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What is water security?

In 2013, the United Nations Water Task Force (UN-Water) produced a brief on water security, with proposed solutions and approaches for improving water security across the globe.

A key achievement of this brief was providing a common working definition of “water security”. This definition not only explains what water security is, but also outlines what it can look like in different contexts.

Water security defined 

UN-Water defines water security as: “the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability”.  

This definition highlights the fact that water security depends upon management across the water cycle and can be affected by the actions of a number of stakeholders.  

UN-Water also noted that water security can only be said to exist when “water to satisfy basic human needs is accessible to all at an affordable cost to the user”. Water security therefore involves ensuring equitable access to water so all members of the community can enjoy the benefits water brings.  

The price of water insecurity

According to the World Bank, water insecurity costs the global economy around $500 billion (US dollars) a year. The human cost of water insecurity is also serious.

Because water is a vital, life-sustaining resource, water insecurity can trigger or exacerbate economic and political crises. In turn, this can cause or worsen conflict and instability, with all the human and financial costs that accompany this.

A human right 

Water security is a human rights issue. A 2010 UN resolution described equitable access to safe and clean drinking water as “a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights”. Water security is central to delivering on this human right.

An investment that pays dividends 

Investing in water security offers immediate short-term benefits and long-term gains. After all, water is necessary not only for supporting human life, but also for agriculture, industry, energy and more.


In many regions across the world, current water use is not sustainable. Renewable water sources are used faster than they can be replenished, while non-renewable water sources are also being depleted. If we are going to achieve long-term water security, water use must be sustainable.