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Published on: 18/11/2014

In recent years, water security has gained traction as a concept that encapsulates many of the competing objectives of water management and as one part of the water, energy and food nexus[1].  As a result there has been increased use of the term water security across a wide range of disciplines in academic literature, policy-related documents[2] and the media.  While this widespread interest and buy-in to water security concepts is welcome, somewhat perversely it seems to have unduly raised the expectation that water security can be achieved for all water uses and users no matter the context.  The hydrological[3] reality in areas of increasing water scarcity (i.e. increasing imbalances water demands and sustainable supply) is that improving the levels of water security of water users or uses in one part of a catchment or river basin may have the trade-off or externality of reducing levels water security of other water users or uses locally or in downstream areas. Or put another way, achieving and sustaining high levels of water security for all water users and users may often be more of an aspiration than something that can be easily achieved and, as important, maintained.

It is a major concern that potential hydrological trade-offs or externalities[4] are often overlooked or ignored in part because policies and practices are based on more on perceptions (or mental models) than evidence[5].  Whilst these perceptions maybe correct in some instances, in others, they are incorrect e.g. the widely-held perception that planting trees can significantly increase local rainfall and reduce the damage caused by large floods[6]. 

Some have highlighted the lack of hydrological knowledge as a reason for the limited attention given to hydrology in the ever-increasing academic literature relating to water security[7].  Our view is that a lack of hydrological knowledge should rarely be a limitation given the extensive body of knowledge that has been accumulated over the 350 years since hydrology was first treated as a science[8].   It seems that more often than not the biggest problem (or rather challenge) is that hydrological knowledge isn’t being used and, as a consequence, limited consideration is given to even basic hydrology (see Box 1).

Box 1. Mini-hydrology 101

Some hydrological basics that are often overlooked or ignored:

  • Water is a renewable resource. Although highly variable is space and time, rainfall can be relied upon to replenish aquifers, rivers and reservoirs.
  • Water is in an almost continuous state of flux. It is constantly moving and changing phase through processes that include: evaporation, condensation, precipitation, infiltration, percolation and runoff.
  • Hydrological systems are interconnected. Changes in land and water management in one part of a hydrological system may have significant impacts elsewhere in the system.
  • Water balances are based on the law of conservation of mass. Water is not created or destroyed in any of the natural processes of the hydrological cycle. So water is never really lost from the hydrological cycle.
  • Distinctions between consumptive and non-consumptive water uses are important. A consequence of a consumptive water use is that, for a specified domain, re-use or recycling of water is not an option.
  • A significant proportion of urban water use is non-consumptive. In some cases, this non-consumed returns to the environment (with or without treatment) and is reused locally or downstream.

There is no doubt also that hydrologists have also been part of the problem. In part because they easily become engrossed in the inherent complexity and variability of hydrological processes and many (possibly most) hydrologists prefer to work in a physical science silo i.e. they don’t like to engage too much or too often with politicians, civil society, the media and so on. However, there positive signs that this is changing. Increasingly hydrologists are recognising the benefits of engaging actively with stakeholders especially when working at the local level in, for example, ungauged catchments[9].  But there is still the nonsense of the historical division between hydrologists whose main interest is groundwater and those whose main interest is surface or atmospheric water. We could go on!

Box 2. Water security definitions

Water security definitions include:

  • “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.” (Grey and Sadoff, 2007)
  • “Water security means having sufficient water, in quantity and quality, for the needs of humans (health, livelihoods and productive economic activities) and ecosystems, matched by the capacity to access and use it, resolve trade-offs, and manage water-related risks, including flood, drought and pollution.” (Mason and Calow, 2012)

There is a general consensus that water security is an important goal not just for water resources management and water services delivery but also for broader development.  However, there is no agreement on how we should define water security[10].  To date, the Grey and Sadoff definition[11] (see Box 2) is one most widely accepted definitions of water security. It has many attributes but, unlike the Mason and Calow definition[12] (also in Box 2), it does not fully recognise the broader multifaceted and multi-dimensional meaning that the term water security has gained through regular use in policy documents and academic literature. Box 3 lists some of the broader dimensions and characteristics of water security. Given the lack of an agreed definition of water security, it can be useful to consider water security as being the antithesis of water scarcity (i.e. water security and water scarcity are “two sides of the same coin”)[13].  By recognising the relationship between water security and water scarcity, it becomes obvious that strategies that have been developing for coping with water scarcity[14] will also deliver improved levels of water security.

