Water Resources Management

, Volume 27, Issue 2, pp 535–551

Water Security Assessment: Integrating Governance and Freshwater Indicators


    • Department of Social SciencesMichigan Technological University
  • Gemma Dunn
    • Program on Water GovernanceUniversity of British Columbia
  • Karen Bakker
    • Department of Geography and Program on Water GovernanceUniversity of British Columbia
  • Diana M. Allen
    • Department of Earth SciencesSimon Fraser University
  • Rafael Cavalcanti de Albuquerque
    • Department of Earth SciencesSimon Fraser University

DOI: 10.1007/s11269-012-0200-4

Cite this article as:
Norman, E.S., Dunn, G., Bakker, K. et al. Water Resour Manage (2013) 27: 535. doi:10.1007/s11269-012-0200-4


A new approach is developed for assessing water security status: the Water Security Status Indicators (WSSI) assessment method. The WSSI has four innovative aspects which address important gaps in the literature. First, it was developed in cooperation with end-users, whose participation enabled the design of a user-friendly assessment method. Second, this method is designed to be implemented at the local scale (small scale watershed or sub-watershed). Third, the WSSI is multivariate: it integrates variables pertaining to water quality and water quantity as they relate to aquatic ecosystems and human health. Fourth, the method provides concrete outputs for incorporation into water decision-making processes. In this paper, we document the WSSI assessment method and its application in a community in British Columbia (Canada), including the incorporation of community input into the development and application of the WSSI, and the integration of WSSI results into community water governance.


Water securityGovernanceEnvironmentIndicatorsAssessmentFrameworkCanada

1 Introduction

Global freshwater systems are experiencing ongoing stressors (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007; United Nations World Water Assessment Programme (UN WWAP) 2006). An array of indicators has been developed to assess and measure freshwater-related issues at multiple scales (Chaves and Alipaz 2007; Falkenmark et al. 1989; Falkenmark and Lundqvist 1998; Gleick 1990; Heap et al. 1998; Meigh et al. 1998; Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2002, 2008; Policy Research Institute (PRI) 2007; Raskin 1997; Sullivan and Meigh 2007), mirroring the rapid growth in environmental indicators more generally over the past two decades (Lehtonen 2008; Munda 2005; Niemeijer and de Groot 2008).

Despite proliferation in the number of freshwater-related indicators and the recognized need to link scientific assessment with governance practice (Braden et al. 2009; Brown et al. 2012; Sullivan and Meigh 2007; van der Keur et al. 2010; Wagener et al. 2010), relatively little progress has been made in the systematic application of indicator assessment methods or the translation of the results into changes in water use, governance, and policy (Falkenmark 2007; UN WWAP 2006). Studies within this journal report progress in approaches to assessing scarcity of water resources (Hamouda et al. 2009) (see Plummer et al. 2012 for overview). However, existing indicators are usually univariate (e.g. relating to either water quality or quantity), rarely integrating aquatic ecosystems and human health considerations, and/or land-use and water management (Wheater and Evans 2009). Whilst narrowly-focused indices may be operationally useful for water managers (Bond et al. 2005; Falkenmark and Rockström 2004) overall they impede integration, which is arguably a core issue for communities grappling with competing uses where balancing specific trade-offs is a key management challenge (Sullivan and Meigh 2007). Furthermore, the issue of scale is an ongoing problem in assessment and governance; indicators are often site-specific, or framed at a specific scale that is not transferable to other scales (van der Zaag and Gupta 2008). Whilst wider scale assessment models have made progress in addressing complex water security issues (Vörösmarty et al. 2010), these indicators are rarely commensurate at a scale that is meaningful at a community level.

This paper outlines a new approach designed to address these issues (participation, scale, multivariate analyses, and governance tools), through the development of the Water Security Status Indicators (WSSI) assessment method.

