Communal tap (standpost) for drinking water in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa
Boys standing in flood waters in residential area, Kampala, Uganda
Oxygen depletion, resulting from nitrogen pollution and eutrophication is a common cause of fish kills.
After years of drought and dust storms the town of Farina in South Australia was abandoned.
Water security has many different aspects, in clockwise order from top left: a communal tap for water supply in Soweto, South Africa; residents standing in flood water in Kampala, Uganda; the town of Farina in South Australia abandoned due to years of drought and dust storms; water pollution can lead to eutrophication, harmful algal blooms and fish kills


Water security is the basic goal of water policy and water management. A society with a high level of water security makes the most of water’s benefits for humans and ecosystems and limits the risk of destructive impacts associated with water.[1] These include too much water (flood), too little water (drought and water scarcity) or poor quality (polluted) water.[1] A widely accepted definition of water security is: "Water security is the reliable availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks".[2] The term water security has a complex history.[3] It incorporates ideas and concepts related to the sustainability, integration and adaptiveness of water resource management.[3] Some organizations use the phrase "water security" in a different way to talk specifically about water supply and infrastructure issues. Integrated water resources management (IWRM) is a paradigm related to water security. Related concepts include water risk and water conflict.

Policy-makers and water managers seek to achieve a variety of water security outcomes related to economic, environmental and social equity concerns. There are interactions and trade-offs between different water security outcomes.[4]: 13  Water security is critical for meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) because most SDGs cannot be met without access to adequate and safe water.[5]: 4–8  The absence of water security is termed "water insecurity".[6]: 5  Water insecurity is as a growing threat to humanity.[7]: 4  Factors contributing to water insecurity include water scarcity, water pollution, reduced water quality due to climate change impacts, poverty, destructive forces of water and others (for example natural disasters, terrorism and armed conflict).

Improving water security, for example by better managing water resources, is a key factor in achieving sustainable development and poverty reduction.[2] Major factors that determine a society's ability to sustain water security include: the hydrologic environment, the socio-economic environment and changes in the future environment (climate change).[1] Water security risks need to be managed at different spatial scales: from within the household to community, town, city, basin and region.[4]: 11  Policy-makers and water managers also have to think on different timescales, looking months, years or decades ahead to build resilience to local climate variability and extreme events (e.g. heavy precipitation or drought).[4]: 17, 25  Climate change is affecting the type and severity of water risks in ways that will vary from place to place.[8] Research suggests that effects on the water security of different groups in society should be considered when designing strategies for climate adaptation.[9]: 19–21  Many institutions are working to develop climate-resilient WASH services.[4]: 27, 37 [10][11]

Approaches to improved water security include: increasing economic welfare, enhancing social equity, moving towards long-term sustainability and reducing water related risks.[12] These approaches require natural resources, science, and engineering knowledge, political and legal tools, economic and financial tools, policy and governance strategies.[7]: 102  In practice it means that for example institutions and information flows need to be strengthened, water quality management improved, inequalities reduced, investments in infrastructure made and the climate resilience of water and sanitation services has to be improved.

Definitions

Broad definition

The term "water security" is often used with varying definitions.[2][13][14]: 5  It emerged as a concept in the 21st century and is a broader concept than just the absence of water scarcity.[1] When compared to the terms "food security" and "energy security" (which refer to reliable access to food or energy), an important difference with "water security" is that not only is the absence of water a problem but also its presence when there is too much.[2]

Water security has been defined in 2007 as "the reliable availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks".[2]

A similar working definition of water security by UN-Water was provided in 2013 as follows:[15]

Water security is defined here as 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 water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability. [...] The term "water security" offers a common framework and a platform for communication.

— UN-Water, [13]: 1 

World Resources Institute also proposed a similar definition in 2020: "For purposes of this report, we define water security as the capacity of a population to

  • safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socioeconomic development;
  • protect against water pollution and water-related disasters; and
  • preserve ecosystems, upon which clean water availability and other ecosystem services depend."[7]: 17 

Access to WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) services is one component of water security.[4]

Narrower definition with a focus on water supply

Some organizations use "water security" in a more specific sense to refer to water supply only, not the water-related risks of "too much water". For example, the definition of WaterAid in 2012 is focused on water supply issues: "WaterAid defines water security as: Reliable access to water of sufficient quantity and quality for basic human needs, small-scale livelihoods and local ecosystem services, coupled with a well managed risk of water-related disasters.[13]: 5  The World Water Council also uses this more specific approach with a focus on water supply: "Water security refers to the availability of water, in adequate quantity and quality, to sustain all these needs together (social and economic sectors, as well as the larger needs of the planet’s ecosystems) – without exceeding its ability to renew."[16][17]