Box 3. Dimensions and/or characteristics of water security

Dimensions and characteristics of water security include:

  • Water security is more than the physical availability of water given that many social, legal, institutional and economic factors can have a major influence on accessibility to water resources, supply systems and services;
  • Equitable access to water of an acceptable quality is an important dimension of water security not least because water security can vary enormously in time and space i.e. some users may experience low levels of water security while their neighbours have a high level of water security;
  • Competition and conflict over water often leads to low levels of water security for some or all water users and use;
  • It not uncommon for water users have a high level of water security for some uses (e.g. WASH) but low security for others (e.g. irrigation).  In some contexts it is physically impossible, prohibitively expensive or politically unacceptable to achieve and maintain a high level of water security for all water users and uses;
  • Particularly in areas of increasing water scarcity, integrated multi-sectoral approaches to water resource management and water services delivery are needed to achieve a high level of water security in many contexts;
  • Policies and interventions aimed at improving water security can impact negatively on the water security of other water users and users (in time and space) e.g. watershed management interventions can improve the water security of WASH or irrigation users or uses but only with the trade-offs of reduced environmental flows and/or reduce availability of water downstream;
  • Water flows to power and money.  In most contexts, richer and more powerful social groups tend to have higher levels of water security than relatively poorer less powerful social groups;
  • Selecting water security indicators and levels, norms or standards relating to these indicators is a political process that is often contentious.  In addition disputes often arise over water security monitoring methods, sampling frames, quality control methods, levels of transparency and accountability and so on.

A somewhat alarming conclusion of the recent book “Water security: principles, perspectives and practices” is that the term water security has too many disciplinary, sectoral, ideological and geographic roots to be conveniently pinned down by a single definition[15].   There is no doubting that reaching a consensus on a definition of water security may be a tough task but, for practical purposes, agreed or at least “working” definitions are needed because they underpin the selection of indicators and the establishment of monitoring systems.  Rather stating the obvious, if water security itself is going to become an important metric, it must be possible to measure, monitor and benchmark it with some confidence.   An additional concern in this respect is that some governments in South Asia are already defining water security on the basis of whether or not water users have access to more than one water source and/or functioning water-supply system[16].  This is an interesting and pragmatic strategy given typical frequencies of water source and supply system failure.  However actual implementation of this is based on departmental asset infrastructural asset registers and, as a result, no account of whether water services are actually being delivered to users.   So, it is possible for users to be logged as having an acceptable level of water security even though water sources may have failed and public water supply systems may be defunct.

There is also a risk of confusion resulting from government line departments, agencies and/or NGOs laying claim to the concept of water security and each setting up their own “uni-sectoral” water security frameworks that apply to just one category of water use or user[17].  This may arise if different water security frameworks and definitions are used in the same area as part of an integrated approach to managing water and delivering a range of services.  It is also important to note that, given mutual interdependencies, achieving and maintaining a certain level of water security of any one category of water use requires a comprehensive understanding of: 1) Utilisable water resources (in space and time); 2) Trends in water demands, access and use of all categories of water use (in space and time); and, 3) Levels of inter-sectoral competition (in space and time) and/or levels of environmental sustainability (see Box 4) [18]. This understanding is particular important whenever planning includes making tough choices regarding the levels of water security of different users or uses of water.

Box 4. Ten golden rules of basin planning (Pegram et al, 2013) 

  1. Develop a comprehensive understanding of the entire system.
  2. Plan and act, even without full knowledge.
  3. Prioritize issues for current attention, and adopt a phased and iterative approach to the achievement of long-term goals.
  4. Enable adaptation to changing circumstances.
  5. Accept that basin planning is an inherently iterative and chaotic process.
  6. Develop relevant and consistent thematic plans.
  7. Address issues at the appropriate scale by nesting local plans under the basin plan.
  8. Engage stakeholders with a view to strengthening institutional relationships.
  9. Focus on implementation of the basin plan throughout.
  10. Select the planning approach and methods to suit the basin needs. 

To summarise, an important consequence of the interconnectivity of hydrological systems and the law of conservation of mass is changes in land and water management in one part of a river basin can and often do impact negatively on water users and uses in other parts of the basin. To date policies and practices aimed at achieving and maintaining acceptable levels of water security in a specified domain only take limited account of these hydrological externalities. Reasons for ignoring or overlooking hydrological and other externalities are complicated but clearly the solution lie in part in: evidence-informed planning processes[19] and making better use of hydrological knowledge and information. However, we know well that simple communication of evidence alone is unlikely to change widely-held hydrological beliefs that evidence shows to be wrong[20].  Far better communication of hydrological evidence is required along with much better framing of debates related to the achieving and maintaining acceptable levels of water security for all water users and uses[21] [22]. 


