How to measure water security?

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Haitians queue for water in Carrefour-Feuilles Slum

Photo: Figure 1. Haitians queue for water in Carrefour-Feuilles Slum. The experiential scale-based metrics attempt to capture other sides of water (in)security, such as the burden associated with queuing for water. Photo by United Nations Photo

This blog is a summary of a published open access article: Octavianti and Staddon (2021). A review of 80 assessment tools measuring water security. WIREs Water.

Adapted by Dr Thanti Octavianti

There are many definitions of water security. It could simply refer to water for domestic use, such as for drinking and cooking, or it could mean water in every aspect of life, including water for the environment, water for economic development and water associated with hazards, such as floods and droughts.

These diverse conceptions also lead to different methods to measure water security. Chad Staddon and I systematically reviewed 107 publications proposing methods and tools to measure water security, and we found:

  1. There are two dominant research clusters in the field:
    • metrics that are based on the physical availability of water with measurement ranging from municipal to global scale and usually expressed in a volumetric unit. We group them as “resource-based metrics”.
    • metrics that are based on people’s experiences with water, usually measured at individual or household level and asking, for example, if one has worried about water or if one has had to change their plans because of their water situations. We group them as “experiential scale-based metrics”.

The former cluster is bigger compared with the latter, which is emerging.

  1. Both clusters are quite distinct in their characteristics. For example, resource-based metrics were mostly formulated by natural scientists and engineers. Domains of measurement vary from metrics solely focusing on freshwater resources to some with a very broad focus (to include water-related disasters, biodiversity, among others).

On the contrary, most experiential scale-based metrics have strong social science elements in them. Water supply and hygiene and their relations to well-being are the main domains being measured.

By understanding the landscape, we argue that the more local the level of measurement and the more specific water domains included, the more meaningful and actionable recommendations would be.

Finally, measuring water security is a resource-intensive process. Selecting which approach to use will be based on the purpose of the investigation and scholarly interests, and we hope this paper would be able to help researchers and practitioners make some informed choices when developing or using a water security metric.

Short bio:

Dr Thanti Octavianti is a Lecturer in Applied Geography, Department of Geography and Environmental Management, UWE Bristol. She is a social scientist with research interest in water security measurement and urban flood resilience.

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