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By Tiffany Chen –

 Drought and crop faiure in the Midwest. (Abigail Foerstner/Medill)

Water is a scarce resource to 1.1 billion people worldwide who lack access to water, according to World Wildlife Fund. And some 4 billion people suffer from water shortages for part of the year. Though water covers 70 percent of the planet’s surface, only 1 percent of it is drinkable.

When the quality, quantity, availability and accessibility of water is unreliable, researchers consider people and communities as water insecure. This complex risk is woven into our everyday life, impacting economic productivity, health and nutrition, according to scientists measuring the impact with the Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) scale.

Scientists from around the globe gathered to share potential solutions to worldwide water shortages during the Household Water Insecurity Experience Conference at Northwestern University

To tackle the problem, researchers gathered at Northwestern University to develop and refine the first household insecurity scale, a novel tool to meaure water insecurity that people face at the household level. Northwestern anthropologist Sera Young organized the  three-day HWISE conference in conjunction with the university’s Institute for Policy Research and Center for Water Research to draw together collaborators who have collected data from across the globe.

“Water insecurity is very important,” said Shalean Collins, research study coordinator for Young’s group at Northwestern, who explained the urgency of worldwide water issues. “Anywhere you go, people will tell you in many different contexts and in many different languages, ‘water is life.’”

“There is no one, true cross-culturally appropriate way to measure water insecurity at the level of the household,” said Collins. “Water is used for more than consumption. It’s used for economic productivity [and] for all manner of things. It’s harder to pin down exactly what water insecurity is and how to measure it.”

Water has numerous usages within a household. A family needs water to drink, to bathe and to water their crops. With shortages, families have to decide how to prioritize water use and consumption and distribute their resource accordingly. These choices can make it difficult for scientists to assess how severe water scarcity is in a region and how global warming is making scarcity worse.

The HWISE research spans four continents and 19 study sites, from South America to Asia. The mission of the project is to develop a systematic cross-cultural scale to measure household-level water insecurity, to track the changes in insecurity over time and evaluate the effectiveness of interventions.

“Across the sites where data has been collected, [we find that the length of questionnaires] needs to be reduced,” said Godfred Boateng, a postdoctoral reearcher with Young’s group who analyzes data from the field sites. “The goal [of this conference] is to do some content re-evaluation, take out the redundant questions and make sure we have questions and items that are relevant to the scale we are developing.”

“Forcing people to answer yes and no questions is not optimal,” said Professor Edward Frongillo, of the University of South Carolina. Scientists agreed that short and quantifiable questions should be asked to assess household-level water insecurity level in the community and to avoid respondent fatigue.

Researchers often face many difficulties collecting data in the field due to cultural differences and the interpretation of language.

“Upset” is often translated into “sad” or “angry” in African and Latin American countries. Colleagues at the conference suggested researchers optimize the questions by asking “how satisfied” people are with water supplies before prompting respondents to answer the full water insecurity scale.

In translating the scale into local languages, researchers have to ensure they don’t lose the meaning of their questions. They often need to paraphrase the questions until it is fully understood by respondents, said Patrick Mbullo, a graduate student at Northwestern University from Kenya.

Amber Pearson, assistant professor of geography, Michigan State University, participates in the HWISE workshop.

Social psychology also plays a role. When interviewers question if there is enough money to buy water, people are often offended because they think the researchers are implying they cannot provide for their family, said Mobolanle Balogun, a senior lecturer at the University of Lagos in Nigeria. “Even [say] I’m poor, and I’ll say I’m rich; I’m sick, I’ll say I’m not,” she said.

If people think the researchers are from the government, “they tend to put themselves lower on the scale, wishing something good will come out of it,” said Balogun, describing another scenario.

The scientists suggested that interviewers be trained to ask unbiased questions and gather unbiased responses when facing such challenges in the field by asking respondents questions in a third-person angle.

Another challenge that the conference highlighted is the potential for push back from  communities and repondents. “Conducting assessments interrupts [people’s] schedule for that particular day,” said Mbullo.

Respondents are sometimes bothered by the seemingly redundant assessments as researchers try to gather data that demonstrate patterns across time. After an unpleasant experience with surveys, some people refuse to answer questions and tell their community not to engage with researchers.

Balogun suggested that the research teams discuss the survey within a community prior to conducting fieldwork. Communicating with the local leaders and communities in advance can help people understand the purpose of the research and alllow for local buy-in.

Th HWISE consortium will continue refining the Household Water Insecurity Experiences scale to create a cross-cultural assessment for countries that are threatened by water scarcity.

See related story: Half the World Suffers from Water Shortages – Global Researchers Gather to Meet the Threat


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