2 Context: The Role of Indicators in Freshwater Status Assessment

Freshwater-related indicators have proliferated rapidly over the past two decades (Table 1). Table 1 captures only a handful of existing indicators, which likely number in the thousands. For example, in Canada alone, recent research has documented 365 freshwater assessment indicators, of which 295 were developed at the federal, provincial, and regional (large scale watershed) levels, and at least 70 at the local (small scale watershed) level (Dunn and Bakker 2009, 2011). This development of water indicators has occurred, in part, due to a wider international effort to adhere to international initiatives.
Table 1

Widely cited international water assessment indicators



Spatial scale

Water stress indicator

Falkenmark et al. (1989); Falkenmark and Lundqvist (1998)


Vulnerability of water systems

Gleick (1990)


Basic human needs index

Gleick (1996)


Water resources vulnerability index

Raskin (1997)


Indicator of water scarcity

Heap et al. (1998)

Country, Region

Water availability index

Meigh et al. (1998)


Index of water scarcity

OECD (2002)

Country, Region

Water poverty index

Sullivan (2002)

Country, Region

Index of watershed indicators

United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) (2002)


Relative water stress index

Water Systems Analysis Group (WSAG) (2005)


Canadian water sustainability index

PRI (2007)


Indicators can play an important role in the dissemination of information, transforming complex scientific data into a simplified and quantified expression that can be more easily understood and communicated to the general public (Ebert and Welch 2004; Gleick et al. 2002; Molden et al. 2007; United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) 2007); inform decision makers; report on trends and fulfill international commitments (Glozier et al. 2004; Pintér et al. 2005). However, the uptake of freshwater-related indicators by communities and water managers (as opposed to government organizations and policy-makers) appears to be limited (Braden et al. 2009; Wagener et al. 2010). Whilst many indicators have been developed few are widely used by communities or practitioners. Several reasons have been identified in the literature: lack of overlap between hydrological and administrative borders (Hill et al. 2008); limited institutional capacity to collect, access or assess data (Bond et al. 2005); limited interaction between the scientists that develop indicators and the policy-makers who use them (Brennin 2007; Dunn and Bakker 2009, 2011; Bond et al. 2005); and mismatch of scale of assessment and community needs (Fischhendler and Heikkila 2010; Van der Zaag and Gupta 2008). Although the inclusion of local stakeholders in integrated assessment is often recommended (Sabatier et al. 2005), particularly in the analysis of complex issues and unstructured problems such as freshwater resources (Jasanoff 2004), participatory methods are often under-utilized in scientific research (Jasanoff 2004; Lemos et al. 2010). The adaptive management approach (whereby policies in resource management are considered fluid rather than fixed, and have built-in networks for change depending on outcomes) is a useful approach to counter these deficiencies (Folke et al. 2002; Folke 2006). This approach reflects ongoing calls for the integration of governance in indicator assessment along with the need for individual and community engagement (Delanty 2002; Denhardt and Denhardt 2007).

The WSSI assessment method proposed here suggests that it is the process of design and engagement rather than the end-goal, which will lead to change in communities: “Grounding practice in negotiated ethics is more important than mechanically following a given set of rights, metrics, or even development goal” (McCarthy et al. 2010: 14).

3 Background: Development of the Water Security Status Indicators (WSSI) Assessment Method

The WSSI assessment method is an analytical tool for assessing water status. The WSSI is not a new indicator, but rather a method that allows for the simultaneous analysis of multiple indicators (Table 2). Based on the principles of adaptive management and good governance, the method incorporates community governance processes, facilitates participation, and operates at a scale commensurate with local water management capacity. The WSSI assessment method adopts a localized, place-based approach, comparable with the findings of DeRosemund et al. (2008), who found that whilst the use of national standards is warranted to assess the “absolute condition of water quality as it relates specific uses, the regional approach is more suited to evaluate spatial changes in water quality due to dominant man-made influences” (DeRosemund et al. 2008: 239).
Table 2

Summary table outlining the fundamental steps to apply the WSSI assessment framework




Define Scope and Scale of Assessment


Identify Stakeholders and Assemble the Assessment Team


Visioning and Goals

Water Security Objectives and Targets


Prepare Information Required to Assess Water Security Status

 a. Decide the time-frame of the assessment

 b. Identify key water issues (which parameters need to be measured)

 c. Identify data availability and accessibility

 d. Identify prior (water related) studies and access to information

 e. Identify existing indicators


Analyzing and Reporting Results

 a. Data gathering and calculation of water quality (human health) using indicator A (section 4.2.1)

 b. Data gathering and calculation of water quality (aquatic ecosystem health) using indicator B (section 4.2.2)

 c. 5c) Data gathering and calculation of water quantity (human healthy) using indicator C (section 4.3.1)

 d. 5d) Data gathering and calculation of water quantity (aquatic ecosystem health) using indicator D (section 4.3.2)

 e. 5e) Construction of composite index and ‘slider bar’ decision-making heuristic


