Defining water security

In this course, we use the term water security a lot and consider when people and ecosystems experience water insecurity, water stress or shortages.

As we heard in the earlier video, people have quite different ideas on what water security means.

Here we consider what we mean by the term water security and present some broad definitions.

Broad definitions of water security

At its simplest, water security can be viewed as:

having enough water, of the right quality and minimising water-related risks

It’s important to not only have enough water, but also have water of an acceptable quality that’s available when we need it.

Another aspect of water security is the importance of minimising the risks of flooding, droughts or the contamination of water sources to people and ecosystems.

These definitions explicitly recognise that water security has a

  • social component (risk to people)
  • environmental component (risk to ecosystems)
  • economic component (risk to economies)

An intrinsic element in water security is the capacity to manage water. Most parts of the world would experience water insecurity if we weren’t able to manage the storage, distribution and quality of our water supplies.

Water security is influenced by the resources available to communities or government authorities to manage water supplies, including investment finance and the knowledge, abilities and institutional structures for water management.

More nuanced views of water security also recognise that insecurity is not always evenly distributed within a country or even a city. Some places have greater water security than others, and some population groups (such as the more wealthy) may have greater water security than others.

Finally, when we think about water security we should embrace a longer-term view than just today and tomorrow. The idea of building resilience to potential shocks (natural or man-made) is a component of water security.

Water security that meets the needs of today but at the expense of future generations will always prove a false economy.

United Nations definition

The United Nations incorporates these various aspects of water security in their definition of the concept. They consider water security to be:

“The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of and 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”

View the UN’s poster on water security

Over to you

  • Was this what you thought water security was about?
  • How do these definitions compare with the answers in the previous step?

Let us know in the comments.


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This article is from the free online course:

The Challenge of Global Water Security

Cardiff University

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