Water Insecurity

Water is vital for survival. Humans can only survive about 3 days without drinking water. We use water for almost everything, from the smallest action of brushing your teeth to large-scale industrial and agricultural production. Across the world, access to water is unequal. Water resources are often exploited to provide more fresh water. With rising populations and environmental disasters, the number of people who do not have access to clean and safe water is high. This is water insecurity. Let's take a look in more detail at what water insecurity is, as well as its causes and effects. 

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Table of contents

    Water Insecurity Definition

    To understand the concept of water insecurity a little better, let's define it:

    Water insecurity is the lack of adequate and safe water for a healthy and productive life.

    Water insecurity is occurring globally due to an increase in population, resulting in higher demands for safe water supplies. Industrial and agricultural processes have risen, requiring increased amounts of water; agricultural practices specifically use vast quantities of water that typically go to waste. Water insecurity is essentially a supply and demand issue, with increasing demand and not enough supply. With climate change, this is only going to get worse. Fresh water is finite, meaning it is vitally important that there are safe and effective methods to utilise water sources well, to reduce the risks of water insecurity around the world.

    There are different ways to define and measure different types of water access.

    Water Stress - the access to clean water is below 1700m³/per person/per year.

    Water Scarcity - the access to clean water is below 1000m³/per person/per year

    Absolute water scarcity - the access to clean water is below 500m³ per person/per year.

    Water Poverty Index (WPI) - This is a measurement to show the specific factors that affect access to water, such as resource, environment, capacity, access, and use.1

    Water Insecurity Annual global water consumption between 1900 and 2025 StudySmarterFig. 1 - Annual global water consumption between 1900 and 2025.

    Water Insecurity Facts and Figures

    Water insecurity is an issue globally. The organisation WaterAid2 has produced numerous statistics that demonstrate the issue of water insecurity globally. Let's example just a few.

    • 771 million people do not have access to safe water supplies near where they live.
    • 1 newborn dies per minute due to unsafe water.
    • 31% of schools have no access to clean water.
    • A child under 5 dies every 2 minutes from sickness caused by dirty water.

    Use these figures in your exam answers!

    Causes of Water Insecurity

    Several factors influence the rates of water insecurity. These can be both physical and human. Physical causes of water insecurity are caused by the climate or environment.

    Humans themselves have actively caused problems for water insecurity globally, from an individual level with consumption to industrial levels with pollution. Let's take a look at some examples.

    Physical causes

    Let's take a look at some of the physical causes that lead to water insecurity:


    Around the world, there are different climates which can determine how much rainfall (or lack of it) occurs. The rate of evaporation or evapotranspiration can also be an indicator of how much fresh water is available. Climatic events like flooding or droughts directly impact the availability of freshwater. Natural disasters can also influence water security, for example, tsunamis. With the damning effects of climate change, this will only worsen.

    Water Insecurity Propsed water shortage and stress in Africa in 2025 StudySmarterFig. 2 - Map showing the proposed water shortage and stress in Africa in 2025.

    Salt encroachment

    This most often occurs in coastal regions, where saltwater from oceans contaminates the freshwater supplies on land. With climate change resulting in sea level rise, this will also get worse.


    Rock types can affect the availability of freshwater; rocks can be permeable (which means water can flow through them). Water can flow through these rocks and create aquifers under the ground, where the water can accumulate. This water can either be extracted manually, or it may find its way into other natural water sources3.

    Take a look at the Hydrological Processes explanation to further your knowledge of water cycle processes like evaporation and evapotranspiration.

    Human causes

    Increasingly, humans are the cause of water insecurity.

    Population and demand

    Population rise has led to an increased demand for water. In many parts of the world, with the rise of the middle class and income booms, living standards have improved, which has impacted water consumption patterns. By 2050 the world's population is predicted to have grown to 9.7 billion by 2050. With half the world's population living in urban areas due to increasing urbanisation, it is causing pressure on local areas to provide freshwater, especially in drought-prone areas.

