The Human Experience of Water Security and What It Means for Food Security

The Reset the Table essay series is published weekly, describing today’s challenges to global food security and proposing U.S. government responses.

Water insecurity—limitations in water availability, access, use, quality, and reliability— threatens food security, both domestically and globally. While policymakers have long acknowledged the role of water availability for food security, our ability to access and use water has received far less attention. It is high time that food security activities are linked to water access and use—in other words, to the human experiences with water.

Experiences with water and food security are intimately intertwined. The need for water to grow crops and livestock is obvious; we also need water to wash and cook our food, and to do so in a hygienic environment. Water is important for income to buy food, too. Some of us need to bathe to be presentable at work; for others, water is integral to our job functions. More indirectly, but perhaps just as important, the time and money spent procuring water can take away from activities that promote food security, like tending a garden or buying groceries. Given the many connections between water and food security, it is no surprise that as household water security worsens, household food security can, too.

Around the world, at least 4 billion people—more than half the global population—experience water insecurity at least one month per year. This is driven by dramatic changes in rainfall, flooding, and temperatures; the construction of mega-dams and paving of huge swaths of land; and increasing industrial and agricultural water use. Water security has also been limited by poor governance, aging water delivery systems, depleted groundwater supplies, rising water costs, and widespread chemical and microbial contamination.

Limitations to water access and use can lead to serious and wide-ranging consequences. Notoriously, diarrheal diseases are a major contributor to malnutrition and death—in fact, 1.6 million deaths are caused by diarrheal diseases annually. Beyond this, when water quality is questioned, some people turn to sugar-sweetened beverages or heavily processed prepared foods, which can cause obesity. But the consequences of water insecurity are even farther reaching. The women I work with in Kenya, for example, described how problems with water cause incredible anxiety and depression and are the justification for physical violence by their partners. Women seem to experience all of the adverse consequences of water insecurity more frequently than men, perhaps because they are often responsible for water acquisition as well as water-related chores like cooking, laundry, and bathing children.

With growing momentum for the recognition that water security is imperative for food security, now is the time to act. The United States has long been a thought leader in food security; its policies on domestic and global food security, including the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative, have shaped countless lives. The United States could also be a leader in water security policy and practice with these three key actions:

1. Ensure good data. We need current, country-specific data on water access and use. While we have many indicators of water availability, objective measures of water—those based on hydrological maps and satellite data—do not convey what is happening on the ground within households. It is our experiences with water that shape decisions big and small—what we drink, what we grow and eat, how we share water with our neighbors, and if we decide to migrate. Without a sense of the lived, human experiences with water, we are operating on incomplete information.

Experiential measures of food insecurity such as the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Insecurity Experiences Scale (FIES) have been invaluable. Thanks to the FIES, we can track food insecurity across time and space, by gender and age, and measure progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals. Indeed, the FIES has revealed the heterogeneity in food access and use that objective measures of food security obscure.

“It is our experiences with water that shape decisions big and small—what we drink, what we grow and eat, how we share water with our neighbors, and if we decide to migrate.”

Until recently, we have not had a simple, globally suitable indicator of people’s water realities. Liters of water available per capita, for example, is commonly used, but it disguises unevenness in water access and use across states, cities, and even within households. The recent development of the Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) Scale means we can now measure water insecurity with the same resolution as household food insecurity. The HWISE Scale is a short, cross-culturally valid tool to quantify people’s ability to access and use water. The precision of the HWISE Scale means that we can now track how water insecurity varies by gender, age, and urbanicity, just like we can track food insecurity with the FIES. It is also possible to quantify the risk that water insecurity poses for food insecurity and a range of other outcomes.

Nationally representative data on experiences with water access and use will soon be available. This year, Gallup World Polls, UNESCO, and Northwestern University have partnered to measure household water insecurity in 30 countries worldwide, including Brazil, China, India, and much of Africa. Benchmarking household water security with nationally representative data, both globally and annually, is a no-brainer next step. The United States and multilateral institutions have called for such investments and should continue to advocate for higher-resolution and “smarter” water data.

2. Integrate water into food security policy. Policymakers need to consider food security policy in the context of other resource constraints, especially water. This holds true at home and abroad. Families will not be healthy by serving meals that look like the Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate guidelines if the only water for cooking is contaminated with lead. Smallholder farmers will be reluctant to irrigate if their children are going to sleep thirsty. Weight gained thanks to ready-to-use therapeutic foods will soon be shed if there is no water to prevent the transmission of diarrheal diseases.

With data finally available on access and use of both food and water security—via the FIES and HWISE—we can make smarter, more efficient decisions about where resources to mitigate food (and water) insecurity should be allocated. We can know if particular sub-populations, like women, the elderly, or people living with HIV, need targeted support. Pre- and post-measures of both water and food insecurity will tell us about the impacts of interventions and hold implementers accountable to achieve lasting changes in food and water security.

The recent restructuring of the United States Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security is an important step toward the integration of water into food security policy. However, efforts to achieve food security will be most effective when every organization working toward resilience and food security formally recognizes the role of water security in achieving these goals.

3. Set goals for water security. It is time to make water security a goal in and of itself. There is already clear interest by the American people in ensuring safe drinking water abroad, as evidenced by the Water for the World Act. This investment in water for the world should go beyond water for drinking and be expanded to include water security writ large.

Ensuring water security will require renewed attention to protecting water systems from further contamination and depletion as well as strengthening or even overhauling water service providers. An equally powerful tool for ensuring water security is the hard work of supporting good water governance. If political will and public will for water security align, and are reinforced by appropriate legal and policy frameworks, water and food security landscapes are sure to be transformed.

In the next four years, the United States can become a leader in water security through strategic commitments to data, integrated food and water security policies, and setting goals for water security alongside food security. The impact and goodwill that such work can engender is sure to pay dividends by improving the health and economic productivity of millions, if not billions.

Sera Young is an associate professor of anthropology and a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Associate Professor of Anthropology and Fellow, Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University