This Thanksgiving, US water security falls short

Thanksgiving, a day in the U.S. when many commemorate the country’s forefathers and mothers for having enough food to survive a bitter New England winter, is for many a celebration of food security.

Assessing food security is easy; by answering a few short questions created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we can know where to target resources like vouchers and food banks, and if programs and policies meant to improve food security actually do so.


Given how valuable it has been to be able to measure household food insecurity, it is stunning that we can’t do the same for water. It seems that inadequate access to water of acceptable quality and quantity is likely an enormous issue in the United States.

While the lead levels in Flint, Michigan’s water became a national issue, similar heavy metal contamination has been reported in Detroit, Newark and Chicago, where recent reports reveal up to 70 percent of Chicago-area homes have lead-contaminated water.

But lead is only one of many threats to the quality of our water here.

In Appalachia, for example, it’s not unheard of for kitchen sink water to catch on fire, thanks to petroleum in the water table. Certainly, there is a long history of industrial pollution in the water in Appalachia, such that hundreds of thousands have been exposed to toxic pollutants.

Sewage intermingles with urban drinking water supplies, for example, when infrastructure fails or sewers overflow after a big storm. Boil water advisories abound when fires like those raging in California break out and when water mains break as they did recently in Los Angeles and Ventura.

Quantity is also an issue.

We see massive water shortages throughout the American West. In just the last two years, hurricanes have caused catastrophic flooding for millions, from Houston to Puerto Rico to the Carolinas. Billions of dollars of damage has been caused by water-related disasters.

Absent natural disasters, in 2017 household water was cut off in 1.4 million people across the country when residents could not pay utilities bills.

Some of the consequences of water problems are obvious, such as diarrhea, which is a major contributor to the global burden of disease.

Other consequences can sneak up slowly, such as the decreased property value that chronic flooding brings and the lost earnings from cognitive impairment caused by lead exposure.

I have spent a considerable part of my career studying water security and I see that the consequences of these water problems are vast. But it’s hard to understand their impact without being able to quantify their extent.

Because when it comes to policy-related decisions (“that which can’t be counted doesn’t count”), it is time to initiate a reliable measure of household water insecurity that works in the same way our measurement of household food insecurity does.

The good news is that it is possible to measure household water insecurity in the United State: the Household Water Insecurity Experiences Scale, which includes a few short survey questions that can quantify water insecurity in any low- or middle-income country.

It will soon be possible to know how many people are water insecure, who they are, where they are located, and the types of problems they are facing. It has already been implemented in nearly 10,000 households in 26 countries, with plans for use in many other places.

That same type of information about water problems in the U.S. will be immensely useful as we struggle with aging water infrastructure and climate change exacerbating water disparities.

For all these reasons, I would like to encourage national, state, and non-governmental organizations to embrace a metric of water insecurity comparable to the Department of Agriculture’s Food Security scale.

For that, many Americans will be grateful.

Sera Young is an assistant professor of anthropology and global health at Northwestern University and is leading the development of the Household Water Insecurity Scale. Follow her on Twitter at @profserayoung.