Related concepts

Water risk

"Water risk" refers to the "possibility of an entity experiencing a water-related challenge (e.g., water scarcity, water stress, flooding, infrastructure decay, drought)".[18]: 4  Water risk is inversely related to water security, meaning that as water risk increases, water security decreases. Water risk is complex and multidimensional. It includes risks from natural disasters such as flooding and drought, which can lead to infrastructure failure and worsen hunger.[19] When these risks are realized, they result in water scarcity or other problems. The potential economic effects of water risk are significant. Entire industries, such as the food and beverage, agriculture, oil and gas, utilities, semiconductor and industries, are threatened by water risk. Agriculture uses 69% of global freshwater, making the industry extremely vulnerable to water stress.[20]

Risk is a combination of hazard (droughts, floods and quality deterioration), exposure and vulnerability.[12] Bad infrastructure and bad governance result in high vulnerability.

The financial sector is becoming more aware of the potential impacts of water risk and the need for its proper management. By 2025, $145 trillion in assets under management will likely be exposed to water risk.[21]

To help mitigate water risk, companies can develop water risk management plans.[19] Stakeholders within financial markets can then use these plans to measure company environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance and identify leaders in water risk management.[22][20] The World Resources Institute has also developed an online water data platform named Aqueduct for risk assessment and water management. China Water Risk is a nonprofit dedicated to understanding and managing water risk in China. The World Wildlife Fund has a Water Risk Filter that helps companies assess and respond to water risk with scenarios for 2030 and 2050.[23] The World Wildlife Fund has also partnered with DWS, which provides business solutions to water risk including water-centric investment funds.[24]

The concept of risk is increasingly used in water security policy and practice but has been weakly integrated with social equity considerations.[25]

There is no unifying theory or model for determining or managing water risk.[4]: 13  Instead, a range of theories, models, and technologies are used to understand the trade-offs that exist in responding to risk.

Water conflict

Ethiopia's move to fill the dam's reservoir could reduce Nile flows by as much as 25% and devastate Egyptian farmlands.[26]
Water conflict is a term describing a conflict between countries, states, or groups over the rights to access water resources.[27][28] The United Nations recognizes that water disputes result from opposing interests of water users, public or private.[29] A wide range of water conflicts appear throughout history, though rarely are traditional wars waged over water alone.[30] Instead, water has historically been a source of tension and a factor in conflicts that start for other reasons. Water conflicts arise for several reasons, including territorial disputes, a fight for resources, and strategic advantage.[31] Water conflicts can occur on the intrastate and interstate levels. Interstate conflicts occur between two or more neighboring countries that share a transboundary water source, such as a river, sea, or groundwater basin. For example, the Middle East has only 1% of the world's freshwater shared among 5% of the world's population.[32] Intrastate conflicts take place between two or more parties in the same country. An example would be the conflicts between farmers and industry (agricultural vs industrial use of water).

Water insecurity

If water security is what good development policy is aiming to achieve, then water insecurity is what policy is trying to avoid or address. Scholarship on water insecurity has grown significantly in recent years and is now a speciality area in its own right with its own scientific literature, its own groupings (e.g. the Household Water Insecurity Experiences Research Coordination Network - HWISE-RCN)[33] and growing influence in the policy arena. The HWISE Scale is the world's first cross-culturally validated scale for assessing and comparing household water insecurity between locations.[34]

Integrated water management and others

Scholars have pointed out that the term water security is "generally taken so broad that it captures all that also goes under headings like integrated, sustainable and adaptive".[12] Terms such as "integrated water resources management (IWRM)" or "sustainable water management" are predecessors. Related terms that are gaining in popularity include water risk, water resilience, water proof, and the water-food-energy nexus.[12]

Some see IWRM as complementary to water security because water security is a goal or destination, whilst IWRM is the process necessary to achieve that goal.[1]

Outcomes

Water security outcomes (i.e. what is happening, or what we want to see happen, as a result of policy and management) can be grouped following the sustainable development framework into economic, environmental and equity (or social) outcomes:[1]

