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How Were the WISE Scales Created?

The Backstory on the WISE Scales

From Dr. Sera Young, Lead PI

Quantifying Water Insecurity Experiences in Kenya

In 2013, I wanted to quantify experiences of water insecurity among our cohort of pregnant and postpartum women in Western Kenya, but there were no such scales appropriate for this setting. We therefore turned to the work on the measurement of household water insecurity in other settings, including research by Craig Hadley, Wendy Jepson, Jed StevensonAmber Wutich, and other colleagues, to develop a scale suitable for Western Kenya.

woman carrying a water bucket on her head and smiling at the camera. she is standing outside in front of a small structure in a field.

Household Water Insecurity Experience (HWISE) Scale

It soon became clear that cross-culturally equivalent data on water insecurity globally did not exist yet but would have many uses, and would be complementary to existing indicators of water water availability and infrastructure.

In 2015, we began extensive exploratory work to identify water insecurity-related experiences that were potentially applicable to a wide range of geographic and cultural contexts around the world. In 2017-18, in partnership with collaborators from around the globe, we surveyed thousands of households about their problems with water access, use, and reliability in 29 sites located in 23 low- and middle-income countries. We applied advanced analytic techniques to these data to create a final tool of just 12 items that was brief and that could comparably measure household water insecurity across social, cultural, infrastructural, and ecological contexts. Published in 2019, the HWISE Scale is currently being implemented by researchers, NGOs, and government agencies globally.

The list of sites listed in the graphic below are: Pecem, Brazil; Accra, Ghana; Kathmandu, Nepal; Lagos, Nigeria; Honda, Colombia; Bahir Dar, Ethiopia; Singida, Tanzania; Lilongwe, Malawi; Merida, Mexico; Dushanbe, Tajikistan; Arua, Uganda; Kisumu, Kenya; Kampala, Uganda; Acatenango, Guatemala; Kahemba, DRC; San Borja, Bolivia; Beirut, Lebanon; Chiquimula, Guatemala; Baluchastan & Sistan, Iran; Pune, India; Gressier, Haiti; Morogoro, Tanzania; Punjab, Pakistan; Rajasthan, India; Upolu, Samoa; Torreon, Mexico; Labuan Bajo, Indonesia; Cartagena, Colombia; Chakaria & Dhaka, Bangladesh;

Map of 29 Household Water InSecurity Experience study sites across 22 low-income and middle-income countries. Image from:

Brief Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE-4) Scale

As soon as the HWISE Scale was published, we were asked for a shorter version. Using data from the aforementioned 29 sites, as well as new data collected by Oxfam and the Demographic and Health Surveys, we established the validity of a four-item version. The Brief Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE-4) Scale has proven useful when survey “space” is particularly tight.

Individual Water Insecurity Experiences (IWISE) Scale

There is great value in data disaggregated to the individual level because water security can vary widely even within a household. We therefore modified the HWISE Scale to ask about individual experiences (IWISE). This scale was implemented in nationally-representative samples among half the world’s population in 2020 through a partnership between Gallup World Poll, UNESCO, and Northwestern University. Similar analytic techniques were used to validate IWISE. 

The list of countries in the graphic below are: China; Mauritius; Ghana; Congo Brazzaville; Ivory Coast; Uganda; Zambia; Tunisia; Algeria; Bangladesh; Benin; Burkina Faso; Cameroon; Egypt; Ethiopia; Gabon; Guatemala; Guinea; Honduras; Kenya; Mali; Morocco; Namibia; Nigeria; Senegal; South Africa; Tanzania; Togo; Zimbabwe; Brazil; India

Northwestern University and UNESCO have formed a consortium with Gallup Poll to implement the Individual Water Insecurity Experiences (IWISE) Scale to 31 countries in Africa, Asia, Central and South America.