Risk Assessment and Back-Casting: Status in Relation to Water Security Goals


Governance Mechanisms to Move Towards Water Security

Dunn 2012

In the case study below, we focus specifically on indicators of water quantity and quality as they pertain to aquatic ecosystems and human health, according to the following definition of water security: “sustainable access, on a watershed basis, of adequate quantities of water, of acceptable quality, to ensure human and ecosystem health” (Bakker 2012; Cook and Bakker 2012; Dunn and Bakker 2009, 2011; Norman et al. 2010, 2011).

The development of the WSSI assessment method was part of a collaborative process that included end-user feedback throughout its development. The WSSI assessment method was part of wider multi-disciplinary research project on water security with researchers from health sciences, ecology, hydrology, and geography, in addition to municipal water mangers managers.1 The pilot application of the WSSI occurred in collaboration with the researchers (authors of this paper) and the Assessment Team (the researchers in collaboration with municipal employees and a local community group in the Township of Langley in the lower Fraser Valley of British Columbia, Canada) (Table 3).
Table 3

WSSI assessment method matrix: Township of Langley, British Columbia example

Indicators that define safe water for

Water quality

Water quantity

Human health

Water Quality Index, CCME (applied to groundwater datasets)

Township of Langley Internal Study (through Water Management Plan)

aWater Availability Indicator (Environment Canada)

Aquatic ecosystems health

GVWD Watershed Classification System (applied to Bertrand Creek)

Sensitive Stream Assessment, BC MoE

b Water Quality Index, CCME (applied to Bertrand Creek)

bBenthic Index of Biotic Integrity, Kerr

aThis indicator was ultimately not used in the assessment as the scale was not commensurate to the township scale

bBoth indicators were used; same results

In summary, the WSSI is an assessment method that: 1) provides a framework to guide communities in selecting suitable/appropriate freshwater indicators; 2) integrates governance throughout the assessment process (e.g. firstly through the incorporation of stakeholders, and secondly through the incorporation of the results into water management decisions and behaviour modifications); 3) provides a means of integrating the assessment of water quality and water quantity (equally weighted) in terms of aquatic ecosystems and human health. This last point bears emphasis: while many water-related indices assess water quality and quantity issues separately, the WSSI assessment method enables communities to assess the status of fresh water in an integrated manner. In short, two underlying premises guide the WSSI assessment method: the need for an integrative assessment method, and the need for a process-based approach that inherently includes governance within the assessment process itself (Delanty 2002; UN WWAP 2009; McCarthy et al. 2010).

4 Methodology and Results: Testing the WSSI Assessment Method in Township of Langley, British Columbia (Canada)

4.1 Profile of Township of Langley, British Columbia, Canada

The Township of Langley (ToL), part of the Fraser River watershed (illustrated in Fig. 1), is located 47 km southeast of Vancouver, British Columbia (BC). It is a predominantly rural community of approximately 100,000 residents. Land use is a mix of agricultural, commercial, industrial and residential, with 75 % of its land base in an Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). The ToL differs from other municipalities in this region in that groundwater is the primary source of water (80 %). The ToL operates 18 municipal wells; 20 % of the ToL residents obtain water from private wells (numbering at least 5,000) (ToL 2009) and the remaining water needs are supplemented by the Greater Vancouver Water District (GVWD). Growing population pressures and increasing commercial, industrial, and agricultural demands are impacting both water supply and quality.
Fig. 1

Map of study area, Township of Langley, British Columbia Canada

The hydrogeology of the ToL is relatively well documented and mapped. Within the ToL, a total of 18 major aquifers with a variety of hydrogeological settings have been mapped (Golden Associates Ltd. 2005). The groundwater aquifer systems in ToL are complex, consisting of both confined and unconfined aquifers that are comprised of different sediment types and variable chemical constituents (Halstead 1986) and their interconnections are only just beginning to be understood. Each of these aquifers may have a unique sensitivity to natural and anthropogenic contaminants, which is a result of the complex hydrogeology (Cavalcanti de Albuquerque et al. 2012).