  • Economic: Sustainable growth (e.g. job creation, increased productivity and standards of living) which takes changing water needs and threats into account;[4] may require adaptation of economic activities to cope with seasonal and annual variations in rainfall and surface water levels, including extreme events.[35]
  • Environmental: Sustainability of the water resource, in terms of its quality and availability and the ecosystems services it supports. Loss of freshwater biodiversity and depletion of groundwater are examples of negative environmental outcomes.[36][37]
  • Equity or social: Inclusive services so that different users (people, industry, agriculture) are able to access safe, reliable, sufficient and affordable water, and to dispose of wastewater safely. Aspects of interest include gender issues, empowerment, participation and accountability.[1]

Policy-makers and water managers must consider interactions and trade-offs between the different types of water outcome[4]: 13 

Water security is critical for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) because most SDGs cannot be met without access to adequate and safe water.[5]: 4–8  It is also important for climate-resilient development.[5]: 4–7  Research suggests that water security outcomes for different groups in society should be considered during the design of climate change adaptation strategies.[4]: 19–21 

Scales

Water security risks need to be managed at different spatial scales: from within the household to community, town, city, basin and region.[4]: 11  At the local scale, actors include county governments, schools, water user groups, local water providers and the private sector. At the next larger scale there are basin and national level actors which contribute to informing overarching policy, institutional and investment constraints. Lastly, there are global actors such as the World Bank, UNICEF, FCDO, WHO and USAID. These shape international agendas around water security and can support the design and dissemination of service delivery models promoting more affordable, safe and sustainable services.[4]: 11  Policy-makers and water managers (whether household, industrial, commercial or public sector) also have to think on different timescales, looking weeks, months, years or decades ahead when making plans to maintain or improve water security.[4]: 11 

Understanding the physical geography of a country or region can help develop water security plans and policies at appropriate scales. Within a country, the hydrologic environment may vary significantly – for example, whilst western Ethiopia’s seasonal rainfall pattern is similar to the Sahel, the pattern towards the east of the country is more similar to East Africa (two distinct rainy seasons every year).[38] For climate-resilient water policy and management, the ability to make seasonal weather predictions is important, as is the ability to offer longer term insights into how the localized climate may change in future in terms of year-to-year variability in rainfall and temperature and the probability of extreme events. Seasonal forecasts and longer term climate scenarios produced by climate models are informed by developing knowledge of the atmospheric and oceanic circulation mechanisms that drive patterns of precipitation and air temperature in different areas. For example, understanding how wind speeds and rainfall patterns in the Greater Horn of Africa are influenced by subtropical anticyclones (areas of high pressure) which form in the Indian Ocean (the Mascarene High) and the South Atlantic (the South Atlantic High) may contribute to improved representation of this region in climate models at scales useful for policy decisions on climate adaptation.[39] Understanding how sea surface temperatures correlate with seasonal rainfall at a more localized level may improve seasonal forecasting to better inform water management decisions in Ethiopia’s Awash basin.[40]

Determining factors for water security

Three main factors determine a society's ability to sustain water security:[2]

  1. Hydrologic environment
  2. Socio-economic environment
  3. Changes in the future environment (climate change)

Hydrologic environment

The hydrologic environment is a determinant of water security due to water resource availability, its inter-and intra-annual variability, and its spatial distribution:[2]

  • An "easy to manage" hydrologic environment would be one with low rainfall variability, with rain distributed throughout the year and perennial river flows sustained by groundwater base flows.
  • A "difficult to manage" hydrology is one with absolute water scarcity (i.e. deserts) or low-lying lands where there is severe flood risk; regions where rainfall is markedly seasonal, or high inter-annual climate variability.

For regions with marked seasonality and inter-annual variability it is a challenge to predict the weather as accurately as possible. For example, this has been a big problem in East Africa recently which is now experiencing a prolonged drought.[41] These challenges are made greater by the fact that some seasons are very hard to predict because they are hard to model. This is especially the case in the long-rains season in East Africa which is complicated by difficulty in modelling the long-rains season. This is in part because long rains do not respond in a simple way to large-scale modes of variability such as ENSO and because of interactions with complex topography.[42]

Socio-economic environment

The socio-economic environment is a determinant for water security and refers the structure of the economy, behavior of its actors, natural and cultural legacies as well as policy choices. This factor also includes water infrastructure and institutions, macroeconomic structure and resilience, risk and the behavior of economic actors.[2]

Climate change

Water-related impacts from climate change impact people's water security on a day-to-day basis. They include: increased frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation, accelerated melting of glaciers, changes in frequency, magnitude, and timing of floods; more frequent and severe droughts in some places; decline in groundwater storage, and reduction in groundwater recharge and water quality deterioration due to extreme events.[5]: 4–8  Water resources can be affected by climate change in various ways. The total amount of locally available freshwater available can change, for instance due to dry spells or droughts. There can also be a reduced water quality due to the effects of climate change.

