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How do you measure water crises? New scale provides actionable data

The World Economic Forum lists water crises among the top 10 most likely and impactful global risks. Most water metrics to date have only focused on water quality or water availability at national and regional scales. There has been a critical gap, though, in the ability to identify which households experience issues with reliably accessing safe water in sufficient quantities for all household uses, from drinking and cooking to bathing and cleaning — until now. 

Wendy Jepson, professor in the Department of Geography, College of Geosciences, Texas A&M University, is part of a multi-disciplinary, international team of more than 40 researchers that has developed and published a new tool that can fill this data gap and provide actionable, policy-relevant information to address the global water crisis.  

The 12-item Household Water Insecurity Experiences Scale (HWISE) quantifies experiences of household water insecurity in an equivalent way across low- and middle-income countries. Based on data from more than 8,000 households in 23 countries, the HWISE Scale measures the multiple components of water insecurity (adequacy, reliability, accessibility, and safety) across disparate cultural and ecological settings. In addition, it only takes three to five minutes to ask the 12 simply phrased items.

The questions prompt respondents to reply “never, rarely, sometimes, often or always” to experiences with water insecurity in the last four weeks, including:

* How frequently did you or anyone in your household worry you would not have enough water for all of your household needs?

* How frequently did you change what was being eaten because there were problems with water?

* In the last four weeks, how frequently has your main water source been interrupted or limited (eg, water pressure, less water than expected, river dried up)?

With these responses, a water insecurity score can be generated for each household. These data can then be used to better understand the prevalence of water insecurity, its causes and consequences, and to inform policy development.

The researchers found that higher HWISE Scale scores (which reflect greater water insecurity) are strongly associated with greater food insecurity and stress, lower economic productivity, physical injury, altered infant feeding practices, and adverse health impacts.