Partnerships for the Goals

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Water Security

  • Jorge Tarifa-FernándezEmail author
Living reference work entry


Water security can be understood as the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of water of an acceptable quality to sustain livelihoods, human well-being, and socioeconomic development, to ensure protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and to preserve ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability (Water, U.N. 2013). The United Nations are very optimistic in the definition of water security as they try to capture its dynamic dimension and offer a holistic outlook to address water challenges. This implies considering water-related issues under the umbrella of water security, as it offers a means to consider them holistically (Water, U. N. 2013).


Water takes on special relevance as it cannot be replaced for most of its uses. In a general sense, water is a renewable resource; however, available freshwater supplies are limited. In addition, the renewal of water changes over time and space, which makes it difficult for most users to predict its availability. This uncertainty is accountable for the most contentious problems surrounding water around the world.

Water is essential for the development of life on this planet. It is responsible for the functioning of natural ecosystems and preserving biodiversity. It is also necessary for human health and their living conditions. Therefore, water is vital to achieving a larger sense of security, sustainability, development, and human well-being. Its importance encompasses other areas, such as growing food, ending hunger and poverty, sanitation to improve health conditions, the prevention of stunting and helping children thrive, or its use for energy production and urban development (World Bank Group 2017). It can be understood from a holistic perspective, bearing in mind that there is an intricate net surrounding this resource that, if well managed, will offer numerous benefits; while otherwise, it can create controversial situations. In this sense, progress toward a stable sense of water security can reduce the potential for conflicts and tensions, contributing to significant social, development, economic, and environmental benefits on a large scale (Water, U.N. 2013).

Why It Matters

The importance of water throughout time has varied considerably if the different interests and conflicts of countries are taken into account. Nonetheless, the recognition of the human right to water and sanitation (United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council 2011) marked a milestone as most countries have incorporated water and water-related issues into their legislation. This has proved to be a great advance because it has provided legal coverage to all those people who, traditionally, have been designated as vulnerable or marginalized.

This relevance has allowed water to be included in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by world leaders in September 2015 (UN 2018b). In particular, Goal 6: Ensure access to water and sanitation aims to provide access to safe water sources and sanitation and sound management of freshwater ecosystems. They are recognizing their essentiality to human health and to environmental sustainability and economic prosperity (UN 2017).

Understanding the concept of water security implies to look beyond immediate supply to a more global idea, comprising political, social, economic, and environmental effects. Hence, maintaining water security implies considering the quantity of water available and its quality. Therefore, water security is concerned with how humans meet their needs and how much water is left to the natural ecosystem (Srinivasan et al. 2017). This leads to other related concepts such as water scarcity and water stress. The former, objectively, indicates the volumetric abundance of water in a specific region, and it becomes a problem when water demand exceeds the available sustainable resources. The latter also indicates the accessibility to water and environmental flows (Antolin-Lopez 2018).

If everyone had access to water to satisfy his or her needs, this would suggest that this resource is being well managed. However, population growth, along with industrial development, urbanization, and changes in dietary and consumptions patterns, threatens water stability worldwide (Antolin-Lopez 2018). In this sense, water use can refer to either consumptive or withdrawal. The former refers to uses that remove water resources from the system (e.g., irrigation of crops), while the latter refers to the water abstracted from a water body although a large fraction may be returned (e.g., hydropower plant utilization) (Gleick 2003).

Consequently, water has to be managed to guarantee that water of sufficient quality is allocated, affordable, and easily obtained. Nonetheless, that management has to be done in a sustainable way, that is, to say, trying to effectively conserve and distribute the available water while thinking about future generations and in the presence of the most adverse conditions (e.g., climate change, economic and environmental reasons). This would be translated into a better management of food and energy production, contributing to a decent work and economic growth. What is more, it would also be a factor in preserving water ecosystems and their biodiversity and acting on climate change (UN 2018a). Poor management of water resources can include high rates of water loss through leakage and evaporation, low water efficiency, the inequitable distribution of water (with poorer citizens very often having inadequate access to potable water and sanitation services), chronic water pollution, and the widespread degradation of ecosystems (Engelke 2017).