Global climate change is "likely to increase the complexity and costs of ensuring water security".[2] It creates new threats and adaptation challenges.[1] This is because climate change leads to increased hydrological variability and extremes. Climate change has many impacts on the water cycle, resulting in higher climatic and hydrological variability, which means that water security will be compromised.[13]: vII  Changes in the water cycle threaten existing water infrastructure and make it harder to plan future investments that can cope with uncertain changes in hydrologic variability.[1] This makes societies more vulnerable to extreme water-related events and therefore increases water insecurity.[13]: vII 

Climate change is about uncertainty and is an important long-term risk to water security.[14]: 21  On the other hand, climate change must be seen in the context of other existing challenges for water security which include: existing high levels of climate variability at low latitudes, population growth, increased demand for water resources, political obstacles, increased disaster exposure due to settlement of hazard-prone areas, and environmental degradation.[14]: 22  Water demand for irrigation in agriculture will increase due to climate change. This is because evaporation rates and crop transpiration rates will be higher due to rising temperatures.[7]: 4 

Climate factors are a major driver of water security across different scales. Geographic variability in water availability, reliability of rainfall and vulnerability to droughts, floods and cyclones are inherent hazards that affect development opportunities and that play out at international to intra-basin scales. At local scales, the risks to water security associated with weather and climate are strongly mediated by social vulnerability.[9]: 6 

Factors contributing to water insecurity

There are many risk drivers for water insecurity, for example:[7]: 4 [6]: 9 

  • Water scarcity: Increasing water demand in many regions of the world due to population growth, higher living standard, general economic expansion and more irrigation water usage in agriculture (often using inefficient irrigation schemes, instead of more efficient sprinkler or drip irrigation technologies).
    • Increasing water pollution and low levels of wastewater treatment, which is making local water unusable.
    • Poor planning of water use, poor water management and misuse (causing groundwater levels to drop, rivers and lakes to dry out, and local ecosystems to collapse).
  • Climate change (increasing frequency and intensity of water-related natural disasters, such as droughts and floods; rising temperatures and sea levels can lead to contamination of freshwater sources).[6]: 9 

Water scarcity

An important threat to water security is water scarcity. There can be several causes to water scarcity including low rainfall, climate change,[43] high population density, and overallocation of a water source. About 27% of the world's population lived in areas affected by water scarcity in the mid-2010s. This number will likely increase to 42% by 2050.[44] Over-urbanization relative to water resources can create conditions of rapidly deteriorating household water security, particularly where pre-existing water and sanitation infrastructure is only poorly developed. Examples of periodic deep water scarcity that is inducing water insecurity include the ongoing California drought that started in early 2000s and the Cape Town Water Crisis (mid-2017 to mid-2018). In both cases pre-existing vulnerabilities were exacerbated by persistent climatic drought.

Water stress per country in 2019. Water stress is the ratio of water use relative to water availability ("demand-driven scarcity").[45]

Water scarcity (closely related to water stress or water crisis) is the lack of fresh water resources to meet the standard water demand. There are two types of water scarcity: physical or economic water scarcity. Physical water scarcity is where there is not enough water to meet all demands, including that needed for ecosystems to function effectively. Arid areas for example Central and West Asia, and North Africa often suffer from physical water scarcity.[46] On the other hand, economic water scarcity is caused by a lack of investment in infrastructure or technology to draw water from rivers, aquifers, or other water sources, or insufficient human capacity to satisfy the demand for water.[47] Much of Sub-Saharan Africa has economic water scarcity.[48]: 11 

The essence of global water scarcity is the geographic and temporal mismatch between fresh water demand and availability.[49][50] At the global level and on an annual basis, enough freshwater is available to meet such demand, but spatial and temporal variations of water demand and availability are large, leading to physical water scarcity in several parts of the world during specific times of the year.[51] The main driving forces for the rising global demand for water are the increasing world population, improving living standards, changing consumption patterns (for example a dietary shift toward more animal products),[52] and expansion of irrigated agriculture.[53][54] Climate change (including droughts or floods), deforestation, increased water pollution and wasteful use of water can also cause insufficient water supply.[55] Scarcity varies over time as a result of natural hydrological variability, but varies even more so as a function of prevailing economic policy, planning and management approaches. Scarcity can and will likely intensify with most forms of economic development, but many of its causes can be avoided or mitigated.[56]

