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Measuring household water insecurity in a post-pandemic context

2 March 2021
By Allison Salinger, RISE Water for Women Research Associate

Household water insecurity, or the inability to access and benefit from sufficient quantities of safe and reliable water, has significant consequences for human health and wellbeing, and can be impacted by shocks and crises such as COVID-19. In households or communities experiencing water insecurity, women typically bear a disproportionate burden.

We on the Water for Women project team – a sub-study within RISE – are producing evidence around the roles, needs, and priorities of women, girls and diverse community members in designing water-sensitive infrastructure – to ultimately help improve access to the social and health benefits that these solutions offer.

It has become vitally important, then, to ensure that our measurement of the impacts of COVID-19 accurately capture household water insecurity, among other outcomes, like access to financial and material assistance, food insecurity, and more.

The Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) scale is a cross-culturally validated measurement tool that was ready for rapid deployment in our survey of RISE communities following the pandemic. The HWISE-short form (the 4-item version, that we included in our survey, of the larger 12-item scale) assesses frequency of “worry,” “changing plans,” “limited drinking water,” and “inability to wash hands” due to problems with water. Responses to these four questions are scored such that each household is assigned a water insecurity score between 0 and 12. Quantifying household water insecurity in this way allows for us to understand the relationship between shocks, such as COVID-19, and water insecurity, and to identify inequities within communities.

Recognizing the importance of household water insecurity and the need to capture insecurity at various timepoints, the larger RISE program has since adopted the HWISE-short form into its regular 6-monthly surveys. This type of longitudinal measurement has the benefit of deepening our understanding of the relationship between the water-sensitive intervention and household water insecurity and may help explain a vital step along the pathway toward improved human health.

Defining the pathway to improved human health is imperative both within RISE and beyond. By generating evidence to understand the impacts of the intervention on diverse women and men and their communities, RISE may provide necessary information to guide future water-sensitive infrastructure programs toward lasting and inclusive improvements in health and well-being. Other, related, evidence gathered by the Water for Women sub-study will bring a broader social inclusion lens to demonstrate how gender-specific work can impact on water-sensitive projects and their outcomes.

Cover image: the RISE Fiji field team train to administer the household survey that includes the HWISE-short form.