For instance, it has been estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population (roughly four billion people, from which two billion live in China and India) now live under “severe water scarcity” conditions for at least 1 month per year, and it is projected to increase (Mekonnen and Hoekstra 2016). Besides, over 80% of wastewater resulting from human activities is discharged into rivers or seas without any treatment, leading to pollution (UN 2018a). This importance is reflected in the fact that 2017 was the third year in a row that the World Economic Forum placed water insecurity in its top three global risks (WEF 2017).

Underestimating the threats when there are stable availability and accessibility to water is dangerous, as it can create a superfluous sense of security and, therefore, a poor water management. The failure to preserve water availability also prevents society from building their own ability to recover from and adapt to water risk. Thus, the maintenance of human development is at stake if water security is not given the importance it deserves.

Having a well-defined concept of water security allows governments to reduce the risk of potential conflicts owing to water resources, between sectors and between water users (UN 2013). In general, when conflicts due to water arise, regulators introduce different systems to ensure water security (e.g., water access restrictions, wastewater discharge permits, or increases in prices). In some areas, these measures are not enough because they arise late, once water security has become a critical issue.

Water Influences on Mankind and Economic Development

Water is present in most aspects of development, involving human beings and their relationship with the ecosystem. Despite this diversity, the UN have prioritized those aspects covering or being affected by water security.


In relation to drinking water and human well-being, it is understandable that populations must have access to water to meet basic needs, such as drinking, sanitation, and hygiene, to safeguard health and well-being, and to fulfill basic human rights. Consequently, the right to water often cannot be separated from the responsibility to protect it as a part of a common heritage (Norman 2014). The UN suggests that each person needs between 20 and 50l of water per day to ensure their basic needs are met, such as drinking, cooking, and cleaning (World Water Assessment Programme). However, less than 1% of the world’s freshwater is accessible for direct human consumption (EU 2010). This availability depends mainly on four factors, firstly, its uneven distribution. Water is subject to climate conditions as well as the existence of natural supplies suitable for each purpose (e.g., wellspring for human consumption). In this sense, climate change has attracted most of the public attention in recent times. Thus, global warming accelerates the hydrologic cycle, increasing the probability of floods, droughts, and extreme storms. It causes higher evaporation from surface sources and changes in melting season. Secondly, the misuse of water is becoming a tendency even in countries where this resource is abundant. Many water sources are overexploited beyond their renewable capacity, which can lead to water scarcity. This leaves one in six people worldwide (783 million) without access to improved drinking water sources (World Health Organization). In addition, this behavior shows a polarized pattern: while some countries are conscious and face difficulties to manage this resource due to their particular situations, others with better conditions lack the awareness to comprehend the importance of maintaining a sustainable use. Thirdly, the pollution of freshwater is an enormous and worrying issue due to its impact on society. One of the primary sources of pollution originates directly from human consumption and industrial activity. Thus, the amount of waste generated has surpassed the rate of regeneration or the natural environment’s capacity for assimilation. This, in turn, threatens environmental wealth and can pose a serious risk to human health (Tarifa-Fernandez and Antolin-Lopez 2018). In general, these factors contribute positively to a separation between water demand and water supply. Fourthly, the higher demand is due to population growth. This prolonged growth is foreseen to increase dramatically in future years. This can compromise the ability of water supply to meet human and environmental demand within a region, that is, modify the water stress (Antolin-Lopez 2018). This growth is not evenly distributed as it is expected that by 2050, the number of people living in cities will grow faster than in rural areas, and it is also uneven across the world, as Asia and Africa will account for nearly 90% of the world’s urban growth. As a means of comparison, by 2050 there will be 3.3 billion people living in cities in Asia, 581 million in Europe, and 390 million in North America. Rapid urbanization creates inequalities caused by differing levels of access to water, and it generates an urban underclass, in addition to a newly wealthy one. This urban underclass is disproportionately exposed to poor sanitation and hygiene and the public health problems that arise from these factors.