Water pollution

A broad category of threats to water security is environmental threats (water pollution). These include contaminants such as nutrients, pesticides and herbicides (usually from agriculture), heavy metals (usually from industry), and Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or "forever chemicals", climate change and natural disasters. Contaminants can enter a water source naturally through flooding.

Contaminants can also be a problem if a population switches their water supply from surface water to groundwater or even from one surface source to another. An example of this was the "Flint Water Crisis" in Flint, Michigan during 2014-2019 (Flint had changed its water source from treated water that was sourced from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River).

Water pollution (or aquatic pollution) is the contamination of water bodies, usually as a result of human activities, so that it negatively affects its uses.[57]: 6  Water bodies include lakes, rivers, oceans, aquifers, reservoirs and groundwater. Water pollution results when contaminants are introduced into these water bodies. Water pollution can be attributed to one of four sources: sewage discharges, industrial activities, agricultural activities, and urban runoff including stormwater.[58] It can be grouped into surface water pollution (either fresh water pollution or marine pollution) or groundwater pollution. For example, releasing inadequately treated wastewater into natural waters can lead to degradation of these aquatic ecosystems. Water pollution can also lead to water-borne diseases for people using polluted water for drinking, bathing, washing or irrigation.[59] Water pollution reduces the ability of the body of water to provide the ecosystem services (such as drinking water) that it would otherwise provide.

Sources of water pollution are either point sources or non-point sources. Point sources have one identifiable cause, such as a storm drain, a wastewater treatment plant or an oil spill. Non-point sources are more diffuse, such as agricultural runoff.[60] Pollution is the result of the cumulative effect over time. Pollution may take the form of toxic substances (e.g., oil, metals, plastics, pesticides, persistent organic pollutants, industrial waste products), stressful conditions (e.g., changes of pH, hypoxia or anoxia, increased temperatures, excessive turbidity, unpleasant taste or odor, and changes of salinity), or pathogenic organisms. Contaminants may include organic and inorganic substances. Heat can also be a pollutant, and this is called thermal pollution. A common cause of thermal pollution is the use of water as a coolant by power plants and industrial manufacturers.

Reduced water quality due to climate change impacts

Drinking water quality framework for analysis: Environment (including weather events), infrastructure and management affect drinking water quality at point of collection (PoC) and point of use (PoU).[61]

The impacts of weather on water quality vary by local climate and context, highlighting the complexity of understanding the impact of climate change on water quality and health.[61] There are a diverse range of mechanisms by which weather and weather-related shocks impact on water quality, and the potential ways in which climate change will affect water quality. Weather-related shocks include water shortages, heavy rain and temperature extremes. They can cause damage to water infrastructure from erosion under heavy rainfall and floods, loss of water sources in droughts, and deterioration of water quality.[61] For this reason, climate change threatens the Sustainable Development Goal 6.1 of achieving universal access to safe drinking water.[61]

The impacts of climate change can result in lower water quality through several mechanisms:[5]: 4–39 

  • Heavy rainfall can have a rapid impact on water quality in rivers, that is delayed but still significant in reservoirs. It may also be rapid for shallow groundwater, although more limited in deeper, unfractured aquifers. For example, increases in fecal contamination of water sources is often linked to rainfall.[61] Previous dry periods can lead to microbial contamination of drinking water in piped water supplies.
  • Floods intensify the mixing of floodwater with wastewater and the redistribution of pollutants: Heavy rainfall and flooding can have an impact on water quality. This is because pollutants can be transported into water bodies by the increased surface runoff.
  • Droughts reduce river dilution capacities and groundwater levels, increasing the risk of groundwater contamination.
  • Saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels:[13]: 16 [12] In coastal regions, more salt may find its way into water resources, especially groundwater, due to higher sea levels and more intense storms.Increased eutrophication at higher temperatures: Warmer water in lakes, reservoirs and rivers can lead to more frequent harmful algal blooms in those surface water bodies.[5]: 140  Higher temperatures also directly degrade water quality because warm water contains less oxygen.
  • Permafrost degradation leads to an increased flux of contaminants.
  • Increased meltwater from glaciers releases deposited contaminants and reduces water quality downstream.

