Boiling It Down: Understanding The Importance of Water

Around the world, stability and security are tied to water.  Consider how access to clean water, ownership of water sources, and  drought-caused water crises support this statement. 

Water is needed to stabilize population movement, to support agriculture, to generate energy, and to sustain public health. Today regions globally face profound water challenges–tied to food, energy, climate variability, and population dynamics–that can exacerbate ethnic and political tension and negatively affect economic and social well-being. Regional economic development often hinges on effective management of water resources at the watershed scale.

“Water security” means the guarantee of having an adequate supply of water and having it accessible so that everyone who needs clean water can obtain enough of it when – and where – they need it.

Questions and problems that are geographic in nature (including location, place, region, movement, and human-environment interaction) can be tied to the water-food-energy-climate change nexus.  An understanding of the inextricable links between the systems of water, food, energy and climate is critical for making informed decisions.    

Water links to Food links to Energy links to People links to Climate Change.

Water security is the keystone of the water-energy-food-climate change nexus.  To grasp the complexity of water security issues as they relate to watersheds, megacities, and resource management, the issues must be put into this context.  Food production requires water and energy; water extraction and distribution require energy; and energy production requires water. Agriculture is the single largest consumer of water worldwide, and rapidly growing urban populations require safe, clean drinking water and adequate sanitation, as well as more food. Expected impacts of climate change on water resources increase the urgency of finding new ways to balance urban and rural needs in a sustainable way that ensures the continued health of freshwater ecosystems.

Rapid growth anticipated over the next twenty years will intensify global demands for water, food, and energy.  Demand drivers include population growth (from 6.83 billion to 8 billion, largely in the developing world), economic growth (particularly emerging markets with estimated 6 percent growth over 2.7 percent of higher-income countries), and urbanization (focus being megacities in developing countries), while climate change, and the potential for poorly constructed policy responses to it, will add pressure to these challenges.    

In terms of understanding water’s role in the nexus connections, it is helpful to work from a watershed, or basin, perspective.  As eloquently stated by John Wesley Powell, a scientist and geographer, a watershed is: “That area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”


  • Water quantity is the amount of surface and/or ground water (also referred to as water supply). It is the measurement used to described water extremes—floods and droughts—as well as river discharge and groundwater withdrawal rates. 


  • Water quality is the chemical, physical, and biological characteristics of water, related to its suitability for various uses. 


  • Water availability has to do with whether or not there is water to meet the variety of uses.  Availability may change seasonally, as seen with monsoon rains, or it may be consistent year-round. 


  • Water accessibility has to do with socio-cultural access and also to the transaction cost (time, distance, money) of acquiring water. These characteristics, subject to spatial-temporal variability, are interrelated. Changes in any one factor often affect the other factors.  


The likelihood of water destabilizing a population increases when climate variability, geopolitical tension, and economic disparities at the subnational, national, regional, and local levels are part of the equation. Hence, water management requires understanding a myriad of water demands and considerations: competition for water use (agricultural, industrial, and household); competing water needs (rural, low density vs. urban, high density populations); over-exploitation of commonly held surface water supplies; control of groundwater resources (private vs. public; vulnerability to unregulated withdrawal); transboundary watershed management (upstream vs. downstream expectations and agreements); inequitable (gender, ethnic, socio-economic) water access; and impact (social, ecological, and economic) of large-scale water projects.

Water complexities—quantity, quality, availability, and accessibility—are tied to regional security and stability.