Economic Development

For the development of economic activities, it aims to ensure that adequate water supplies are available for food and energy production, industry, transport, and tourism. An adequate supply of good-quality water is crucial for economic and social progress. Therefore, saving water and managing the available resources more efficiently become a priority.

In the food production, agriculture accounts for over 70% of all global water withdrawals and up to 90% of water consumptions (Kummu et al. 2016). Although in most parts of the world the availability of water resources exceeds the water demands to produce, there are others (e.g., Northern and Eastern Africa, Middle East, and Southern Asia) where availability does not meet those requirements. Then, they are posed to a high risk of water scarcity.

In line with Varies et al. (2017), such variability is due to two main factors, on the one hand, farming practices and technologies in use. Thus, the more advanced methods, the fertilizers, and varieties are used, the less water is needed for producing. On the other hand, climate factors, where it influences evaporation in such a way that the warmer and drier the climate, the bigger volume of water evaporates in the production of food.

This imbalance makes countries to counteract critical water availability using food imports. It becomes a means to adapt to water scarcity and, therefore, an adaptation strategy.

Despite a good management, the use of water for economic activities presents side effects. For example, the water used for cooling purposes in electricity generation is returned, almost completely, to a river, slightly warmer than it was originally. This implies a minimum alteration to water availability, however, as its temperature has risen; it contributes to warm the surroundings (e.g., it might have a negative impact on the biodiversity). On the contrary, most of the water used for agriculture is not returned, as it is consumed during the irrigation process or has evaporated. Consequently, the use of water for economic activities can not only compromise the availability of water but also alter the status quo of the environment, which could lead to a chain reaction difficult to manage.

Natural Environment

Maintaining water security should be achieved by preserving the ecosystems. This is of significant importance as it is the means both nature and people rely on to deliver their services, including the provision of freshwater. However, over 1.7 billion people are currently living in river basins where water usage exceeds recharge and roughly 70% of all water extracted from rivers, lakes, and aquifers are used for irrigation. Another example of humans straining freshwater resources is through the discharge of contaminants (or pollutants) which damage ecosystems and human health.

Another factor to consider is the reaction of people when faced with water-related hazards. In this sense, nine out of ten natural disasters such as floods, storms, and droughts are water-related. Similarly, floods and other water-related disasters account for 70% of all deaths related to natural disasters. Although both natural disasters and human activities can alter freshwater availability and, therefore, cause dramatic problems, the latter is highly avoidable. For instance, droughts can be devastating because water availability temporarily decreases (e.g., when it does not rain over an extended period of time) and people barely have the option of being resilient to overcome the consequences, as it is something difficult, not to say impossible, to take under consideration. Instead, the pollution resulting from human activities, which is highly avoidable, is generally not a priority, and, unfortunately, it is one of the most harmful ones.

Climate change is shifting water patterns worldwide, implying a variability ranging from fluctuating rainfall to extreme temperatures. These alterations clearly affect the environment and have a hard impact on human beings and their livelihoods. If climate change continues its current tendency, water is expected to become scarcer for many years in the near future.

Nature can only explain part of the problem; human activities account for the rest. Therefore, to understand the current situation, it is important to know that during the twentieth century, human activity has been responsible for having dammed, diverted, extracted, polluted, drilled, and tapped much of the planet’s freshwater (groundwater and surface water) worldwide (Engelke 2017). Thus, these situations question the ability of nations to maintain water security. Consequently, 2.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and this figure rises to 4.5 billion people when considering those who lack access to safe sanitation (World Bank 2017). This means that even if water belongs to everyone, many are excluded from its benefits.

Partnership for Water Security

According to the UN-Water (2013), achieving water security requires collaboration across sectors, communities, disciplines, and political borders, to reduce potential conflicts over water resources, between sectors, and between water users or states. This requires the partnership to actually achieve the results, that is, avoid a water crisis which would imply the inability of existing water supplies to meet water needs or water demand (Antolin-Lopez 2018).