Poverty

Low-income countries are at greater risk of water insecurity. This can result in human suffering, sustained poverty, constrained growth and social unrest.[2] Greater rainfall variability (within one year and across several years) is statistically associated with lower per capita incomes: "Not coincidentally, most of the world’s poor face difficult hydrologies".[2]

Improving water security, by managing water resources, is a key factor to achieve growth, sustainable development and poverty reduction.[2] Water security is linked to social justice and fair distribution of environmental benefits and harms.[62] Sustainable development would result in lowered poverty and increased living standards for those most susceptible to the impacts of insecure water resources in the region, especially women and children.

Destructive forces of water

Standing water in Ponce, Puerto Rico, poses health risks for its residents more than a week after Hurricane Maria devastated the island (2017)

Water can be a force for destruction due to its "extraordinary power, mobility, indispensability and unpredictability": this can be either through catastrophic events (tsunamis, droughts, floods, landslides and epidemics) or through progressive events (erosion, inundation, desertification, contamination and disease).[2]

Other

Other threats to water security include:

Approaches

Core elements

There are four key areas of focus: increasing economic welfare, enhancing social equity, moving towards long-term sustainability and reducing water related risks.[12] Approaches to improve water security include natural resources, science, and engineering approaches, political and legal tools, economic and financial tools, policy and governance strategies.[7]: 102 

A sequence of investments in information, institutions and infrastructure is needed to achieve a high level of water security.[1]

Strengthening institutions and information flows

Suitable institutions and infrastructure are needed to improve water security.[2] Institutions comprise law, policies, regulations and organizations as well as informal networks.[1] Sustainable Development Goal 16 is about "peace, justice and strong institutions" and recognizes that strong institutions are a necessary condition to support sustainable development, also with regards to water security.[4]: 35  Institutions govern how decisions can promote or constrain water security outcomes for the poor.[4] In some cases, the approaches to strengthen institutions might involve re-allocating risks responsibilities between the state, market and communities in novel ways. This can include performance-based models, development impact bonds, or blended finance from government, donors and users. These finance mechanisms challenge the traditional separation between the state, private sector and communities.[4]: 37 

Governance mechanisms can reduce water insecurity in transboundary groundwater contexts.[65] They need processes that "(1) enhance context-specific and flexible international mechanisms; (2) address the perpetual need for groundwater data and information; (3) focus on the precautionary principle and pollution prevention, in particular; (4) where appropriate, integrate governance of surface and subsurface water and land; and (5) expand institutional capacity, especially of binational or multinational actors."

Information flows and climate information

Information provides the fundamental underpinning for water security institutions and infrastructure.[1] This enables evidence-based planning and decision-making, monitoring policy effectiveness and accountability of all actors involved in water resources policy and management.

To build climate resilience into water systems across scales, from dams to drinking water, requires investment to ensure access to climate information that is appropriate for the local context.[9]: 59  Climate information products need to cover a wide range of temporal and spatial scales, and respond to regional water-related climate risks.[9]: 58 

For example in the case of Ethiopia, observed climatic conditions in the preceding months can improve and refine seasonal to sub-seasonal outlooks for the July to September rain season. Such information could be valuably used by decision makers in the Awash river basin to allocate water, plan water use and plan emergency responses to the extremes of water scarcity and flooding that are common experiences of the basin.[40]

Improving water quality management

Drinking water quality and water pollution are interlinked but often not addressed in a comprehensive way. For example, industrial pollution is rarely linked to drinking water quality in developing countries.[4]: 32  River, groundwater and wastewater monitoring is important to identify sources of contamination and to guide targeted regulatory responses. WHO has described water safety plans as the most effective means of maintaining a safe supply of drinking water to the public.[66]

Reducing inequalities in water security

Inequalities in water security have structural and historical roots. They can affect people at different scales: from the household, to the community, town, river basin or the region.[4]: 20  Vulnerable social groups and geographies can be identified or ignored during political debates. For example, water inequality is often related to gender in low-income countries, e.g. at the household level, where women are often the water managers but with constrained choices over water and related expenditures.[4]: 21 

Investments in infrastructure

Water infrastructure is needed to access, store, regulate, move and conserve the resource. These functions can be performed by a combination of natural assets (lakes, rivers, wetlands, aquifers, springs) and man-made assets (bulk water management infrastructure, such as multipurpose dams for river regulation and storage and inter-basin transfer schemes).[2] Examples for investments in infrastructure include:[1]

  • protection, restoration and rehabilitation of natural water storage facilities, such as aquifers and wetlands
  • adaptation of existing landscapes to store water (for instance, soil conservation, managed aquifer recharge)
  • built infrastructure (such as distribution networks, latrines, treatment plants, storage tanks and dams).
  • augmenting water supplies through non-conventional sources, including water recycling or desalination.
  • flood protection embankments to manage water's destructive force.

