Water security: Old concepts, new package, what value?

Article publicat al web del Global Water Forum el passat 20 de novembre de 2012, pels doctors Jonathan Lautze i Herath Manthrithilake, de l’International Water Management Institute, Sri Lanka.

Water security has come to assume an increasingly prominent position in the international water and development community in recent years. Staff at the World Bank have explained that water security is critical for growth and development.1 The importance of water security for the sustainable development of countries like China has been recognized nationally.2 Water security has been at the heart of high profile negotiations on, for example, a Cooperative Framework Agreement in the Nile Basin.3 Finally, academia and other development actors have also placed prominent emphasis on the concept.4

What is missing?

Despite the elevated status that the term has increasingly acquired in policy documents and development discourse, the concept of water security remains largely unquantified. There are several benefits to translating water security into numerical terms. First, it can encourage clarity and common understanding of a concept around which there currently exists substantial ambiguity. Second, it can help to foster discussion and debate on scales and thresholds for evaluating the presence, absence or degree of water security. Third, it can help to assess the extent to which the concept is really being achieved on the ground in different locations. Our recent paper devises an index that quantifies water security at a country level in order to encourage a more concrete understanding of the term.5

Quantifying water security

Table 1. Water Security Indicator Framework.

The paper identified five key components of water security and translated them into numerical indicators that were applied across the countries of the Asia-Pacific. Based on several definitions of the concept, a conceptual framework was developed that contains the following components: basic needs, agricultural production, the environment, risk management, and independence (Table 1). Using publicly accessible data, country scores in each component were developed and placed on a 5-point scale. To generate a score for overall water security, results for each of the five components were summed, producing a 25-point scale. Just as 5-point scales indicate the degree of water security achieved in individual components, the broader score on a 25-point scale indicates the degree of overall water security in a particular country.


Figure 1: Overall Water Security Index

Comparing the strength of overall water security scores across countries reveals substantial dispersion (Figure 1), with scores ranging from very poor (less than 10) to very good (greater than 20). Noticeably, even in those countries that appear quite water secure, there still exist weak spots. For example, despite Australia’s overall high level of water security, the specific component of risk management appears only mediocre, and Japan appears limited by its poor score in water security for the environment. While the results might spur few surprises, if presented in countries where local knowledge may already exist on water sector strengths and weaknesses, a primary benefit of applying a water security framework such as this is to understand how water secure countries are in relation to one another. A secondary benefit, if the framework is re-applied in the future, is monitoring the rate and direction of change in water security to enable comparison over time. The complete paper ranks countries according to their water security scores, and provides country scores in individual components.5

So what?

An important goal of this paper was identifying some of the key issues inherent in assessing water security in order to spur more concrete discussion on what the concept truly means. One fundamental issue raised by the methods employed relates to assessment of relative vs. absolute water security. More broadly, the development and application of the approach utilized in this paper has helped clarify the notion of water security, and prompts at least two overarching suggestions for understanding the meaning and practical utility of the concept. A first suggestion for reaching a more common understanding of the concept is to move beyond qualitative definitions to make a list, or finite set of criteria, on which water security is determined and evaluated, as proposed in this paper. While the criteria utilized in this paper may not be perfect, it is believed they mark a valuable step toward arriving at a clear meaning of the concept. A second suggestion is to clearly distinguish between means and ends. Interpretations of water security could benefit from clear focus on the end of water security—not the means to water security, and not the ends beyond water security.

Final thoughts

The approach utilized in this paper constitutes an initial effort to assess the central components of water security and identify some of the major issues in undertaking such an exercise. In terms of the issue posed at the outset about the added value of introducing the concept of water security, the results are mixed. While focusing on five priority issues related to water management is important, the benefits of bundling these five issues under the umbrella of a new paradigm are not immediately apparent. On the contrary, with so many other new concepts related to water permeating discourse (e.g., IWRM, water governance, hydropolitics), there may be confusion, scepticism and even fatigue associated with introduction of another new term that is not concretely defined yet which is supposed to comprise a panacea for water managers.


1. Grey, D., and Sadoff, C. (2007). Sink or Swim? Water Security for Growth and Development.  Water Policy 9: 545–571.
2. Liu, B., Mei, X., Li, Yu, Yang, Y. (2007). The Connotation and Extension of Agricultural Water Resources Security. Agricultural Sciences in China 6 (1): 11-16.
3. WaterLink (2010). Nile Basin Initiative Deadlock. July 6, 2010. Available on-line: http://www.waterlink-international.com/news/id1230-Nile_Basin_Initiative_Deadlock.html.
4. Briscoe, J. (2009). Harvard Water Initiative: Science Technology and Policy for Water Security. Available on-line: http://www.johnbriscoe.seas.harvard.edu/research/Harvard%20University%20Water%20Security%20Initiative%2020090609.pdf.
5. Lautze, J. and Manthrithilake, H. (2012). Water Security: Old Concepts, New Package, What Value? Natural Resources Forum 36(2): 76-87.

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