Box 5.  More or better communication? (Hovland 2005)

It is sometimes assumed that we need more communication of evidence within the international development field. This is not necessarily true. More communication can simply end up as a form of ‘pushing knowledge down a hosepipe, in the hope that at least some of it will come out the other end’.  The reality is often that we often need is far better communication of evidence.

So where does IRC stand in relation to water security?  First, IRC believes that achieving and maintaining an appropriate level of water security is central to delivering WASH services that last especially in areas (or even quite localized “hot spots”) of increasing water scarcity. Second, IRC recognises that the multi-dimensional nature of water security means that achieving and maintaining desired levels of water security for all water users and uses requires more than addressing issues relating to the physical availability of sufficient water when and where it is needed – but of course, physical availability of water of an acceptable quality is very important. Third, IRC recognises that there are often natural limits on available water resources and/or the capacity of water supply infrastructure – in such cases it may not be possible to achieve and maintain high levels of water security of all water users and uses without, for example, affecting environmental sustainability. Fourth there is still much to done in terms of practical mainstreaming of water security concepts into, in particular, integrated approaches to delivering multiple water services (i.e. delivering a range of water services and not just WASH services). Important first steps include recognition that:

  1. There are different levels of water security that will, in many contexts be highly variable in space and time. Or put another way, water security is not necessarily a binary or normative concept (i.e. it is not a case of having or not having water security);
  2. Similar to levels of water services, levels of water security can be conceptualised as a ladder[23];  
  3. When addressing water security in a specified domain (e.g. a district or a river basin), it not necessary to have a full understanding of hydrological system, the water supply, storage and treatments systems and the multiple demands of different water users and uses before acting … a long as an adaptive approach is used.  The key here is cycles of water accounting and auditing (or similar) to generate robust information that is used when adapting and improving strategies and plans iterated over a period of time[24];
  4. Policies and programmes aimed at improving the water security of some or all water users and uses can and often do have negative externalities or perverse outcomes especially in areas or localities in which water scarcity is increasing.   


[2] See Cook, C. and Bakker,K. 2013. Debating the concept of water security. In Lankford,B., Bakker,K., Zeitoun,M. and Conway,D. (Eds): “ Water security: principles, perspective and practices”. Earthscan.

[3] Throughout this blog, we use the term hydrology in the sense that it also includes hydrogeology.

[4] See e.g. Batchelor et al. 2015. Do water-saving technologies improve environmental flows? J. Hydrology.

[6] See e.g. Calder,I.R. et al.  2007.  Towards a new understanding of forests and water.

[7] See e.g. Zietoun,M. The web of sustainable water security. In Lankford,B., Bakker,K., Zeitoun,M. and Conway,D. (Eds): “ Water security: principles, perspective and practices”. Earthscan.

[8]  Pierre Perrault (1611 to 1680) is usually credited as being the first person (or at least the first European) totake an empirical approach to understanding the hydrological cycle  Note however that the earliest known hydrological measurements date back to 3500-3000 BC when nilometers were first used water levels of the Nile.

[11] Grey D and Sadoff.  2007.  Sink or swim? Water security for growth and development, Water Policy, Vol 9.

[12] Mason,N. and Calow,R. 2012.   Water security: from abstract concept to meaningful metrics. ODI Working Paper 357

[13] Mason and Calow (2012) make the point that water security is an inherently desirable goal of water resources management whereas water scarcity is something to be averted or avoided.

[14] e.g. see

[15] Lankford,B., Bakker,K., Zeitoun,M. and Conway,D. (Eds): “ Water security: principles, perspective and practices”. Earthscan.

[17] e.g.  WaterAid have developed a their own water security framework and definition.  The WaterAid approach is not intended not for all water users.  Instead, it is centred on the provision of water for basic human needs while acknowledging that other water uses (e.g. agriculture, industry, livelihoods, ecosystem services and the environment) are important and closely interlinked.  More details can be found in a well written report:

[18]  Pegram, Y. Li, T. Le. Quesne, R. Speed, J. Li, and F. Shen. 2013. River basin planning: Principles, procedures and approaches for strategic basin planning. Paris, UNESCO.

[19] See e.g.

[21] See e.g. Hovland,I. 2005.   Successful Communication: A Toolkit for Researchers and Civil Society Organisations.

[22] See e.g. Kahneman,D. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin Books

[23] See e.g.

[24] See e.g. Rao,S. 2014. Problem-driven iterative approaches and wider governance reform.  GSDRC.


At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

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