Water security can be improved at a national scale through investment in an "evolving balance of complementary institutions and infrastructure for water management".[2] This is important to avoid unforeseen and even unacceptable social and environmental costs from infrastructure measures that were designed to improve water security.

Improving climate resilience of water and sanitation services

Climate-resilient water services (or "climate-resilient WASH") provide access to drinking water, that is sustained through seasons and through extreme events, and where the safety of water quality is also sustained. To ensure climate resilience for water supplies, consideration of infrastructure and management decisions, at both community and household level, are essential.[67]

The influence of weather on microbial water quality is mediated by management: decisions to protect and treat the water.[67] Where access to the water on-premises is not available, drinking water quality at the point of use (PoU) can deteriorate significantly from the point of collection (PoC), highlighting the importance of household practices around hygiene, storage and treatment. There are interactions between weather, water source and management, and these in turn impact on drinking water safety.

Recommendations to improve water security and increase resilience to climate risks include:[68] More accurate and granular analysis of climate risk as this will help to make climate information relevant to specific users; metrics for monitoring climate resilience in water systems as this will help to track progress and inform investments for water security; new institutional models that improve water security.

Climate resilient policies need to be developed for allocating water and planning for a reduced water availability in future. This requires a good understanding of the current and future hydroclimatic situation and improved accessibility of climate information for staff in government to be able to use it for water management.[69] It can also involve accessing additional water sources, such as groundwater.[69]

Measurement tools

Water security cannot be quantified in absolute terms.[5]: 4–12  Instead, "relative levels of water security in different places can be compared using metrics representing critical aspects of security".[5]: 4–12 

Others have pointed out that water security is very difficult to measure as it is a tool that focuses on outcomes, and the relevant outcomes can change depending on the context and stakeholders involved.[1]

The Global Water Security Index includes metrics on availability (water scarcity index, drought index, groundwater depletion); accessibility to water services (access to sanitation, access to drinking water); safety and quality (water quality index, global flood frequency); management (World Governance Index, transboundary legal framework, transboundary political tension).[70]

Empirical research has challenged the many ways in which water security is quantified, noting the multiplicity of measures[71] and the various scales at which they apply.[34] Meaningful ways of assessing water insecurity, both quantitatively and qualitatively are important and have been developed (e.g. the Household Water Insecurity Experiences or HWISE Scale).[34] Improved metrics which are linked directly to the experience of water insecurity can help to assess the efficacy of water security programs.[71]

Global estimates

The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report found in 2022 that: "Increasing weather and climate extreme events have exposed millions of people to acute food insecurity and reduced water security, with the largest impacts observed in many locations and/or communities in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Small Islands and the Arctic".[72]: SPM-10 

It has been predicted that "at approximately 2°C global warming level, between 0.9 and 3.9 billion people are projected to be at increased exposure to water stress, depending on regional patterns of climate change and the socio-economic scenarios considered."[72]: 4–8 

An assessment in 2016 found that countries of Africa, South Asia and Middle East experience very low water security. Regions with higher water security, despite high water scarcity, include some parts of United States, Australia and Southern Europe, due to good performance of management, safety and quality, and accessibility.[70]

With regards to water scarcity (which is one parameter that can contribute to water insecurity), studies estimate that "currently, between 1.5 and 2.5 billion people live within areas exposed to water scarcity globally".[72]: 140 

Country examples

Australia

Water security in Australia became a major concern in Australia in the late 20th and early 21st century as a result of population growth, recurring severe droughts, effects of climate change on Australia, environmental degradation from reduced environmental flows, competition between competing interests such as grazing, irrigation and urban water supplies, and competition between upstream and downstream users. For example, there is competition for the resources of the Darling River system between Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia.[73] Water reform was first placed on the national agenda at the 1994 Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting when a strategic framework was devised.[74] As the knowledge of surface and groundwater systems grew and the awareness of the significance of sustainable water markets increased, further water reform was agreed to at the 2004 COAG meeting, under a national blueprint known as the National Water Initiative (NWI).

