The Science Speaks blog series offers a deep dive into science, technology, and innovation topics on the minds of the public. The series explains focal topics through relatable analogies and asks readers to consider key opportunities, explore avenues for advancing gender equity and equality, and answer the ultimate question: Why should we care?
When animated comedy Rango premiered in the United States in March 2011, severe droughts were desiccating large swaths of the country’s central and southern plains. The timing was unfortunate, because the movie follows titular character Rango, an out-of-place chameleon, and his journey to fix the water supply challenges of “Dirt,” a drought-stricken Old West town populated by desert animals.
A combination of drought and other factors threaten Dirt’s water security, defined as the ability of a population to ensure consistent availability of and access to high-quality water in quantities that facilitate health, support livelihoods, permit socioeconomic development, and preserve ecosystems. Being water-secure also means being safeguarded against threats posed by water-related disasters. Women and girls, responsible for gathering water in many communities without piped access, experience distinct challenges when those communities are water insecure.
While 70 percent of Earth’s surface is covered by water, only 3 percent of the planet’s water supply is freshwater, and only a fraction of that water is actually accessible for use. When water is scarce, whether due to environmental factors or underdeveloped infrastructure, women and girls tend to lose economic and educational opportunities as water collection duties take increasingly more time. In fact, women and girls around the world cumulatively spend 200 million hours gathering water every day. Retrieving water from unfamiliar or distant locations also increases their risk of encountering gender-based violence.
Whether a population can achieve water security is determined by a confluence of factors, all of which contribute to a bleak outlook for Rango’s fictional town of Dirt. These include hydrology (e.g., precipitation patterns, geography), societal conditions (e.g., behaviors, policies, infrastructure), and the impacts of climate change. Dirt’s infrequent rainfall, poor water delivery system, and climate-induced heat stress collectively threaten the town’s water availability and access.
When it comes to the climate crisis, however, many people simply envision reduced freshwater availability thanks to drought and other conditions that hinder groundwater recharge. But heavy rainfall and flooding also impact water security by decreasing water quality—introducing chemical or sediment pollution or contaminating freshwater with saltwater. Higher water temperatures facilitate the proliferation of harmful algal blooms, hindering water quality even more.
Attainment of water security is further complicated by environmental degradation, poor wastewater treatment, and growing demand. Despite these challenges, water security is critical for advancing sustainable development and reducing or eliminating poverty, and it promotes equity (through reliable, affordable water access) while protecting ecosystems, the services they provide, and biodiversity. (Consider that Dirt’s citizens are, in fact, animals, so a lack of water threatens their anthropomorphized ecosystem.)
The positive outcomes of water security are matched by equally negative consequences when water insecurity prevails. These include food insecurity and poor agricultural yields, heightened disease risk, susceptibility to water-related natural disasters, and conflict. Even these downstream effects uniquely affect women and girls, who are more likely to experience food insecurity and are commonly afflicted by diseases that proliferate due to sanitation challenges.
Unfortunately, water scarcity impacts every continent, with locations ranging from Rango’s Mojave Desert setting to South Africa and Bangladesh—though vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected. Improving water security could involve tactics such as implementing sustainable water management practices, monitoring ground and surface water, investing in infrastructure for water storage and distribution, and increasing water supplies’ resilience to climate stressors. Plus, including women in the design and management of water and sanitation projects will improve those projects’ sustainability, efficacy, and equity.
Given the critical importance of protecting water supplies, the White House released its Action Plan on Global Water Security in June 2022, outlining a whole-of-government effort to achieve a water-secure world. As part of this effort, the State Department is working with partners and allies to facilitate water cooperation and engagement on water management through diplomacy and programming. Across the U.S. Government, agencies are investing in climate-stressed water sectors, rehabilitating water infrastructure, providing resources for water management planning, and empowering women to facilitate improvements in water and sanitation systems.
While Rango concludes with its heroic chameleon fixing Dirt’s water delivery system, we would do well to heed the warning of this fictional town’s longtime water challenges. How could water security be improved in your community?
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a contracted Gender, Climate & Innovation Policy Advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI). Dr. Paris received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.