How Should We Understand “Water Security”?

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by Robert G. Varady, Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, and Christopher A. Scott, School of Geography and Development, University of Arizona

WHAT IF you wake up tomorrow morning, tumble out of bed and into the shower, turn on the faucet—and . . . no water comes out? You throw on some clothes, check the main valve outside your house, and find it in the “on” position. A call to one of your neighbors confirms that they, too, have no water.

Then, checking your iPhone, you learn that the city is unable to deliver water on account of [pick one: (a) extended drought and insufficient supplies in the reservoirs, (b) a massive break in the main, (c) extensive leaks in the aging delivery system, (d) electrical outages in the Central Arizona Project’s pumping system, (e) discovery of bacterial or chemical pollutants in the supply, (f) an explosion forcing closing of the main treatment plant, (g) a financial crisis at the utility, or (h) some other, unexplained reason].

Or WHAT IF the local utility announced that due to some combination of the above factors, it would henceforth provide water only between certain hours of the day? Or on alternate days.

The situation described above is in fact one that prevails in many parts of the developing world, where universal access to safe drinking water is not assured. The reasons vary—from actual water shortages, to inadequate infrastructure, to lack of financial resources, to chronic environmental problems, to most commonly, poor governance. But if the causes differ, the results are broadly familiar to residents across the globe, from Afghanistan to Paraguay to Zimbabwe: too few connections to publicly-supplied water, inequitable distribution, sporadic and unreliable service, poor quality—and many of the resulting problems of poor health, time away from more productive activities, unequal genderdivision of labor to self-supply water, and a host of other secondorder effects.

To paraphrase the famous line from the classic film Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is failure in water security.” “Water security,” part of the larger notion of “environmental security,” has become a much-talked-about concept in recent years. But how should we understand a term that features the word “security,” which is burdened by its military-cum-diplomatic connotation?

Environment and security—and therefore water and security— are closely intertwined. Each affects the other. Environmental processes involving water such as droughts, floods, sewage flows, and groundwater pollution may become serious enough to harm a country, a region, or an urban area. Water-resources infrastructure is vulnerable to damage or disruption from attacks, sabotage,

poisoning, or other purposeful actions. Conversely, some security-protection measures such as militarization, fortification, construction, and patrolling can themselves adversely impact environment, natural resources, and water availability and quality.

This interrelationship is further complicated by a deeper distinction between hard “traditionalist” or “realist” views of national security on the one hand—and softer, alternative, “nontraditionalist” or “post-realist” interpretations on the other hand. Adherents of the realist school of thought see security as a critical part of a nation’s sovereignty and therefore as a fundamental, absolute right, with an obligation to preserve it at any cost. According to this interpretation, arising from age-old competition for territory and resources, “national security” is used to justify maintenance of armies, development of new weapons systems, and manufacture of armaments. In this view, military strength and economic power are the key guarantors of security. This perspective carried the day until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By the early 1980s, although the Cold War still raged, some writers had begun challenging the realist view and, in effect, were “rethinking security.” These non-traditionalists argued for a radical expansion of the concept of security to include social, economic, demographic, agricultural, and natural-resources-related matters. In the forefront of this movement were scholars writing about environmental change. They saw clearly that because security is contingent on stability and peace, environmental problems were critical aspects of national security.

In the years since the initial redefinition of security, the term has broadened to encompass food security and poverty, climate variability and change, energy, and water security. Security has come to be the antithesis of vulnerability. In the case of water, this conception of security emphasizes problems that threaten the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities or their economic security.

So to return to our original question, how should we understand “water security”? We would cast it in the evolving, more holistic view described above. This approach does not ignore raw political and economic power asymmetries, but concentrates instead on peaceful, cooperative solutions to shared problems. It suggests that by overcoming vulnerability and enhancing security, society at large wins.

In attempting a workable definition, we view water as simultaneously productive and destructive. A useful point of departure is the 2007 interpretation offered by D. Grey and C. W. Sadoff in the journal Water Policy: “the availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks to people, environments and economies.”

To allow for the dynamic nature of societal-ecosystem-hydroclimatic interactions that characterize insecurity and uncertainty, we have proposed this definition: Water security constitutes the sustainable availability of adequate quantities and qualities of water for resilient societies and ecosystems in the face of uncertain global change.

So the next time your shower fails, you will understand that what you are experiencing is a breakdown in water security.