4.1.1 Drinking Water Supply Issues

Currently, groundwater withdrawal is largely unregulated across the ToL, as is the case throughout British Columbia (ToL 2009), and extraction is unlimited (Office of the Auditor General (OAG) 2010; Nowlan and Bakker 2010). Water levels in observation wells indicate that for the past 40 years groundwater levels have been dropping by 4–51 cm/year (Golder Associates Ltd. 2005). In some areas peak summer water demand nearly exceeds the Township’s existing municipal supply capacity. In addition, elevated nitrate levels in groundwater indicate groundwater vulnerability to contamination due to agricultural activities and poor wellhead protection (ToL 2009).

4.1.2 Environmental Water Issues

The area contains critically important fish habitat, including approximately 700 km of fish bearing streams and numerous wetlands (British Columbia Ministry of Environment (BCMoE) 2011; ToL 2009). The ToL streams originate in low-lying areas and are typically groundwater fed. The stream headwaters are located in prime agricultural and development areas, complicating the protection of streams (ToL 2009). Groundwater modeling indicates that in some perennial streams, over-extraction has already led to a 30 % decline in baseflow (Golder Associates Ltd. 2005). Declining groundwater levels, increased population pressures, and urban growth (including increased impervious land and decreasing riparian forest) are adversely affecting important wetland areas (Kerr and Leidal 2009). Furthermore, two fish species have “endangered status” within the ToL region—the Nooksack Dace and Salish Sucker (Catostomus sp.) and two streams are listed as “sensitive” under the British Columbia Fish Protection Act (West Creek and Nathan Creek (Environment Canada 2010a)). Previous studies indicate that low dissolved oxygen is a critical water quality concern for aquatic ecosystems health, particularly within the study area (Bertrand Creek) (Kerr and Leidal 2009).

To assess ecosystem health, the Assessment Team assessed four primary factors affecting the ecological health of urban streams: changes in hydrology; disturbance to the riparian corridor; disturbance to fish habitat and deterioration of water quality (Kerr and Leidal 2009).

4.2 Results: Water Quality

The primary tool used to assess water quality in the ToL was the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) Water Quality Index (WQI). The CCME WQI provides an analytical framework for assessing ambient water quality conditions relative to water quality objectives. The index has flexibility with respect to the type and number of water quality variables to be tested, the period of application, and the type of water source tested. Both human health parameters and aquatic ecosystems health parameters can be calculated separately (Glozier et al. 2004; Khan et al. 2005; Lumb et al. 2006).

Calculation of the CCME WQI requires at least four water quality parameters, sampled a minimum of four times (sampling criteria for using this method). Whilst no upper limit on the number of water quality parameters and frequency of sampling exists, the selection of appropriate parameters for a particular region is necessary for the index to yield meaningful results (CCME 2001). A ranking system helps to translate the numerical score (i.e. the index itself) using four categories ranging from “excellent” and “poor”. (Note: these four categories were modified in this study into a three tier system of “good” “fair” and “poor” to enable consistency when comparing indicators selected for the WSSI assessment method).

4.2.1 Water Quality: Human Health

The researchers worked in collaboration with the ToL municipal employees and a local community group (Private Well Network) to calculate the CCME WQI for drinking water sources. Since the majority of the drinking water in the ToL is drawn from municipal or private wells, the most comprehensive groundwater data sets were identified and used: the community Private Well Network (PWN), and the provincial Environmental Monitoring System (EMS).

The CCME WQI scores for the included ToL sample sites ranged from “poor” to “good”, with the majority (60 %) indicating “fair” water quality (Fig. 2). This diverse range of results relates to the multitude of aquifers in the ToL as illustrated in Fig. 3.
Fig. 2

Slider bar of surface and ground water quality assessment in Township of Langley, British Columbia. Data sources: Private Well Network (PWN), and the provincial Environmental Monitoring System (EMS)

Fig. 3

Geospatial assessment map for water quality in Township of Langley, British Columbia

4.2.2 Water Quality: Aquatic Ecosystem Health

To assess the water quality for aquatic ecosystems health, two approaches were applied: the GVWD Watershed Classification System and the CCME WQI. Both approaches were applied to Bertrand Creek (Fig. 1) (although future assessments would apply to multiple streams). Bertrand Creek was employed because: 1) it is considered a “typical indicator” creek in the ToL and 2) because of its transnational status (crosses into the United States).

