How to address water security

Drought © iStock

Water security is essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and is required for delivering a water-smart society. Jan Hofman, Juliana Marcal and Blanca Antizar explain what is required and why.

Water security is about the increasing importance of the sustainable management of water resources, drinking water and human wellbeing, and the protection of life and property from water-related disasters. This includes the health of ecosystems and economic development. Water security and creating a water-smart society – where water has its true value recognised and is managed in ways to avoid pollution and optimise resource efficiency – are key conditions for sustainable development.

First articulated as a policy challenge at the World Water Forum in 2000, in the United Nations Ministerial Declaration of The Hague on Water Security in the 21st Century, water security has remained on the agenda of international organisations. The Ministerial Declaration led to wide use of the term in global policy, development and science agendas over the past 20 years and developed into a multi-dimensional concept that has widely differing interpretations. Definitions have proliferated, generating both convergence and confusion about the concept and options for measuring and managing water security. Well known and accepted water security definitions, such as the ones proposed by the Global Water Partnership, UN Water, the UNESCO Intergovernmental Hydrology Programme, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), vary in origin, scale and emphasis.

We suggest adoption of the UN-Water definition, presented in Figure 1, as it is a holistic definition enabling rich and broad studies. However, such an all-encompassing definition also has disadvantages, such as the broad range of suitable indicators.

Water is central to our economy and its growth. It creates many jobs in different sectors – agriculture, forestry, fishery, energy, industry, recycling, building and transport – with more than three out of four jobs depending on water. Sustainable water management, access to safe water supplies and adequate sanitation improve living standards and social inclusion.

Global pressures

The pressures on global water resources could put 45% of the global gross domestic product and 40% of grain production at risk. By 2050, four billion people will be living in severely water-stressed areas. The financial risks of natural disasters are also increasing. The cost of inaction on key environmental risks can be much larger than investing in mitigation and adaptation measures. The financial impact of risks associated with water can cost five times more than the cost of mitigating actions. Climate change is exacerbating water security challenges by intensifying droughts and changing precipitation patterns, often leading to water-related disasters.

Urbanisation and rapid population growth in several continents will increase the pressure on water security as more water is needed for supply, agriculture, and business. One-quarter of the world’s population lives in 17 countries where extreme water stress is experienced. These countries withdraw more than 80% of their available resources to supply water for agriculture, industries and municipalities. These pressures are not distributed equally around the globe. Urban growth and industrial activities are also the cause of increasing pollution and health risks, as well as the deterioration of water resources.

Water security is at the heart of our society and is, therefore, an important asset for creating prosperity and wellbeing. It is connected to many other sectors that use water as a resource. To operationalise and quantify the concept of water security, it is necessary to develop frameworks that enable water (in)security and the performance of water management activities to be assessed.

How can we assess water security?

Assessment of water security is an essential step for understanding the current situation and identifying challenges, to prioritise and address problems, inform planning, and enable actions to be implemented and monitored.

Because of its broad definition, water security has been interpreted and assessed at different scales over the years. The spatial scale of water security enables water managers to focus on specific problems and challenges. Water security assessment studies have been reported on a global, national, river basin, regional, city, community, and household scale. Although different levels can be considered, they are all connected to improving water security.

Water security at different scales is also responded to within the context of development and geographical challenges. The African continent, for instance, is experiencing a rapid urbanisation process, linked to migration from rural to urban areas and population growth. As a result, many African cities experience water stress, water scarcity, and inequality of access to water services. This has fuelled studies at the city scale and at domestic level to investigate the household experience of water security in urban and peri-urban areas.

Assessing water security over time is equally important. Seasonal effects, climate cycles, seasonal demand and demographic variation will influence and change water security over time. Most assessment frameworks represent a moment or snapshot in time. So it is crucial for future planning to consider the time dependence of water security. This requires innovation related to monitoring, modelling, and trend analysis tools for measuring water security variables. The complexity and different interpretations of the water security concept mean that there is no standard evaluation method. Many approaches and methodologies have been developed that can be used to translate water security into metrics or frameworks that can help evaluate and provide information on how to improve it.

Water security assessment may be guided by different perspectives and disciplines. For instance, in the engineering domain, studies on water security give emphasis to flood protection infrastructure and water supply, while environmental studies focus on water quantity, quality and hydrological variability. Disciplines are also connected to the scale of assessment. Development studies often look at national scales, hydrologic studies consider the catchment scale, and social studies focus on communities.

Approaches such as risk-based, systemic, metabolism approach, Pressure-State-Response (PSR), Driver-Pressure-State-Impact-Response (DPSIR), among others (see Figure 2 ), are ways to contemplate the problem of water security and decide on the considerations and aspects of a subsequent evaluation. These conceptual models are not exclusive and are often combined to provide a comprehensive evaluation framework.

Figure 2

A key part of all assessment methods is that a broad range of indicators is used. Indicators are sometimes considered under certain dimensions or groups, but because of the complexity and overlap between aspects of water security, authors do not always agree in which categories or dimensions the indicators belong. This depends on the definition of water security used, and the scale and context of the study, as well as the assessment methodology itself.

A survey of existing water security assessment frameworks revealed around 115 different indicators. Based on the UN definition of water security, these indicators can be grouped into four, as shown in Figure 3. Often, the indicators are gathered or aggregated into an index system to convey the different aspects of water security.

Figure 3

An important aspect of the choice of indicators is data availability. Data used to quantify water security needs to be up to date, accurate and reliable, and the collection and monitoring process needs to be transparent and verifiable by third parties.

How can we achieve a sustainable water-smart society?

Indicators and assessment frameworks play an important role in describing the complexity of water security and its implications at different scales. The way performance data is stored and accessed is critical to enabling stakeholders to use this information. Accessible assessment frameworks provide governments and decision-makers with tools to develop action plans and make informed political interventions to tackle the key areas that require improvements to water security.

Information is indispensable to good water management, and integral to the development of actions that integrate water, the environment, social considerations, and economic impacts in a balanced way. Enhancing the knowledge base and consolidating the science-policy interface is essential for giving policymakers the best available information when developing water security, addressing policies, and driving innovation.

More information

This article is based on Marcal, J.; Antizar-Ladislao, B.; Hofman, J., ‘Addressing Water Security: An Overview,’ Sustainability 2021, 13, 13702.

It presents findings of a study conducted as part of the WISE CDT, funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Grant No. EP/L016214/1. Juliana Marcal is supported by a research studentship from this CDT.

Figure 1

UN-Water (2013)

Water security is ‘the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against waterborne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.’

Examples of how scale and geography can influence water security

Around the world, different regions face unique challenges as a function of geographical, social, political, and economic characteristics:

  • In Brazil, a country with overall low water stress, São Paulo faced the driest year in its history in 2014, in an unprecedented water crisis, explained not only by climate change, but also by environmental and managerial factors.
  • The USA, a nation rich in natural and economical resources, is vulnerable to natural hazards and extreme weather, with disasters having a huge impact on the environment, agriculture, and people’s livelihoods.
  • Jordan, located in a region with limited water resources, has made efforts to treat and reuse wastewater. Nonetheless, the country also faces – alongside high population growth – a high influx of Syrian refugees, threats and sabotage of water infrastructure and resources, making water security an extremely political challenge.

Jan Hofman is a Professor and Juliana Marcal is a postgraduate research student at the Water Innovation and Research Centre and Water Informatics in Science and Engineering (WISE) Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) at the University of Bath, UK.

Blanca Antizar is European Director of Consultancy at Isle Utilities, UK, and Visiting Professor at the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at University College London, UK.