Contrary to what it is thought, a water crisis can be considered as either a natural or a human-made phenomenon. For instance, natural disasters can generate a conflictive situation with tensions between communities, as refugees running away from them settle into nearby communities, causing a temporal overconsumption, and foster local confrontations.

The transboundary partnership is a hot topic when considering water security. This happens because freshwater has no borders. Around the world, there are over 400 transboundary lakes and aquifers and 286 transboundary river basins across 151 countries. This means that more than 77% of the countries in the world might have (or already have) conflicts about this shared resource. The situation is a wake-up call for states to discuss and coordinate their actions in order to meet the varied and competing interests for their mutual benefit. In this sense, policymakers take a relevant part as they are responsible for seeking efficiencies and identifying priorities on how to use water at all levels. In addition, and given the difficulties this issue creates, internationally managing water requires the involvement of not only states but also industrial sectors and stakeholders. This points toward an intricate collaboration in which international treaties offer important tools to facilitate dialogue and soften conflicts. Despite the potential benefits, international agreements still do not cover all transboundary waters (e.g., less than half of the world’s transboundary river basins are under an international treaty, few treaties address groundwater or water quality). Given that, there is an urgent need to share lessons learned from partnership, scale them, and create new ones. Undoubtedly this implies a hard work and the commitment of different parts (Swaithes 2015). In this sense, UNESCO offers assistance to member states about water-related issues. Thus, it tries to promote strengthening capacity for improving water management and at the same time promote a culture of peace in the management of transboundary water (UNESCO 2018).

This lack of consensus has led to what has been called “integrated water resources management,” which goes beyond the international law. This is based on a holistic perspective in which the development principles for water resources are applied to transboundary and internal river basins. It comprises the following: (a) public commitment is essential to avoid conflicts. Thus, authorities should be participative and also show a great level of transparency; (b) authorities should generate and share consistent and comparable information about water to guide its management. This would make a specific policy rigorous as long as it is scientifically informed; (c) policy development needs to be flexible to adapt to any unpredictable circumstance (e.g., climate threats) and allow cooperation among all users.

In some cases, countries have a poor negotiating background and often fall victim to disputes over other issues, such as contested borders, or is in itself a factor in the distrust between neighboring states (Engelke 2017). In a general sense, countries establish or implement water policies within their borders, focusing on their current problems. At some point, it is difficult to consider these risks in a holistic way so that said policies can affect water decisions in other countries (e.g., it can reduce the availability of water supply of neighboring countries). Thus, these situations can increase tensions and confrontations between countries, leading to the destabilization of international relationships.

Tapping aquifers is a good strategy as long as they last. The problem is that, while some of the continent’s aquifers are enormous, they are not unlimited, and make countries heavily dependent on them (e.g., Asia has over 70% of the world’s land that is irrigated by groundwater, and states spend huge sums of money on the pumps and energy needed to draw water from aquifers) (ADB 2016). Besides, and because of an explosive urban growth, the proliferation of a “water tanker mafia” has become commonplace. They illegally puncture pipelines and siphon off water to sell at inflated rates on the black market (Toppa 2016).

Equally important is the investment in water security. It has long-term benefits for human development and economic growth while offering visible short-term benefits. On the one hand, better institutions, increased capacity, improved levels of human well-being, environmental sustainability, economic production, and reduced conflicts are among the long-term consequences. On the other hand, investing in water security offers immediate payoffs such as an increase in employment and education opportunities, especially for those at high risk of social exclusion. In this sense, there are some regional partnerships that enable knowledge exchange and leverages successful models. For instance, the Latin American Water Funds (LAWF) works to improve the science basis, institutional capacity for initiatives. It provides a suite of replicable and scalable financial, governance, and conservation activity that can be adapted to local context rather than standardize programs across the region (Vogl et al. 2017).

