Written by Pablo Gaitán-Rossi, Sera L. Young, Hugo Melgar-Quiñonez
Water is a major issue in Latin America, where it is estimated that approximately 150 million individuals live in water-scarce areas, and 19% of urban & 47% of rural residents lack safely managed drinking water infrastructure. Exacerbated by climate change, this is a compounding crisis where water insecurity is intertwined with food insecurity, jeopardizing health, nutrition, wellbeing, and human capital –in the region and globally. Indeed, a recent comment in Nature Water co-authored by individuals from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), UN Nutrition, and elsewhere delves into the importance of water for food and nutrition.
There is a growing recognition that current indicators of water scarcity are not sufficient for understanding if basic domestic water needs are being met. This is because they only capture “supply-side” indicators, like physical availability (m3 water/capita) or infrastructure (the presence of drinking water infrastructure). For instance, in Mexico, 96% of households have piped water, but the 2022 National Health and Nutrition Survey revealed that significant shares of the population lack sufficient water to wash clothes (31%), bathe (23%), and drink (16%).
While traditional indicators are valuable –like the ones in the IADB´s initiative OLAS– they are missing a key part of how household members are being affected. A much-needed complement are the Water InSecurity Experience (WISE) Scales; the first suitable and reliable instrument for measuring human experiences with water access, use, and reliability across countries. They are composed of 12 short questions that ask about universal experiences with problems with water, covering issues with water excess, shortage, and quality.
The WISE scales are being used to estimate the national prevalence of water insecurity to show the sizable impact of the water crisis in households. However, these scales can also be a valuable resource to reveal between-country inequities. For example, in countries in Latin America and the Caribbean the prevalence of water insecurity was similar in Mexico (16%) and Brazil (16%) but starkly different in Guatemala (24%), Honduras (47%), and Peru (48%). Cross-country analyses explaining these differences are still required to understand the ways to reduce the toll of water insecurity.
Pioneering a Regional Strategy for Water Security: Collaborative Solutions and Global Inspiration
Several steps can help launch a regional approach towards a better understanding of water insecurity. We undertook an initial effort to establish a network of regional experts. People conducting research on food insecurity were natural allies, but so were experts from international agencies (FAO and UNICEF), NGOs (Innovations for Poverty Action and the World Food Program), and ministries in charge of monitoring and evaluation (Mexico´s INEGI and CONEVAL). We held a first meeting in Mexico City, where we agreed upon a Declaration advocating for this approach and will continue our endeavors in the upcoming SLAN meeting in Cuenca, Ecuador. The network should eventually devise collaboration channels and mechanisms to regularly exchange experiences, resources, and opportunities to conduct a diverse range of WI projects. We invite everyone who is interested to join the network and the monthly newsletter.
One aspect of the added value of a regional approach is the harmonization of the collection, analysis, and interpretation of WI data. This has been demonstrated for the measurement of experiences with food insecurity. Harmonization first occurred across LAC (as the ELCSA Scale), and then globally (FAO’s Food Insecurity Experiences Scale), eventually becoming an indicator for SDG2.
Harmonization of resources can incentivize regular data collection of WISE data. Clear guidelines to standardize data collection may show the feasibility of using the scale in population surveys (i.e., time to collect, examples, etc). Availability of high-quality and high-resolution data opens the possibility to pair it with other types of data, such as indicators of climate-related disasters (i.e., droughts, floods), migration flows, and violence. Harmonization can also reduce analytic barriers when using WISE data, so accessible materials and software should be readily available (i.e., a designated R-WISE package) to simplify data analysis, country comparisons, and visualizations to communicate results. These resources could help create regional monitoring systems with comparable estimates at different levels and to identify time-trends and hotspots.
Another pending step for a regional approach is a repository with multiple resources for a wide audience. An online repository (at least) in Spanish and Portuguese would help users identify available data sources and generate local data. The repository could also provide guidance on using WI data to evaluate the impact of programs or policies, thereby increasing accountability. Likewise, it would advise on collaboration with government officials at different levels, by offering alternative solutions to mitigate food and water insecurity. It could package policy-friendly case studies of programs and policies in different contexts (e.g., urban, rural, humanitarian settings) and for multiple sectors, so government actors can find viable solutions and scale them appropriately.
These initial steps towards a regional approach to address water insecurity can serve as a blueprint for similar activities in Asia and Africa. As with the food insecurity approach, solid measurement foundations foster worldwide monitoring– the pre-requisite to build a robust measure for the next generation of indicators for the post-2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Intractable problems call for intense and wise collaborations.
Pablo Gaitán-Rossi – Institute for Development with Equity Research, Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City. Director of EQUIDE, PhD in Social Welfare, and trained as a Sociologist and Psychologist. Managing editor of the International Journal for Equity in Health. Co-coordinator of the research network on Water Insecurity Experiences in Latin America & the Caribbean (WISE-LAC).
Sera L. Young – Department of Anthropology & Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA. Associate Professor of Anthropology & Global Health and Director of Water Insecurity, Northwestern Center for Water Research, Northwestern University; Leverhulme Visiting Professor of Nutrition, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Co-coordinator of the research network on Water Insecurity Experiences in Latin America & the Caribbean (WISE-LAC).
Hugo Melgar-Quiñonez – School of Human Nutrition, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Physician and Doctor in Sciences from Friedrich Schiller University, Germany; Associate Professor at McGill School of Human Nutrition, Margaret Gilliam Faculty Scholar on Global Food Security, McGill University; Co-coordinator of the research network on Water Insecurity Experiences in Latin America & the Caribbean (WISE-LAC).