In applying the GVWD Watershed Classification System, one measurable watershed level indicator is used to infer water quality: total impervious area (Table 5). The overall health of the watershed can be assessed using total impervious area and percent riparian forest integrity. For Bertrand Creek, the healthiest reach in the watershed is the lower portion of the creek, which has the smallest portion of tributary impervious area and a strong riparian corridor (Kerr and Leidal 2009). The GVWD method indicates that at least the lower portion of Bertand Creek is healthy. However, compromised riparian habitat and reduced flow conditions from declining groundwater sources impact baseflows are causing conditions of hypoxia in several streams in the region, including Bertrand Creek; overall, assessments of aquatic ecology of large portions of Bertrand Creek tend to be “poor”.

The CCME WQI was applied using surface water data. Surface water (stream) chemistry data for Bertrand Creek were extracted from the provincial EMS database. Objectives were selected from the CCME’s Water Quality Guidelines for the Protection of Aquatic Health; Environment Canada’s Freshwater Quality Index ecosystem health parameters and from provincial guidelines (Environment Canada 2010b). CCME WQI results for Bertrand Creek indicated “poor” water quality (Fig. 2). However, matching available data to the indicators proved challenging, as noted in the discussion section.

4.3 Water Quantity

The Water Availability Indicator (WAI) was under development by Program on Water Governance November 5, 2012 8:40 PM. This indicator calculates the volume of water in rivers compared to the amount of water used. The WAI is designed to be a national or regional indicator assessing withdrawals at the large watershed scale (although for this research project, the indicator was calculated at a sub-sub watershed scale). The ability to calculate supply in relation to demand for human health (section 4.3.1) was a primary reason for the indicators selection. The WAI does not currently include water quantity parameters for ecosystem health so an alternative approach was used (section 4.3.2).

The WAI is calculated using data from three national surveys (Environment Canada’s Municipal Water and Wastewater Survey, Statistics Canada’s Industrial Water Use Survey, and Statistics Canada’s Agricultural Water Use Survey), plus data from national hydrometric monitoring stations (HYDAT) (Table 4).
Table 4

Water availability indicator: description of categories




Low stress

<10 %

Availability is high


10–20 %

Water availability is becoming constrained; significant investment is needed to provide adequate supply


20–40 %

Supply and demand needs to be managed, and conflicts amongst competing users needs to be resolved

Water stress

40–75 %

Demand exceeds supply during certain periods, or poor water quality restricts use

High stress

>75 %

(i.e. physical scarcity): Physical access to water is limited; demand outstrips supply

Environment Canada (2010b)

4.3.1 Water Quantity: Human Health

To assess water quantity the WAI was piloted as a potential indicator of water supply in relation to demand. The Assessment Team also employed the internal ToL data including metering, demand management strategies, water availability assessment reports and consultant studies, which indicate that groundwater supply in Langley is “poor”. In particular, some areas of Langley that are solely dependent on groundwater have already reached, and in some instances nearly exceed, water supply capacity.

In contrast, the WAI results differed from the ToL internal assessment, categorizing ToL sub-sub-watershed water availability as “low stress” or “good”. It is important to note, however, that the WAI calculates the volume of water in rivers compared to the amount of water used. Although a long-term objective for Environment Canada, the WAI does not currently incorporate groundwater data. Whilst the researchers collaborated with Environment Canada to explore the possibilities of applying the WAI at a scale that would be more meaningful at a municipal level (for this case study community the index was calculated at a sub-sub watershed scale), the results show that this indicator is not sensitive enough to identify water supply challenges at the local level.

