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A WISE(r) Way to Measure Water Insecurity

IPR anthropologist’s work set to revolutionize how we understand water access and use globally

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When we talk about water security, however, we talk about how water manifests in people’s lives. We’re talking about people having access to water for their basic uses and in a reliable way.”

Sera Young
IPR anthropologist

woman with a group of men near a water tank
IPR’s Sera Young visits with Kajiado county water officials in Kenya to learn about ongoing water issues.

In late March, IPR anthropologist Sera Young took part in a deluge of activity around her foundational work on measuring water insecurity.

On World Water Day, March 22, the World Health Organization and UNICEF released a list of 15 gender-informed, priority recommendations to enhance the U.N.’s current indicators on measuring progress towards its sixth Sustainable Development Goal, or SDG 6, on clean water and sanitation. To understand who has experienced water insecurity by age and gender, WHO and UNICEF recommend using the globally validated Individual Water Insecurity Experiences, or IWISE, Scales, Young and colleagues developed.

That same day, Young participated virtually in a wide-ranging discussion on the role water can play in promoting global peace and development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank. Young traced how her study of food insecurity in Kenya led to many conversations about how water affected women and children, including one with a woman who went into premature labor while fetching water. These experiences pushed her to seek out a more complete measure of water insecurity, eventually morphing into the decade-long project of developing the WISE Scales.

During the webinar, Young also previewed new findings on water insecurity drawn from the latest Gallup World Poll in 38 countries and a further two collected by national governments. The Gallup nationally representative poll surveyed an additional seven countries beyond the 31 surveyed in 2021, which in combination with the data from the national governments captures the experiences of over 40,000 people in low-, middle-income countries. The poll relies on questions from the WISE Scale to capture holistic experiences beyond water infrastructure or quality, allowing researchers to compare data across countries, and the accompanying report offers a wealth of data on individual countries.

Five days later on March 27, Young sat in Gallup’s London headquarters in the Shard to unveil a report, “Measuring Human Experiences to Advance Safe Water for All,” covering the real-world impact of the WISE Scales. She highlighted government action in Mexico and media coverage in Australia that have led to major changes in people’s lives.

“We are at an inflection point in the way the world thinks about one of our most precious resources,” Young said. “I’m so proud of the role that the WISE Scales have had in elevating the voice of the people in research, policy, and action for water security.”

Developing the WISE Scales

Over the past 10 years, Young has collaborated with colleagues from around the globe to develop and validate scales that could easily but reliably measure lived experiences with water in any setting. Eventually, they landed on 12 simple questions to capture universal problems with water. For example, how frequently does a person worry about water? How often can they not wash their hands because of water issues?

The WISE Scales grew out of Young’s experiences as a budding assistant professor. She was in Kenya to understand the impact of food insecurity when it became clear that food was not the only issue. She recalled how one woman told her about going into premature labor because she had to walk very far to fetch water. There was a water tank at her house, but her mother-in-law wouldn’t let her use it.

“This story is a great example of how measuring infrastructure—the most common water indicator—doesn’t give us the whole picture,” Young added.

“We need to know about how water manifests in people’s lives,” Young continued. “The WISE scales provide a more accurate way to know if people have reliable access to water for basic needs.

Practically, the scales capture experiences with water access, use, and reliability in a handful of succinct questions. The researchers have developed four different versions so far. The Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) Scale assesses the frequency and severity of household experiences, and the IWISE Scale does the same for individuals. They ask 12 questions that take three minutes to answer. Additionally, one-minute versions exist (HWISE-4 and the IWISE-4) that only assess frequency.

All four scales allow researchers to confidently compare data across different countries, as well as across social, cultural, infrastructure, and ecological contexts.

Using the WISE Scales to Improve Water Insights and Poverty Globally

WHO and UNICEF are addressing a gender gap and a policy puzzle for integrating gender into their priority recommendations for indicators of progress on SDG 6. The current “gender-blind” indicators mean it is impossible for policymakers and others to see how a person’s gender might impact their access and use of water.

“Time and time again, we see that water is inequitably distributed within communities and even within households” Young said. “These inequities can remain invisible when we only measure water at the basin or even household level—so we need to measure it the individual level, too.”

Increased understanding of gender disparities gleaned from the collected WISE data, like those presented in an interactive infographic that Young worked with CSIS to create, can lead to some surprising findings. Young offers that women log billions of hours more than men every day fetching water for their families. In some places, like Cameroon, women are far more water insecure than men. But in other parts of the world, like in Ethiopia, men have higher WISE scores than women.

“Such findings disrupt traditional thinking,” Young said.

Beyond revealing gender disparities, the WISE Scales offer an invaluable tool to help define the burden of global water insecurity and to understand how it plays out in different countries.

The infographic and associated one-page country reports provide key data on water insecurity for 40 countries, including the percentage of a country’s total population that is water insecure and differences by urban/rural areas, household income, and gender.

Data collected via the WISE Scales are also providing crucial knowledge to communities around the world to detail personal and household experiences with water—and thus lead to change.

Collected Data Becomes Transformative Knowledge

The water shortages and extreme drought plaguing countries from Australia and India to Mexico and South Africa speak to the growing urgency of understanding how water insecurity affects people and the need for better measurement. Currently, more than 100 organizations, including Oxfam, Helvetas, the World Bank, and charity: water, have used the WISE Scales in at least 55 countries.

WaterAid CEO Tim Wainwright underscored the urgent need for such data at the March 27 release of the report, “Measuring Human Experiences to Advance Safe Water for All,” noting how “Water is at the heart of how climate change affects the human race.”

Wainwright called on those at the event to use the WISE Scales, “a fantastic tool,” to better communicate and quantify how not having enough water affects people.

“Can the WISE impact scales help you do that? Because I think they can. So with that, let's make a difference,” he said.

Young adds how governments, like Nuevo León in Mexico, are using it proactively to document how their citizens fare in the face of water insecurity, and how they can act to head off future water crises.

An Australian aboriginal community in Walgett, New South Wales, has used it to garner national media attention, which in turn caught the attention of lawmakers who visited the community and made changes. The data community members collected showed that 44% of residents experienced water insecurity, far higher than the 1% in the rest of Australia.

Plus, Young points to how water links to so many other topics and sectors.

“WISE data show that if you are water insecure then you are two to three times as likely to be food insecure as well,” Young said at the March 22 CSIS event. “To put it another way, you can’t care about food insecurity without caring about water insecurity.”

Next Steps

“We are overdue to have data on water insecurity globally,” Young said. “By the end of the year, I’d like to see us have nationally representative data on experiences with water insecurity in 140 countries —the same 140 that Gallup polls annually on experiences with food insecurity.

The data are valuable, she continues, because they tell us how common and severe water insecurity is, that is, where progress is being made towards Sustainable Development Goals, and where it is not. The data can help distribute resources to where they are most needed and inform decisions in other sectors like humanitarian crises, conflict, and economic prosperity.

The stakes for addressing water insecurity are high and include opportunities to improve peace, security, and economic development in countries around the world.

“In the WISE scale data we see the ingredients for development and the ingredients for peace in the information that the scale enables us to unpack,” CSIS senior fellow David Michel noted during the March 22 webinar.

Young added, “We have come an extraordinary way in bringing unheard voices to the water sector. I am looking forward to build on that momentum with folks around the world—in governments, universities, NGOs and the private sector—to improve the water security of those who need it most.”

Published: April 4, 2024.