New WWF report estimates the economic value of freshwater ecosystems.

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan touches three of the North American Great Lakes. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue

By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue – October 16, 2023

What is the value of a river? Or a healthy wetland that purifies water, impedes floods, and traps carbon?

High Cost of Cheap Water, a provocative report commissioned by the conservation heavyweight WWF, attempts to answer that question in dollars. The conclusion: freshwater ecosystems have an economic use value of $58 trillion, or roughly 60 percent of global GDP.

The staggering figure accounts for direct uses (the water used by households, farms, and industries) and services provided indirectly (flood protection, water storage, animal habitat), which are seven times more valuable than direct uses.

Stuart Orr, freshwater practice leader for WWF, spoke with Circle of Blue about the implications of putting water in economic terms.

“When we have those valuations it allows you to have a conversation about the values and benefits that people derive from these systems,” Orr said. “I hope that leads us to better outcomes. It’s sometimes unfortunate that we have to put everything in dollar terms, but that’s where we are in trying to convince people this is the right thing to do.”

The global economic system as it is currently structured does a poor job of valuing water, Orr said. The report calls this error a form of “water blindness.”

Water blindness is “pervasive,” Orr said, even among organizations working on intimately connected topics like climate and food. “It is the biome and the resource that is forgotten. That’s why we came out with a big number. It’s also the resource that has no economic signals to send to anybody that we’re doing the wrong things and we may need to reconsider how we are using water.”

After nearly three decades in water conservation, Orr lamented the lack of progress. “I’m not seeing the kind of action and movement I would have hoped or would have thought by now.”

Will a more complete evaluation of the value of water, one couched in business-friendly GDP terms, drive home the message?

“We have to do whatever it takes to shake people out of this lethargy around water,” he said.