Although this indicator was promising because it approaches water demand in relation to supply, ultimately the Assessment Team rejected the WAI approach because the scale was not commensurate with the local level at which water governance is conducted by ToL. This highlights the challenge of developing and applying indicators at a national or regional scale that can be sensitive enough for use at a community level and that include socio-economic considerations. This concurs with the findings of PRI (2007), which suggest that assessment processes should be conducted (and data employed) at scales commensurate with governance decision-making scales.

4.3.2 Water Quantity: Aquatic Ecosystem Health

To assess the status of water quantity in relation to aquatic ecosystem health, the Assessment Team triangulated results from the BC Ministry of Environment’s (BCMoE 2011) Sensitive Stream Assessment, a ToL internal consultant report that employed the Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity Indicator (Kerr and Leidal 2009), and a baseflow groundwater modeling study (Golder Associates Ltd. 2005).

The BC MoE Sensitive Stream Assessment listed two creeks in ToL as “sensitive” (West Creek and Nathan Creek) under the BC Fisheries Act. A primary factor for these listings is the vulnerability of critical indicators species of salmon (BCMoE 2011). The Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity (B-IBI)—a biologically based performance measure–was used to corroborate findings. The B-IBI is a statistical rating system that measure benthic macro-invertebrate communities that are specific to Pacific Northwest conditions and are replicable in most creek systems (Kerr and Leidal 2009) (Table 5). The scores ranged from 10, which is “poor” to 50, which is “excellent” (modified for WSSI to read “good”). The B-IBI was tested in three sites along Bertrand Creek: Site A was sampled in the most urbanized portion of the watershed, site B was taken in the middle of the watershed, and site C was taken at the International Boundary. The IBI finds a correlation between a decline in biological health with an increase in total impervious area and a decline in riparian forest integrity. In addition, groundwater modeling (based on land use patterns) indicates that regional base flows have declined by upwards of 30 % in several perennial streams, adversely influencing aquatic ecosystem health, particularly dissolved oxygen levels. All three results indicate a baseline assessment of “poor” for aquatic ecosystem health in ToL’s Bertrand Creek Watershed.
Table 5

Benthic Index of Biotic Integrity (B-IBI), percentage of total impervious area and percentage of riparian forest integrity for Bertrand Creek in Township of Langley, British Columbia


B-IBI score

Total impervious area (%)

Riparian forest integrity (%)













Kerr and Leidal 2009

4.4 Governance

The WSSI employs participatory methods that allow individual communities to assess water status with specific parameters that reflect a site’s conditions. Assessing water security status is only one step in the WSSI analysis; relaying the results of the assessment more broadly–to citizenry and to policy-makers–is another essential step. This is consistent with international ‘good practice’; for example, the United Nations’ Circles of Sustainability Project (McCarthy et al. 2010).

The Researchers developed visual heuristics for the dissemination of analysis results because many community members more readily interpret visual interpretations of results. For example, a “Traffic Light” assessment approach was used; combined with a map and/or slider bar (which can be modified for temporal variation), this can be applied to each indicator to help convey the results of the WSSI assessment method (DEFRA 2011). This approach allows the community to view the changes per indicator as well as cumulatively. The use of slider bars (Figs. 2 and 4) provides a summary of status per indicator, which can be updated with annual testing results. In this assessment, based on pre-determined ranges, green indicates that the status of a community’s water is “good”; yellow “fair” (where work needs to be done to achieve water security, but it is within the range of meeting goals); and red indicates “poor” (where major work is needed to achieve goals). An assessment map can also help identify the geospatial diversity of water quality (Fig. 3). Geospatial maps like that shown in Fig. 3 help communicate water status assessment results so that more informed choices can be made in terms of land use planning and water allocation.
Fig. 4

Slider bar of surface and ground water quantity assessment in Township of Langley, British Columbia. Data sources: ToL (2009); Environment Canada (2010b); British Columbia Ministry of Environment (BCMoE) (2011)

The next critical piece is adaption; i.e. having plans in place to link the findings back to behaviour change. This critical piece requires continued buy-in from citizenry and policy-makers. Civic engagement and general awareness of water-related issues is an important consideration for linking assessment to change (Nowlan and Bakker 2010; Sabatier et al. 2005). For example, it is essential to identify existing mechanisms for data assessment and water management.