Frequently, governments have carried out some efforts to achieve solutions through investment. However, these have been made without fully considering economic, social, diplomatic, and environmental costs, that is, to say, focusing on the short-term impact of these actions. It seems clear that international cooperation is essential to maintain the stability of water usage. The prosperity of populations worldwide depends on those decisions. Regarding that, international treaties, river basin organizations, water users’ associations, and other cooperative mechanisms are the tools that countries use to manage collective risk and dialogue and resolve disputes.

According to Jepson et al. (2017), water security should be about transforming water-society relations to promote human well-being and empowerment. This leads to consider water security less as obtaining water and more about fostering human capabilities as they relate to water. Undoubtedly, partnership, collaboration, and cooperation are the available tools to properly achieve it.

Nature-Based Solutions

Novel solutions are needed to meet the emerging challenges to water security caused by humans and the natural environment. This leads communities, at all levels, to work incessantly on solutions even when lower levels are often poorly informed, pursue conflicting objectives, and are influenced by organizations with environmental, commercial, and social goals that may not match local situations (James and Shafiee-Jood 2017).

In most cases, achieving these solutions is supported by the majority of international organizations when natural resources management is considered as a priority. This has led to the start-up of the so-called nature-based solutions. According to the UN-Water (2018), this type of solutions is designed to bring more nature and natural features and processes to cities, landscapes, and seascapes. These innovative solutions also support economic growth, create jobs, and enhance human well-being.

Under this premise, it seems that nature-based solutions are one of the best answers to water-related problems. Nature-based solutions intend to use or imitate natural processes to improve water management. A typical solution would be based on the environment and would imply the conservation or rehabilitation of natural ecosystems or the creation of natural processes in modified or artificial ecosystems. This would encompass from a dry toilet to a landscape.

Sustainable water security cannot be achieved under a traditional approach. In this sense, nature-based solutions work in collaboration with the natural environment and not against it. This makes these solutions an essential means to go further and try to enhance the increase of social and economic efficiency, together with a better management of water resources. They are particularly promising when it comes to sustainable food production, improvement of urban settlements, and, of course, the reduction of water-related disasters and the impact of climate change on water resources.

Nature-based solutions rely on a circular and regenerative economy, enhancing a greater productivity of resources to reduce waste and try to avoid contamination. Its application to water also creates collateral benefits (social, economic, and environmental), which include improvements in human health and livelihoods, sustainable development, decent jobs, maintenance of ecosystems, and protection of biodiversity. Although they usually are collateral, sometimes they are decisive in order to make the proper investment choice in favor of these solutions.

When dealing with water supply, nature-based solutions act by managing rainfall, infiltration, and water transmission to improve the location, timing, and amount of available water for human needs. The option of building reservoirs is limited by the sedimentation time, the decrease in runoff water available, and the fact that, in many countries, the most viable places have already been used. In addition, forms of water storage that are eco-friendlier, such as natural wetlands, which improve soil moisture and the recharge of groundwater, could be more sustainable and cost-effective than gray mountains as dams.

The protection of water sources reduces the cost of water treatment for urban suppliers and contributes to improving the access to drinking water in rural areas. Rainforests, wetlands, and meadows, if properly managed, play a significant role in regulating water quality, as they may reduce sediments loads by capturing and retaining pollutants and recycling nutrients. Therefore, both natural and artificial ecosystems can help improve the quality of water.

Urban green infrastructures are used increasingly to manage and reduce the pollution caused by urban runoff. They include green walls, roof gardens, and infiltration or drainage basins covered with vegetation to help the treatment of wastewater and reduce the runoff from stormwater. Wetlands are also used in urban environments to contribute to the biodegradation or immobilization of an entire range of emerging pollutants. In some cases, and for certain chemicals, it might be the only solution.

