Water insecurity strains mental health

Water insecurity strains mental health

Illustration of an ice cold bottle of water in a display case in a parched landscape.

Illustration: Aida Amer/Axios

Hundreds of millions of people around the world do not have reliable access to safe drinking water – a worsening crisis with a potentially profound impact on their mental health.

Why is this important: Similar to food insecurity, water insecurity has been linked to depression, anxiety and increased rates of violence – and is considered one of the greatest threats facing humans, have several scientists told Axios.

  • Water insecurity can be caused by many factors, including geology, poor infrastructure, high demand from a population or industry, racism, extreme drought, or intense flooding fueled by change. climatic.
  • “A lot of data on water insecurity around the world measures household water connections or the percentage of homes that have running water,” says Natalie Exum, who studies the health impacts of water. water insecurity at Johns Hopkins University.
  • “We don’t capture much of the stress and burden” that comes with it, she says.
  • One challenge is to focus on who experiences water insecurity – and how it affects their mental health.

What’s new: Northwestern University researchers sought to better understand who is water insecure by going beyond “measuring water in terms of what we can touch…to measuring individual experiences” , says study co-author Sera Young, an associate professor of anthropology and global health.

  • His team surveyed 45,555 adults in 31 low- and middle-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, Asia and Latin America, between September 4, 2020 and February 24, 2021.
  • Respondents answered 12 questions about their experience, including how often they worried about not having enough water or changing their diet due to drought or flooding, and how access affects their emotional health.
  • The team found that 14% of respondents were water insecure, ranging from 4% in China to 64% in Cameroon. This means that approximately 436 million adults – out of the 3 billion represented in these regions – were water insecure during this period.

Yes, but: The number of countries examined in this study is small and the questions did not take into account some key dimensions such as water quality, says Amber Wutich, President’s Professor of Anthropology at Arizona State University.

  • But, she says, it’s a “very good first step” towards the much-needed effort to quantify the global extent of water insecurity at the individual level.

The big picture: Water insecurity occurs around the world, including in high-income countries or countries with high rainfall, Young says.

  • This includes the United States, where climate change, an aging pipeline system and systemic racism play a significant role.
  • Some municipalities have intentionally excluded low-income areas from participating in centralized water infrastructure, which primarily impacts black, Native American, and Hispanic populations, Wutich says. “We live with the legacy of those decisions, and some of those decisions are still happening today.”
  • The settlements, small communities built with substandard homes just north of the US-Mexico border, have “never had secure access to water”, says Wutich.
  • In Jackson, Mississippi, citizens “have been relegated to a life of ordering boiling water, walking long distances with jugs, or scooping rainwater into buckets for daily use,” the official wrote. Axios editor, Delano Massey, for Editor and Publisher.

The impact: Mental Health Outcomes Water insecurity are still being studied, but many scientists believe that “experiences of resource insecurity seem to closely follow PTSD, anxiety, and depression,” Wutich said.

  • The role of climate change in water insecurity – and its impact on mental health – is an area of ​​intense interest.

  • The latest IPCC report released earlier this year found that “climate change is expected to adversely affect well-being and further threaten mental health”.
  • Droughts, floods and other climate-related exposures “were associated with psychological distress, worse mental health and higher mortality in people with pre-existing mental health conditions, increased hospitalizations psychiatric disorders and an increase in suicide rates,” the scientists wrote last year.
  • A small study in Ethiopia found that “water insecurity leads to extreme worry and fatigue”.

But there are several mechanisms to find out how climate change can affect a person’s health, says Tarik Benmarhnia, a professor at UC San Diego who studies the impact of climate change on health.

  • Extreme weather events can directly cause distress or trauma if someone witnesses injury or death. But these events can also affect other mental health factors, including employment, housing and nutrition, says Alessandro Massazza of the Wellcome Trust.
  • Drought, for example, can “lead to mental health problems through economic, food and water insecurity, but also indirectly through conflict and war,” Benmarhnia said.
  • We need to be “precise about the mechanism so that we can formulate very specific policies”.

But data remains a challenge.

  • Much of what is known about climate change and mental health comes from studies in Europe, North America and Australia, not those that are often most at risk, Massazza recently wrote. .
  • “In the most affected communities, we don’t have data,” says Benmarhnia.
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, data on food and water insecurity in communities are collected through surveys conducted by public health officials. “But the mental health data that is typically collected is very limited.”

What to watch: Research is growing to better measure water insecurity, access technologies, and more knowledge about the relationships between water insecurity, climate change, and mental health.

The bottom line: “Five years ago, this was totally ignored. But now, in 2022, it is on the agenda of many institutions and organizations,” says Benmarhnia.

  • “It was identified as a big, big challenge.”

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