A number of existing community based networks and special interest groups have been established in ToL whose overarching goals are to improve water quality through data exchange networks or through habitat restoration. However, the scope of these organizations are often narrowly defined and rarely integrated with other municipal resources. Incorporating the WSSI assessment method into the design of projects will likely aid the community to think more broadly about assessing water status and, in turn, meet goals of water security in a more integrated manner.

The community partners involved in this case noted that the process of undertaking the WSSI assessment method proved useful for highlighting gaps in current practices, particularly in relation to data collection and availability. For example, the extent of how fragmented and incomplete the water quality data set was previously unknown to the Assessment Team.

The Assessment Team noted that results of the WSSI were consistent with their internal assessments of the region and that the user-friendly output of the WSSI matrix would likely help to revitalize interest in ongoing assessment and planning, and engage community leaders and decision-makers (such as the Township Council).

5 Discussion: Implications for Water Security Assessment

The WSSI assessment method provides a tool for communities to recognize, articulate, and address the links between the current status of their water security (in terms of water quality and quantity as it pertains to aquatic ecosystems and human health) and current governance practices. This approach is useful to communities because the consultative, participatory approach ensures that the WSSI assessment method adapts the data/indicators used to the specific needs of a community. In addition, this approach results in different findings commensurate with the community profile and physical geography/hydrology/hydrogeology of the site. This approach also enables water managers to communicate findings to laypeople more effectively. For example, the ability to represent findings spatially (as discussed in Section 4.3) allows communities to begin integrating land use and water management more effectively. The ability to link these processes to assessment is a key value-added of the WSSI assessment method. In the ToL case, the community partners engaged in the WSSI assessment process reported two important findings: 1) the WSSI results summarized findings in a way that could be clearly and easily transmitted to the community decision-makers to help leverage support (particularly in terms of financial support); 2) the assessment process identified important gaps related to data (access to, and coordination of) and scale (disconnect between administrative and hydrological boundaries).

The first application of the WSSI assessment method to the ToL provided a diagnostic that highlighted issues related to data and scale. On-going assessment will allow the community to remedy these gaps and prioritize management plans as part of a wider adaptive management process. Future water quality collection plans, for example, could remedy the highlighted temporal and spatial gaps in datasets.

5.1 Data Considerations

The need for greater prioritization of dissemination and timeliness of data was a key issue related to effective assessment. To maximize the applicability of indicators, it is widely acknowledged that the data upon which indicators are based are recent, and the indicator information (reports) should be released soon after the time-period they refer to (Dunn and Bakker 2009). In Canada, environmental statistics are, generally speaking, not as timely as their economic and social cousins (Statistics Canada 2009: 4). Typically, most Canadian federal level (and some provincial) indicator reports are released between 2 and 5 years after the data period they refer to. The slow pace at which indicators are released, combined with accessibility challenges, has been and still is inhibiting their influence on policy cycles. In addition, the datasets available are largely incomplete or lacking standard parameters. Thus, “retrofitting” previously collected data to match pre-determined indicators proves difficult and inefficient. Starting data collection with a known assessment method–and with the adaptive flexibility and buy-in from decision-makers and community members–is a more effective process. For example, of the two sampling sites in Bertrand Creek tested for ecosystem water quality, only one site had sufficient data to calculate CCME WQI. Another significant issue was the sampling frequency. Ideally, WQI data should cover at least 1 year; however, the data for sites were collected weekly over a 1-month time period, which does not enable analysis of seasonal variation. The parameters assessed were also selected based on data availability. Identifying these data gaps is part of the assessment process and linked to adaptive management process.

The issue of data is exacerbated at the sub-watershed scale, where ability to access data, interpret lab results, or compare results to relevant pre-determined standards is limited. In addition, the need for greater data availability and timeliness of distribution of information were key data-related issues. The issues of scale (particularly for interpreting issues related to supply in relationship to demand) are also important considerations in linking assessment with policy.

5.2 The Governance Challenge

The engagement of ‘end-users’ (policy and decision-makers) in the development of indicators is important (to increase their utility). An adaptive management approach—using a continuous feedback loop to refine and update the selected indicators over time—is thus an essential component in indicator development. This supports findings from the 2009 Water Security Survey, which found a significant disconnect between the needs of policy-makers and water managers and existing water-related indicators–exemplified by the limited uptake of existing indicators (Norman et al. 2011).

