Photo: What is water worth?

(Credit: dirk huijssoon via Flickr)

By Michelle Molnar, Environmental Economist

Water is priceless, right? It's a critical component of life. Oceans, lakes, rivers, streams and aquifers provide water for drinking, bathing, irrigation, recreation and industrial processes. Water is truly the foundation of the social and economic well-being of societies. Of course, it's priceless.

But there is a real, calculable cost to its degradation. While any attempt to measure the true worth of water is an exercise in futility, we can calculate the economic value of water. We can calculate the cost that we as individuals and as members of society pay when the benefits of aquatic environments are damaged. And more importantly, we can begin to factor those costs into our decision-making.

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On November 28, the David Suzuki Foundation and Earth Economics released a report that assesses the value of benefits the aquatic environment provides to the B.C. Lower Mainland's 2.5 million residents. We did this by asking what costs are incurred when those benefits cease to exist. And we're getting a good idea of the magnitude. For example, we know that when wetlands are paved over, flooding events have real, calculable costs to communities. We know that when we cut down the forests of our watersheds, we have to build and maintain water-treatment plants, and we know the cost of restoration programs when we pollute our beaches. The costs of degrading nature can simultaneously be viewed as the benefits of intact nature.

By protecting against flooding, providing waste treatment, assuring water supply, supporting fisheries, providing space for recreation and other benefits, aquatic ecosystems in the Lower Mainland provide at least $30 billion in benefits every year. That's the equivalent of building more than 14 Canada Lines. The results are compelling, yet these values appear in no balance sheets or national accounts, and consequently are not factored into decision-making that aims to improve our well-being.

The Nearshore Natural Capital Valuation report provides the tools needed to begin thinking about an economy that can be sustained for the foreseeable future— an economy that is more compatible with natural systems. We must first try to understand the value of the services nature provides and the cost of damaging our priceless resources. Then, we need to work to create tools that allow the value of these systems to be a legitimate part of decision-making that supports sustainability, conservation and restoration of natural systems. This is where we're going next with our work, and we hope you'll join us.

November 28, 2012

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Nov 28, 2012
10:27 PM

Have you looked at the June 2012 Report called “Biodiversity Loss and Its Impact on Humanity?” … as I understand it the research identifies a means for accounting for the $$ costs of losing biodiversity. I would like to see a system like this mandated for all EA processes.

Nov 28, 2012
12:36 PM

Just what is needed, a way of communicating with those who only see the world in terms of dollars.

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