Measuring water security with hydro-economic classification

A novel method to measure water security has been further developed by the IIASA Water Futures and Solutions Initiative. The hydro-economic classification uses two different dimensions to measure water security: the complexity of the hydrology and human water use, and the coping and adaptation capacity.

The IIASA-developed hydro-economic classification evaluates watersheds, countries, or regions using a combination of hydrological complexity and economic-institutional coping capacity [1]. In this way, it can identify vulnerable regions where the prevailing hydro-climatic conditions for human water use are complex and economic-institutional coping capacity is low.

Hydrological complexity is defined on the basis of four indicators:

  • A measure of water availability, defined as total renewable water resources per capita
  • A measure of the relative intensity of water use, defined as the ratio of annual water withdrawal for agriculture, industry, and the domestic sector to the total renewable water resources
  • The runoff variability, defined as the variation in monthly runoff for a 30-year period showing both inter- and intra-annual variability
  • A measure of the dependency on external water resources, defined as the ratio of external (i.e. from outside national boundaries) water resources to total renewable water resources.

All four indicators were compiled based on data and model calculations consistent with the Representative Concentration Pathways (four greenhouse gas concentration trajectories), and the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (five possible paths human societies could follow over the next century), which together provide the foundation for global climate modeling.

For economic-institutional coping capacity, researchers selected GDP per capita as a measure of economic strength and financial resources available for investing in risk reduction and adaptation. Although there are some exceptions, GDP per capita can also often provide a proxy for the availability and efficiency of institutions to cope with complex hydrological conditions.

The researchers are also discussing other potential indicators to be included in a measure of economic-institutional coping capacity. For example: education level [2], the Human Development Index, the Worldwide Governance Indicators, the Corruption Perception Index, and the Fragile State Index are all being considered.

The hydro-economic classification can group countries or watersheds into regions facing similar water security challenges and capacities. The Water Futures and Solutions Fast-Track scenario assessment [3] has applied this grouping method to differentiate key drivers of water demand and thereby go beyond globally uniform assumptions.

Watersheds with a population over 10 million people. Less water secure watersheds can be found in the lower right corner of the figure (e.g., Middle East and some Asian ones), while the upper left corner shows basins with higher water security (e.g., North American and European ones)


[1] Fischer G, Hizsnyik E, Tramberend S, & Wiberg D (2015). Towards indicators for water security – A global hydro-economic classification of water challenges. IIASA Interim Report. IIASA, Laxenburg, Austria: IR-15-013.

[2] Lutz W, Muttarak R, & Striessnig E (2014). Universal education is key to enhanced climate adaptation. Science 346 (6213): 1061-1062.

[3] Burek P, Satoh Y, Fischer G, Kahil MT, Scherzer A, Tramberend S, Nava LF, Wada Y, et al. (2016). Water Futures and Solution – Fast Track Initiative (Final Report). IIASA Working Paper. IIASA, Laxenburg, Austria: WP-16-006.

[4] Wada Y, Flörke M, Hanasaki N, Eisner S, Fischer G, Tramberend S, Satoh Y, van Vliet M, et al. (2016). Modeling global water use for the 21st century: Water Futures and Solutions (WFaS) initiative and is approaches. Geoscientific Model Development, 9(1):175-222.

[5] Magnuszewski P, Wiberg D, Cosgrove W, Fischer G, Floerke M, Hizsnyik E, Pahl-Wostl C, Segrave A, et al. (2015). Conceptual framework for scenarios development in the Water futures and Solutions project. IIASA Interim Report. IIASA, Laxenburg, Austria: IR-15-011.