What is Water Security?

Published Date: 
Wednesday, August 30, 2017

This resource was written by Eric Viala and originally posted on USAID's Sustainable Water Partnership website here.

Water fuels every aspect of life. It’s essential for basic health and hygiene, and it drives society’s most essential industries: agriculture, energy and transportation. Without water security there can be no national security. In fact, water is essential to the stability of every country on the planet. Understanding water security means looking beyond immediate supply to political, economic, social and environmental impacts.

With climate variability comes fluctuating rainfall patterns and extreme temperatures, creating shorter rainy seasons and longer dry seasons. These shifts severely impact lives and livelihoods. Decreased water supplies mean more human suffering and increased risk of instability, violent conflict and migration. Often the areas most deeply affected by environmental changes are already impoverished, and lack the resources necessary for sound water management.

The Sustainable Water Partnership (SWP) program offers a pragmatic, science-based approach to water security which reflects local geographic and cultural conditions. Our system-thinking approach focuses on causes, not symptoms. It acknowledges uncertainties in information, science and technology, as well as socio-economic, environmental and political factors, to design robust solutions.

SWP defines water security as “the adaptive capacity to safeguard the sustainable availability of, access to, and safe use of an adequate, reliable and resilient quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and productive economies.”

By enhancing water management and accounting for diverse socio-economic and environmental contexts, SWP strengthens the connections between water, food, and energy securities while working toward climate resilience.

Why Water Security Matters

Just as human life depends on water, so does human society. Here are five areas in which water security is crucial:

  • Health: Societies depend on water for human survival. Without enough clean water, we cannot keep ourselves hydrated and clean, or provide sanitation services.
  • Livelihoods: Water is not only essential to life; it’s essential to the ways we secure our other basic necessities. Water fuels agriculture, energy production, transportation, and so many other activities which sustain human life.
  • Productive economies: When individual households can’t provide for themselves, society can’t achieve economic stability, much less growth. However, by improving water security in an area, we can foster economic growth, empowering livelihoods activities to succeed.
  • Ecosystems: Human needs are only one factor to consider when we think about water security. Ecosystems also rely on water, and rapidly deteriorate in its absence, thus endangering the many livelihoods and resources they provide.
  • Disaster risk reduction: Responsible water management can reduce the impacts of foreseeable stressors (long-term trends like climate variability, population growth or urbanization) or unpredictable shocks (sudden events, from floods and oil spills to political conflicts). This promotes stability, keeping migration and violent conflict from emerging.

Improving Water Security

SWP provides a comprehensive approach to water security, working to engage all water users in our process – not just engineers and local leaders, but also individuals within communities. This allows us to assess and address all water-related risks facing an area, especially those typically overlooked by bureaucracy, like the concerns of marginalized social groups.

In other words, SWP builds the capacity to collaboratively manage water.

These capacity-building efforts can take many forms — developing, rehabilitating, or upgrading water structures and networks; promoting green infrastructure (like erosion control, reforestation or wetland restoration); or initiating behavior and policy changes. We give water users the tools necessary to address their current water risks, as well as any they may encounter in the future. Rather than leaving important water decisions up to uninformed government representatives, we bring disparate groups together to reach a consensus. We tailor our adaptive, science-based solutions to fit the unique challenges of geography, resource availability and cultural dynamics.

Water Security Outcomes

Water security starts with water availability. There must be enough water to satisfy diverse —and sometimes conflicting — needs. Of course, availability does little good unless water is also within the reach of the average individual. Good water management necessitates the ability to transport, store, provide, regulate and conserve water. But even when these capabilities exist, water isn’t truly accessible unless everyone, regardless of their societal position, has access. This means that water of sufficient quality is fairly allocated, affordable and easily obtained.

But sufficient water in the present isn’t enough. Water availability must be sustainable; it must endure over time even in the face of climate variability and other socio-economic, environmental and political factors.

One of the most significant threats in water security is a glut of complacency. When water is both available and accessible, populations might be lulled into a false sense of security, leading to poor planning and waste. Water security means not only access and availability for all, but also stewardship: water managers and users contributing to the protection and preservation of water resources and associated ecosystems.

Responsible use of water preserves its accessibility, making sure there’s enough water for all users — including the environment itself. It protects the water supply’s reliability; it’s not erratic or wasteful, but predictable and consistent. Finally, safe water use promotes resilience. When communities manage water responsibly, they build their ability to withstand, recover from and adapt to water risks.

SWP’s participatory, adaptive approach already offers comprehensive management solutions in 14 countries worldwide. Together, we can ensure water’s availability, accessibility and sustainability, both now and in the years to come. Find out how to partner with us here.


French-American civil engineer Eric Viala comes to the Sustainable Water Partnership (SWP) with 25 years of international experience in water resource and irrigation engineering in over 25 developing countries. He has served as the long-term director of several water projects, working in flood and cyclone protection in Bangladesh; operation and maintenance (O&M) of large dams in Morocco; irrigation management in Egypt; river basin management in Lebanon; and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in Ethiopia. His wide range of experience, from hydrology and hydraulics modeling to water governance strengthening, informs SWP’s holistic water security work.