Bangladesh

Water security risks in Bangladesh include a variety of natural climate hazards and the impacts of urbanization as well as those caused from recent climate change such as changes to precipitation patterns and sea level rise.[9]: 45  The country experiences water security risks for its capital, Dhaka as well as for its coastal region.[9] In the capital, monsoonal pulses can lead to urban flooding and subsequent contamination of the water supply.[9] Water risks for people in the coastal region stem from increasingly saline aquifers, seasonal water scarcity, fecal contamination, and flooding from the monsoon and storm surges from cyclones. About 20 million people are affects by those water risks in coastal areas.[9]: 64 

Different types of floods occur in coastal Bangladesh. They are: river floods, tidal floods and storm surge floods due to tropical cyclones.[75] These floods can damage drinking water infrastructure, lead to reduced water quality as well as losses in agricultural and fishery yields.[9] The connection between water insecurity and poverty has been studied in detail for the low-lying areas in the Ganges-Brahmaputra tidal delta plain, which is an example of embanked areas in coastal Bangladesh.[75]

The government is implementing various programs to reduce coastal communities’ vulnerability to water-related hazards. These programs can at the same time improve create opportunities for economic development.[75] Examples include the Coastal Embankment Improvement Project by World Bank in 2013), the BlueGold project in 2012, UNICEF’s Managed Aquifer Recharge program in 2014 and the Bangladesh Delta Plan in 2014.[75] Such investments in water security result in improved reliability, maintenance and operation of the water infrastructure. They can help coastal communities escape the poverty trap caused by water insecurity.[75]

A program called the "SafePani" framework (a cooperation between UNICEF and the Government of Bangladesh) is "investigating how the government allocates risks and responsibilities between the state, the market (service providers) and communities".[9] This program aims to help decision makers to address climate risks through a process called "climate resilient water safety planning".[9]

Ethiopia

Ethiopia has two main rainy seasons per year: in the spring (Belg) and summer (Kiremt).[40] In central Ethiopia, the Awash basin frequently experiences flood and drought events. Given the dominance of rainfed agriculture in the basin (covering around 98% of total cropland as of 2012), changes in rainfall patterns due to climate change can severely compromise economic activities in the basin.[76] A rainfall decrease scenario in the Awash basin could lead to a 5% decline in the basin's GDP, with agricultural GDP standing to drop by as much as 10%.[76] Panel data analysis of novel disaggregated data on crop production was used to assess the direct impacts of rainfall shocks on agriculture.

Partnerships with AwBDO and Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity (MoWIE) have led to the development and uptake of a refined model of water allocation. This can improve water security for the 18.3 million people who live in the basin, as well as for irrigation and industry.[9]

The July–September rainfall signal in Africa is dominated by Sahel rainfall extending east to the "summer regime" of Ethiopia and Sudan.[39] This season is critical for Ethiopia accounting for 50–80% of annual rainfall. However, July–September rainfall can be an important source of variability and uncertainty in other parts of the Greater Horn of Africa. Understanding variability in this season, and how well this is represented in global climate models used for future projections will be critical to development planning in this region. It is safe to say that examining Ethiopia’s rainfall is made more complicated due to its heterogeneity.[39]

Water security was several threatened in Ethiopia in 2022 when the country experienced "one of the most severe La Niña-induced droughts in the last forty years following four consecutive failed rainy seasons since late 2020".[77] More than 8 million people (pastoralists and agro-pastoralists) in the Somali, Oromia, SNNP and South-West regions were reported to be affected by the drought. About 7.2 million people needed food assistance and 4.4 million people needed water assistance. Food prices have significantly increased due to the drought conditions. This means that vulnerable communities in the affected regions in Ethiopia are now experiencing food insecurity as a result of water insecurity.[77]

United States

Water security is projected to be a problem in the future since future population growth will most likely occur in areas that are currently water stressed.[78] Ensuring that the United States remains water secure will require policies that will ensure fair distribution of existing water sources, protecting water sources from becoming depleted, maintaining good wastewater disposal, and maintaining existing water infrastructure.[79][80] Currently there are no national limits for US groundwater or surface water withdrawal. If limits are imposed, the people most impacted will be the largest water withdrawers from a water source.

See also

References

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