Water-related risks and disasters cause economic and human losses, which are increasing globally. It is estimated that 30% of the world population lives in areas and regions that suffer extreme floods and droughts on a regular basis. The degradation of ecosystems is the main cause for the increase in the risk of extreme water-related phenomena. Unfortunately, this reduces the ability to profit from the potential of nature-based solutions. In this sense, a nature-based solution for flood management could include water retention by managing infiltrations, surface flows, and, therefore, the hydrological connection between components and water transport. For instance, this would imply creating spaces to store water throughout floodplains.

Current challenges to improve nature-based solutions and to reach their full, significant potential are somewhat generic in all sectors and at global, regional, or local level. There is still a historical inertia against nature-based solutions because of the continuous and overwhelming dominance of traditional infrastructure solutions. Most countries use them in the development of the instruments to counteract negative situations (from public policies to code and standards of construction). This dominance also exists in civil engineering, economic market-based instruments, the experience of service suppliers, and, therefore, in the mind of policymakers and the general public. Sometimes, these factors collectively result in nature-based solutions being perceived as less efficient or riskier than traditional solutions.

Nature-based solutions require cooperation between different institutions and stakeholders, which can hinder their development. Current institutional arrangements have not yet evolved as far as to consider this cooperation. This shows lack of awareness, communication, and knowledge at diverse levels, from communities to national policies. This situation will worsen if awareness as to how to integrate the current approach (traditional) with a nature-based one is not raised. There are still myths and uncertainties surrounding nature-based solutions and what the ecosystem services mean in practical terms. Besides, it is sometimes difficult to go into detail about what constitutes a nature-based solution. In this sense, there is a lack of technical guidance, tools, and approaches to determine the ideal combination of solutions (be it traditional or not).

Consequently, quite often nature-based solutions are left aside when it comes to assessing policies and the planning and management of natural resources and its development. This situation is getting worse, in part, because of the insufficient research and development in this kind of solutions.


No one can deny the key role water plays in this world as every living being needs it to live. Among the characteristics that make it special are found its irreplaceability and availability that despite being renewable is limited. Its scarcity and uneven availability make it mandatory to maintain a sense of security that must be encouraged at all levels. In this difficult task are involved people, companies, and governments. They are responsible for a proper management of water given its particular characteristics. Otherwise, it may lead to disastrous consequences that frequently affect developing countries, and, therefore, they should be avoided at all costs. Besides, other water-related negative effects, not directly attributable to human activities, should be considered (e.g., droughts and floods).

Even though these should be sufficient to raise awareness about the importance of water and situate it at the top of the priorities every country should fulfill, there is a lot of work still to be done.

Partnership has been pointed out as one of the main requirements to advance and provide solutions to water-related issues. As it works with different points of view, it is merging diverse ideas and taking the most relevant options into the action and, then, likely to obtain the best results for all parties. For instance, water has no boundaries, and therefore it belongs to everyone. Its management would imply both people and institutions working together to reach the same purpose even when each one has different interests on the same resource.

It is relevant to promote the development of actions to avoid undesirable situations and to prepare people and society to face any constraint. Consequently, resilient society should be built considering the respect of the natural environment we are surrounded by, as well as maintaining the dignity of people who directly suffer the consequences of not having a proper water security.

These challenges have to include innovative solutions to ease water scarcity constraints as well as socioeconomic and environmental considerations.

All over again partnership takes an indispensable role when proposing alternative solutions. This is the case of nature-based solutions where apart from relying on a circular economy, it breaks down boundaries among partners and favors communication. It pretends to merge the different efforts to work in harmony with the natural environment. The key here is that any consideration or any action to be taken should be as if it was taken by the environment, that is, to say, obtain the optimal results imitating nature behavior. In doing so, nature-based solutions are posed to foster the willingness to embrace and integrate different approaches while respecting the environment.

In the right way, all this may have a positive impact on how water is managed and therefore maintain adapted water security levels to each region. Eventually, it is about developing tools and approaches that can help save lives and livelihoods.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Economy and BusinessUniversity of AlmeríaAlmeríaSpain

Section editors and affiliations

  • Monica Thiel
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Public Administration and School of Business AdministrationUniversity of International Business and Economics & China University of PetroleumBeijingChina