity to inform different groups about the hidden impacts of our consumption patterns on water resources worldwide. Different parts of the UK vary in terms of the stresses placed on freshwater resources. There has been a long history of water being moved between regions of the UK. While the repercussions of such physical movements of water excite plenty of comment from groups as diverse as environmental lobbyists to the political, there has tended to be far less attention given to the freshwater resources embodied in our trade.

Our consumption of imported goods such as clothing, fruit, vegetables and coffee means that we have an identifiable water footprint overseas. Some of these goods are extremely water intensive in production.

'Our consumption behaviour sometimes works to depreciate precious freshwater ecosystems thousands of miles distant.'

Professor Max Munday Director of Welsh Economy Research Unit

The longer term aim is to identify ‘hotspots’ of overseas water use connected to domestic consumption patterns, and with this a means of informing consumers of the more hidden impacts of our consumption patterns.’


The hidden crisis in freshwater ecosystems

For freshwater ecologist, Prof Steve Ormerod, many of the problems in our relationship with water stem from a failure to value freshwater ecosystems for their intrinsic value, their importance for biological diversity and for the benefits that are lost when rivers and lakes are degraded by over-exploitation.  He says: ‘Our actions often reflect an assumption that rivers and lakes exist, for example, largely as sources of drinking water, for irrigation or for the disposal and dilution of waste. Or an assumption that wetlands can be drained for development, urban expansion and conversion to agriculture without full recognition of the consequences.

These same actions around the world, under burgeoning demand from a human population growing globally at about 80 million per year, has led to widespread issues with pollution, over-abstraction, major habitat impairment, climate change impacts and intense problems from invasive non-native species.

'The result is that freshwater ecosystems are haemorrhaging biodiversity faster than any other environments on Earth – particularly for larger freshwater animals.'

Professor Steve Ormerod Professor

Not only is that an unfolding tragedy in its own right, but it reflects degradation in the quality of resources on which our own well-being depends: the availability of safe water, flood protection, climate stabilisation, fish production, access to genetic resources, the therapeutic value of exposure to natural freshwater environments.’

PhD student Fiona Joyce, from the GW4 Fresh Centre for Doctoral Training, says: ‘Water connects all life on Earth. Freshwater ecosystems are critical for the cycling of energy, nutrients, and clean water, which goes on unnoticed beneath the surface. The biodiversity that drives these processes is threatened by changes in climate and land use, to which freshwaters are inextricably linked. Local scale factors such as catchment vegetation cover could play a key role in promoting freshwater ecological stability under a changing climate.’

‘The diversity of opinions expressed by our researchers on the value of water illustrates the complexity of water challenges, but also exemplifies the importance of having various disciplinary research lenses to deal with these complex challenges.’

Professor Isabelle Durance Professor and Director of the Water Research Institute

As an Institute, valuing water means bringing the different water values of our affiliated researchers and of our partners together.

We ensure that our vision is passed on by training the next generation of water leaders in an interdisciplinary way. Our hope is that they will continue to work together in the future to address the grand challenge of water for people and ecosystem.

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For more information, visit the Water Research Institute website.