HWISE Scale: A cross-culturally validated scale to measure household water insecurity

Author:  Josh Miller, HWISE Data Coordinator, Northwestern University

Currently, four billion people face severe water scarcity for at least one month each year. As such, the World Economic Forum has ranked water crises as being among the highest global risks to society and the economy. While we can measure water scarcity at the level of the nation or state, it has long been impossible to measure water insecurity at the level where it is experienced: the household. For this reason, our consortium of over 40 researchers has developed the first cross-nationally validated instrument to measure household water security: the Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) Scale. In order to identify the experiences most salient across diverse cultural and ecological settings, we implemented the HWISE Scale in 28 sites, representing over 20 counties.

HWISE Scale Map

Map of sites where the HWISE Scale has been implemented.

The HWISE Scale offers a finer resolution measurement of water insecurity, which is critical for identifying vulnerable populations, allocating resources, and evaluating the impacts and cost-effectiveness of water-related interventions and policies. Further, the short, easy-to-use HWISE Scale fills a measurement gap identified by the UN in its Water Action Decade (2018-2028) plan. By the end of 2018, we hope to release the scale for use by researchers, policymakers, NGOs, and program implementers.

HWISE Researchers in Torréon, MX

“Inseguridad del Agua en La Laguna: Una Nueva Visión de Contexto”

Researchers from Texas A&M University and El Colegio de la Frontera Norte will present HWISE research from Urban Mexico and Urban Brazil at the Universidad Autónoma de Coahuila. Dr. Wendy Jepson from Texas A&M University will present, “Preliminary comparative analysis of household water insecurity: Urban Mexico and Urban Brazil,” while fellow HWISE RCN members Dr. Javier Morán Martínez from Universidad Autónoma de Coahuila Unidad Torreón will present on, “Una visión sobre arsénico y agua en la Laguna” and Dr. Felipe Javier Uribe Salas from El Colegio de la Frontera Norte on “Estimación del peso de la enfemedad diarreica asociada a agua y saneamiento en el hogar en Torreón, Coahuila.”

This research is part of the Household Water Insecurity Experiences collaboration and is funded through a CONACYT grant.


Poster (8)

HWISE Scholar Highlight – Dr. Ellis Adjei Adams


Dr. Ellis Adjei Adams is an Assistant Professor of Global Studies and Geosciences at Georgia State University. He serves on the HWISE-RCN steering committee and is an early career scholar. His research lies at the intersection of human-environment interactions in cities, poor urban and peri-urban, and informal settlements of Sub-Saharan Africa.

He is currently involved in two projects. The first builds on his dissertation and explores the role of social learning and co-production in the sustainability of community-public partnerships models for water delivery in urban and peri-urban informal settlements. The second project draws insights from actor-oriented political ecology to examine the complex interplay of water resources and land-tenure systems in recent large-scale land acquisitions for agricultural production in Ghana, focusing on the motivations, information asymmetries, power relations and conflicts between and among such actors as agricultural investors, traditional leaders, smallholder farmers, and communities whose livelihoods depend on water and land.

Latest Publications:

  • Adams, E. A., & Boateng, G. O. (2018). Are urban informal communities capable of co-production? The influence of community–public partnerships on water access in Lilongwe, Malawi. Environment and Urbanization. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0956247818792059
  • Adams, E. A. (2018). Intra-urban inequalities in water access among households in Malawi’s informal settlements: Toward pro-poor urban water policies in Africa. Environmental Development. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envdev.2018.03.004
  • Adams, E. A. (2017). Thirsty slums in African cities: household water insecurity in urban informal settlements of Lilongwe, Malawi. International Journal of Water Resources Development, 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1080/07900627.2017.1322941

AAG 2019 HWISE Call for Papers

This year the American Association of Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting will be in Washington D.C. (April 3-7 2019), and we are planning a day of events to officially launch and celebrate the HWISE RCN community of scholars.  We are seeking empirical papers that address the multi-faceted dimensions of water insecurity experiences at the household scale.

If you are interested, please email name, affiliation, title, abstract and keywords to the HWISE RCN email contact (hwise.rcn@gmail.com). Our goal is to have presenters selected and program developed by the end of October.  If you have any questions, please contact Wendy Jepson (wjepson@tamu.edu).

We propose several sessions that emphasize major themes and approaches:

We have two sessions​ on the following topics:

  1. Methodological Advances​, including research outcomes or results that employ visual, participatory, VGI, geospatial, quantitative and other epistemological research to address household water insecurity experiences.
  2. Thematic​ ​Engagements​, with HWISE that may include or intersect with a broad range of empirical work addressing cross-cutting themes that address sanitation, knowledge systems, environmental justice, informality and urban infrastructure, intersectionality and gender, health-place-environment interaction, resiliency, environmentality, state-society relations, or governance.

A third paper session​ will profile research findings that draw from the HWISE global dataset (​hwise.org​) and HWISE scale, a cross culturally validated scale that has been developed in the last two years. These papers will address a broad range of interdisciplinary analyses that demonstrate the application of the scale to a variety of problems. Researchers in this session are contributors to the HWISE dataset and part of the NSF-funded HWISE RCN (​hwise-rcn.org​). If you are able to contribute to this please follow the submission guidelines above.