    Industrialisation and agriculture

    Current water usage during crop production is affecting river flow rates, depleting aquifers and degrading wildlife habitats. Agricultural pollution from pesticides and fertilisers also influences water quality. Those involved in industrial processes, such as Transnational Corporations (TNCs), have often been criticised for their environmental impacts. Coca-cola was forced to shut down a $16m factory in India due to the overuse of water supplies that affected the local population's access to water.

    Water Insecurity Global freshwater withdrawal in 2016 StudySmarterFig. 3 - Global sum of freshwater withdrawal in 2016.


    Water can collect in aquifers as it runs through permeable rocks. This water can be abstracted for human use through infrastructure such as wells. However, with over-abstraction, the water supply can run out, especially when over-abstraction is higher than water replacement. This causes water deficits.


    Infrastructure, such as water storage or piping, is important for water provision. If there is a lack of infrastructure provision or poor quality infrastructure, this can impact water quality and levels of pollution.


    In certain nations, for example, those that have corrupt governments or more authoritarian governments, water may be monitored in a way that reduces access for the population. Water can also be used as a method of controlling populations.

    Effects of Water Insecurity

    Having access to plentiful water sources that are safe and clean is vital for the human population. What impacts do water insecurity, water stress, and water scarcity have?

    Development levels

    The development level of a place is strongly linked to its water access and distribution.


    Access to water can be directly related to levels of development, most specifically, human development. Human development essentially describes the improvement of the well-being of a population. Access to clean water can directly contribute to the cycle of poverty; without clean water, people are more likely to get sick and therefore become unable to work. This subsequently affects income and poverty levels.

    Health and education

    Unsafe and unclean water can harbour diseases causing severe illness or even death, such as cholera, typhoid, and even hepatitis, therefore negatively impacting the health of a population. Education is also affected by water insecurity. Children often spend much of their time collecting water or suffering from water disease-related sickness rather than attending school. Those who menstruate are also more negatively impacted. This directly affects human development levels. The Human Development Index (HDI), a key indicator of human development, considers health, education, and the standard of living, therefore showing how water insecurity significantly impacts development levels.

    The Multidimensional Poverty Index can be used as a measure of development. Having access to clean and safe drinking water, as well as sanitation, are key factors within this development indicator. Take a look at our Indicators of Human Development explanation for more!

    Industry and agriculture

    Water insecurity can significantly influence agricultural practices. Without plentiful water supplies (and clean water), crops cannot be maintained well. Animal rearing can also be affected. This can significantly impact the rates of food production. Reduction in food production consequently influences access to food, food prices, and international trade. This can also have an effect on development levels as agricultural production reduces.

    Water conflict

    Water insecurity can cause conflict between nations. These conflicts can be caused by disputes over access to or ownership of water sources. Building infrastructure, such as dams, can also be a cause for conflict. Conflict can also arise when populations are unhappy with water laws or when corrupt nations poorly manage water resources.

    When water supplies are shared by nations over borders, conflicts can occur. An example is the Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan border. In 2008, conflict occurred over a dam that was built in the Kyrgyzstan territory that was blocking the water supply to nearby Tajikistan territory. Some Tajikistan population attempted to damage this dam, causing Kyrgyzstan border forces to intervene. Conflicts in this area are predicted to worsen as pressure on water resources increases.

    Water conflicts can be split into three categories. Water can be a 'trigger', which describes how water insecurity directly causes a conflict. Water can be a 'weapon', for example, a dam could be used as a weapon to flood an area. Water can also be the 'casualty', where specific water infrastructures become weak spots within conflicts or become collateral damage within ongoing conflicts4.


    If there is a decrease in access to water, or the consequential effects on food access, food prices, and agricultural difficulties, people are more likely to leave their place of residence in search of better water security.

    Reducing Water Insecurity

    With water insecurity being such a large issue around the world, solutions are needed to provide better water security globally.


    Certain laws and guidelines have been created that can help to reduce water conflict and issues surrounding water resources. The Helsinki Rules (used by the International Law Association in 1966) provide guidelines for the usage of international drainage basin waters.

    In some countries, water prices are extremely high, which can help to reduce domestic water consumption and save water; for example, in Denmark, water costs 9.32/m3.

    Try to think about the impacts of high water costs! How does this affect those living in poverty?

