Water insecurity and climate change put a strain on mental health

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

Image: Aïda Amer/Axios

Hundreds of millions of people around the world lack reliable access to clean water – an escalating crisis with potentially profound mental health implications.

Why it matters: Similar to food insecurityWater insecurity has been linked to depression, anxiety and increased rates of violence – and is taken into account one of the greatest threats to humanssay several scientists to Axios.

  • Water insecurity can be caused by numerous factors including geology, poor infrastructure, high demand from a population or industry, racism, or extreme drought or severe flooding fueled by climate change.
  • “A lot of water insecurity data around the world measures household water connections, or the percentage of households with tap water,” says Natalie Exum, who studies the health impact of water insecurity at Johns Hopkins University.
  • “We don’t capture much of the stress and strain” that comes with it, she says.
  • One challenge is figuring out who suffers from water insecurity — and how it affects their mental health.

What’s new: Northwestern University researchers attempted to better understand who is water-unsafe by going beyond “measuring water in terms of what we can touch … to measuring individual experiences,” says to learn Co-author Sera Young, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Global Health.

  • Her 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 were asked 12 questions about their experiences, including how often they worried about not having enough water or having changed their diet due to drought or flooding, and how access is affecting 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 an estimated 436 million adults – out of 3 billion represented in these regions – were water insecure during this period.

Yes but: The number of countries included in this study is small and the questions did not capture some important dimensions such as water quality, says Amber Wutich, President Professor of Anthropology at Arizona State University.

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

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

  • This includes the US, where climate changea outdated pipe system and systemic racism play a major role.
  • Certain communities intentionally excluded low-income areas from participating in centralized water infrastructure — impacting mostly black, Native American, and Hispanic populations, Wutich says. “We live with the legacies of those decisions, and some of those decisions are still being made today.”
  • coloniessmall communities of substandard homes north of the US-Mexico border “never had safe water access,” says Wutich.
  • At Jackson’sMississippi citizens “have been relegated to a life of fetching water, traveling long distances with jugs, or catching rainwater in buckets for everyday use,” said Delano Massey, editor-in-chief of Axios wrote for editors and publishers.

The Impact: Mental Health Effects Water insecurity is still being studied, but many scientists believe that “experiences of resource insecurity are closely associated with PTSD, anxiety and depression,” says Wutich.

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

  • That latest IPCC report Published earlier this year, noting that “climate change is expected to have negative impacts on well-being and further threaten mental health”.
  • Droughts, floods and other climate-related exposures “were associated with mental distress, worsening mental health and higher mortality among people with pre-existing mental illness, increased psychiatric hospitalizations and increased suicide rates,” scientists said wrote last year.
  • A small study in Ethiopia found that “water insecurity leads to extreme anxiety and fatigue”.

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

  • Extreme weather events can lead directly to suffering or trauma when someone witnesses injury or death. But these events can also influence other mental health factors, including employment, housing and diet, 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,” says Benmarhnia.
  • We need to “detail the mechanism so that we can formulate very specific guidelines”.

But data remains a challenge.

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

Something to see: Research is growing towards better measurement of water insecurity, technologies to treat access, and more knowledge of the relationships between water insecurity, climate change and mental health.

The bottom line: “Five years ago this was completely 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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