Defining Water Security

In the last several years it has become common to talk about “water security”, “food security” or the “security” of nearly any other resource. This has been an excellent development, because it has elevated discussion of these critical topics to the forefront of mainstream consciousness.

However, what do we mean when we discuss “water security”? Does it mean reliable access to water supplies? Perhaps reliable provision of water? Perhaps sustainable use? Something else?

Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Valley, Israel (background) can satisfy its water needs, but does so by pumping groundwater from a fossil aquifer. Is Ketura water secure? [Photo credit Pat Keys, All Rights Reserved]

Wikipedia defines water security as

“the capacity of a population to ensure that they continue to have access to potable water.”

I think that this definition is too narrow, particularly because it doesn’t include many of the other uses of water that human societies depend on, such as food production and sanitation.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines water security as such:

“…water security represents a unifying element supplying humanity with drinking water, hygiene and sanitation, food and fish, industrial resources, energy, transportation and natural amenities, all dependent upon maintaining ecosystem health and productivity.”

This definition provides a much more inclusive definition, but that creates much more complexity in determining whether water security has been achieved. (The above definition was from p. 47, “Water Security and Ecosystem Services: The Critical Connection”)

Also, if you’re active in the water world, especially online, then you’ve undoubtedly come across Dr. Michael Campana, (among his titles: Professor at OSU, 2011 President of AWRA, etc). In a recent interview he described water security as follows:

“Water security is the capacity of a population to access sufficient water to meet all its needs and to limit the destructive aspects of water. It involves both the productivity and destructivity of water.”

(from “Water Q & A” with Daniel Gilbert of IHP-HELP Centre for Water Law, Science, and Policy, July 4, 2011)… for more by Professor Campana, check out his blog WaterWired.

These Bedouin are watering a tree along the road, using water from a tanker truck. Is this use of water a need or a want? Are cultural needs equivalent to basic needs? [Photo credit Pat Keys, All Rights Reserved]

There are many other definitions out there, but I think some combination of UNEP’s and Professor Campana’s is on the right track. The common thread between the two is the suggestion that water security means sufficient access to meet humanity’s water needs while limiting negative consequences of this water withdrawal.

A few questions:

1. What constitutes a use of water that satisfies a need versus a want? Are grains needed while meat is a luxury? Where is the line drawn between meeting needs and wants?

2. What happens when we cross a threshold where even basic water needs (let alone wants) cannot be met without negatively impacting either other people or other ecosystems?

3. Have we already crossed this threshold?

“Reframing the Water Security Dialogue” by Dan Tarlock and Patricia Wouters* provides some in-depth discussion about the emergence of a

“…perfect storm of food, water and energy shortages – caused by a combination of population growth, triggering new rural and urban demands, and global climate change…”

Although this article is from the perspective of International Law, its relevance is beyond the scope of law only. The concept of a ‘perfect storm’ suggests that the threshold I mentioned above may be nearing.

Moving forward with this blog, I will be engaging the topic of water security from its multiple perspectives and dimensions as identified above. Furthermore, I will explore water security from the perspective of satisfying basic needs, and when it has moved beyond basic needs (e.g. swimming pools), we’re not talking about water security anymore, we’re talking about lifestyle security. I think this difference needs to be clarified since individuals, communities, states, and nations confuse the concepts of satisfying needs and wants. In a world that is experiencing a ‘perfect storm’, the difference between need and want matters tremendously.

The working definition that this blog will adopt is that used by UNEP, repeated here:

“…water security represents a unifying element supplying humanity with drinking water, hygiene and sanitation, food and fish, industrial resources, energy, transportation and natural amenities, all dependent upon maintaining ecosystem health and productivity.”

This is challenging because the definition is inclusive of many topics, and therefore extensive in its implications. However, I think that limiting the discussion to potable water only is far too narrow, and to properly understand water security the interlinkages between food, energy, and other needs must be integrated with potable needs.

The Jordan River is heavily polluted in its lower reaches, pictured above. However, the pollution comes from activities that are satisfying basic needs. How are trade-offs between needs of humans and ecosystems balanced? [Photo credit Pat Keys, All Rights Reserved]

The next post will examine the means by which we can ask “is [X] water secure?” [X] can be a community, nation, or individual. Particularly, the question will be explored from the perspective of a specific location’s water resources, and how to define where and how water reaches that location.

Thank you for reading and expect regular updates of this blog to commence from this point onwards!

* Tarlock, D. and Wouters, P. (2009). Reframing the water security dialogue. J. Water Law. 20 (2-3), 53-60


One thought on “Defining Water Security

  1. This is an important topic, Pat, given that talk of “water security” is only going to increase. Even more important is that we ask “Whose security?” when discussing water. Security for the individual? the family? the community? the basin? the nation? Each level of analysis has different implications. A water-secure country may have many water-insecure people, which brings questions of poverty, equity and political favor. But when we frame water as a national security issue, that has the potentially deleterious effects of stifling public input and closing off access to information, which may create water insecurity downstream. The protection of water data in the name of “national security” is well-known. Take a look at the “constructivist” school of thought on this topic: Barry Buzan and Ole Waever, among others. They argue that “security” is not objective and that it is vital to examine the language and process of “security”.

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