A ​fourth session​ will be a panel with on developing an interdisciplinary mentoring community of practice for early career scholars. The panel will include a range of participants from various career stages to discuss best practices, lessons, and challenges navigating dynamic collaborations.

Participants in the sessions will be invited to participate in ​a fifth session (closed) ​to discuss publication opportunities, workshop papers, and critically reflect on the work presented. We will also discuss the cross-cutting themes and directions for the RCN in the next year.

We will end the day with a ​reception open to all​ to launch HWISE Research Coordination Network.

HWISE in the UK

Members of the HWISE executive committee and steering committee convened for two days at the Royal Geographical Society in London (14-15 September 2018) to meet with representatives from British water charities (WaterAid, Water Witness, Oxfam), development organizations (IMANNA, UNESCO-Paris), development consultants, researchers from REACH (Oxford University), and other UK-based scholars (University of Durham, Cranfield University, Imperial College) to discuss opportunities of collaboration.  Convened by Dr. Chad Staddon, University of the West of England and the International Water Security Network, the group presented background information on HWISE RCN and on the progress made on scale development and validation by Dr. Sera Young.


HWISE in the UK, Royal Geographical Society, London, 14 September 2018

The group discussed the HWISE scale progress and its possible uptake in development agencies for measurement and evaluation as well as opportunities for researchers in the HWISE network to collaborate.  Ideas that emerged during the discussion included topics of interest, such as nexus of climate, water and environmental migration, HWISE and water governance, developing further concepts and analytics between household water and food insecurity, and how HWISE can support or complement the existing initiatives striving to fulfill Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6).


The National Science Foundation, Geography and Spatial Sciences Program, recently awarded $500,000 to support the Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) Research Coordination Network to operate at the strategic intersection of social science discovery, policy, and practice to address the complex dynamics of household water insecurity across the globe.  The RCN’s mission is to build a community of practice and collaboration that fosters key analytics and theoretical advances coupled with the development of research protocols and standardized assessments to document, benchmark, and understand the causes and outcomes of water insecurity at the household scale.  Our work advances the goal of sustainable and socially equitable water policy and interventions through the robust evaluation of key water security problems. We pay explicit attention to causes and outcomes of household water insecurity and translation of research outcomes into meaningful and useful products for practitioners, communities, and decision-makers.

Lead by Wendy Jepson (Texas A&M), Justin Stoler (University of Miami), Amber Wutich(Arizona State University), and Sera Young (Northwestern University), the RCN developed from an existing interdisciplinary collaboration among the key personnel on the HWISE Scale (link) and broadened collaborative publication and research relationships, that includes Leila Harris (UBC, EDGES), Jessica Budds (University of East Anglia), and Chad Staddon (UWE Bristol), among many others.  Current HWISE collaborators, which have grown organically around ad-hoc workshops (funded by our respective institutions and institutes) and sponsored projects to develop a household water insecurity scale, now include over 40 scholars from 25 U.S. and international institutions across the career spectrum (post-doctoral researchers and early career scholars to middle and advanced researchers) and social science disciplines.  In short, our effort to date is only the beginning of a productive research collaborative network to advance conceptual and methodological frontiers in water security and environmental social science, more broadly.

The National Science Foundation support will expand our ad-hoc HWISE community of scholars into the HWISE Network in order to significantly advance discovery and research infrastructure in geography and environmental social sciences as related to water. Objectives that we will advance in this five-year funding cycle include, but are not limited to, three major objectives:

  1. Integrate geospatial methodologies into existing HWISE research.
  2. Evaluate how HWISE methods and concepts can be translated to household water insecurity experiences in high- and middle-income regions (e.g. North America, Europe).
  3. Establish and cultivate key pathways to translate HWISE discoveries to NSF research priority efforts.

The scope of the HWISE Network proposed activities is global and cross cultural, as we recognize the important advances in water sustainability and policy development that originate in diverse environmental contexts and regions. Consequently, the HWISE Network will draw from scholars, policy makers, and practitioners globally. 

Steering Committee Members include: Ellis Adjei Adams (Georgia State University), Alexandra Brewis (Arizona State University), Jessica Budds (University of East Anglia), Vanessa Empinotti (Universidade Federal do ABC, Brazil), Ed Frongillo (University of South Carolina), Halla Ghattas (American University of Beirut), Leila Harris (University of British Columbia), Michelle Kooy (IHE Delft Water Education), Katie Meehan (University of Oregon), Roseanne Schuster (Arizona State University), Chad Staddon (UWE Bristol), Farhana Sultana (Syracuse University), Michael Tiboris (Chicago Council on Global Affairs), and Cassandra Workman (Workman Consultants, Tanzania).

Our new program coordinator is Amy Uyen Truong (Texas A&M University). For more information, please contact hwise.rcn@gmail.com.

More information to come on our workshops, training, and collaborative opportunities! We hope to have a web platform up soon!

In the meantime, you can find the HWISE Scale research (PI Sera Young) at the following site: https://sites.northwestern.edu/hwise/