    Environmental solutions

    Agriculture is a key culprit to water scarcity across the world. Using smart irrigation can help to reduce water usage; using systems that help monitor how much water the soil needs can help to reduce unnecessary waste. Of course, in some areas of the world, this may not be possible due to poverty levels. Other irrigation methods could also be adopted, such as drip irrigation. This provides water irrigation for plants in a more direct way, which helps to reduce waste water and evaporation rates. Water storage of rainwater, particularly in arid regions, as well as recycling polluted water resources, are great methods of reducing water insecurity. Pesticides and fertilisers can influence water pollution levels. Using particular agricultural methods that reduce the need for pesticide use can help to reduce the levels of water pollution, such as conservation buffers or crop rotation.

    Aquaponics is a fascinating method of water conservation whilst also reducing the need for pesticides and fertilisers. Aquaponics demonstrates a closed farming system between the growth of crops and fish production. The fish and plants benefit from each other; plants use the nutrients provided by the fish's waste materials to grow, and plants help to produce clean water for the fish to thrive. Around the cycle, it goes!

    Infrastructural investment

    Building or improving water infrastructure can be vital to increasing water access and reducing water insecurity. Salt encroachment means that water becomes undrinkable. Desalination plants can be vital for helping to remove salt from water supplies. Although costly, the introduction of solar-powered desalination plants proves to be significantly cheaper. Dams block rivers from flowing naturally, meaning they are a great method for freshwater storage. Water transfer schemes are also useful for the provision of water supplies; sometimes, in one country, there can be unequal access to water (surplus vs deficit). With water transfer schemes, this water can be shared. Improving water infrastructure is also important for the provision of fresh water. Sanitation systems and piping are vital for disease reduction.

    Green infrastructure can be very effective in helping water preservation. China and its 'sponge city' method can be a great example of reducing severe flooding (by acting as a sponge), and providing water during droughts.

    It is important to think about the positives and negatives of these methods of reducing water insecurity. Think about the cost of infrastructure or environmental problems such as invasive species!

    Water Insecurity - Key Takeaways

    • From drinking to agricultural production, water is vital for survival.
    • Water insecurity is the lack of access to fresh water.
    • Water insecurity can be understood through measurements such as water stress, water scarcity, absolute water scarcity, and the Water Poverty Index (WPI).
    • There are both physical and human causes of water insecurity.
    • Water insecurity can impact development levels, and agricultural sectors, and also cause water conflict.
    • There are many methods of reducing water insecurity, politically, environmentally or through infrastructure development.


    1. Marie Wurtz et al. A spatial application of the water poverty index (WPI) in the State of Chihuahua, Mexico. 2018. Official Journal of the World Water Council, Water Policy. 2019
    2. WaterAid. Facts and Statistics.
    3. BBC. Water insecurity - the demand for water.
    4. Sandy Milne. How Water shortages are brewing wars. 2021
    5. Fig. 1: Annual global water consumption between 1900 and 2025 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Annualglobalwaterconsumption.jpg) by Sampa (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Sampa) Licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    6. Fig. 3: Global sum of freshwater withdrawal in 2016 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GlobalWaterWithdrawals.jpg) by Sampa (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Sampa) Licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Water Insecurity

    What is water insecurity?

    Water insecurity is the lack of adequate and safe water for a healthy and productive life.

    What causes water insecurity?

    Water insecurity can be caused by physical factors, such as climate, salt encroachment, and geology, and human factors, such as population/demand, industrialisation/agriculture, over-abstraction, infrastructure and politics. 

    What does water insecurity mean?

    Water insecurity means that populations do not have access to safe water.

    How can water insecurity be improved?

    Water insecurity can be improved through political change (laws or policy), environmental solutions (smart irrigation, water storage, reduction in pesticides), and investment in infrastructure (desalination plants, dams and water transfer schemes). 

    How does water insecurity affect quality of life?

    Water insecurity directly affects human development, which measures quality of life and human well-being. Water insecurity affects health rates (disease through dirty water), and education rates (disease, poor sanitation, affecting those who menstruate more harshly). Directly affects the cycle of poverty - sickness caused by dirty water means people are unable to work and earn a stable income. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is water stress?

    What is water scarcity? 

    What is absolute water scarcity?


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