The creation of stronger pathways to access existing water-related data exchange networks is one approach to help remedy this issue. For example, the ToL has a strong community-based Private Well Network (PWN) designed to encourage private well owners to take a proactive role in the management of their wells and protect their human health through affordable water quality testing. The PWN assists in knowledge dissemination through the creation of aquifer maps, information exchange, and sharing of water quality results (ToL 2009).

The preliminary results of the ToL communities highlight the utility in undertaking the WSSI assessment as a means to raise awareness and identify priorities in relation to water governance. In addition, recognizing how the community wants to assess the status of water security empowers the decision makers, municipal employees, and community members to align collection methods and programs in support of this goal. However, this is just one step in a series of adjustments that need to occur to continue to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing environment.

6 Conclusion

In this paper, a new method was proposed to assess water security status: the Water Security Status Indicators (WSSI) assessment method. The key contributions of the WSSI assessment method include innovations in four areas: participation, scale, multivariate analyses, and governance tools. End-user participation enabled the design and development of the user-friendly assessment method; participatory methods through multi-stakeholder involvement were used in the indicator selection and data identification processes. Focusing on local scale assessment and multi-stakeholder participation enables communities determine the appropriate indicators based on available resources in combination with long-term assessment, reporting and community goals. The multivariate approach included water quality and water quantity-related variables as they pertain to aquatic ecosystems and human health (rather than the single variable, single indicator studies which predominate in the literature). Lastly, the WSSI assessment method employs an adaptive management approach where governance is central to its method and provides concrete outputs for incorporation into water decision-making processes.

The development of the WSSI assessment method and the application to the ToL highlighted how the process of choosing indicators to assess the status of water security served dual purposes: knowledge translation about the status of water security and self-assessment relating to institutional gaps. The process of applying the indicators revealed important gaps related to data (access to and coordination of) and scale (disconnect between administrative and hydrological boundaries). By employing adaptive management techniques, these gaps are being addressed at the municipal level and can be used to leverage support for community decision-makers (particularly in terms of financial support for water-related projects).

Overall, our findings corroborate other studies that find data-related issues to be a central barrier to effective assessment of water (e.g. UN WWAP 2006). In particular, data availability, access to data, fragmented and incomplete data sets, inconsistent monitoring, and dissemination and timeliness of data were key issues in our case study. In addition, retrofitting data to fit indicators proved difficult, suggesting the importance of adaptive management practices where data collection practice feeds directly into assessment needs. Other areas that require attention in assessment of water resources include scale sensitivity and greater attention to groundwater and surface water-related issues, which are often conflated in water assessment. In general, greater sensitivity to the nuances of water source (and scale) is needed for more effective water assessment practices. Considering these issues in the development stage of indicators would help lessen the divide between assessment and policy.

To develop a more comprehensive assessment of water security, the risk to water quality and/or quantity should also be assessed. Water-related risk assessments require knowledge of the susceptibility of the source (whether aquifer or surface water body), the hazard potential, and a measure of consequence (financial or health-related). Applying an analysis of the current status of water security (through the WSSI assessment method) in combination with a risk assessment (e.g. Simpson 2012) could provide communities with a set of powerful tools to help guide community planners and decision-makers.

In closing, the inclusion of stakeholders is an essential component to integrated assessment methods, as they can provide valuable local knowledge, access to data sources, and long-term commitments to adaptive planning. Thus, we suggest that assessment methods such as the WSSI may close the gap between scientific assessment, policy, and behaviour-change, particularly if these methods are flexible in nature and incorporate adaptive management and community involvement. This may, we argue, contribute to attaining goals of water security at the community level and beyond.


This research was part of the 4-year project (2008–2012), Developing a Canadian Water Security Framework as a Tool for Improved Governance for Watersheds, funded through Canadian Water Network. The Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation provided additional support. The University of British Columbia Ethics Review Certificate Number is H08-01157.



This article is the product of the second phase of a 4-year (2008–2012) research project “Developing a Canadian Water Security Framework as a Tool for Improved Governance for Watersheds” that created a Water Security Assessment Framework (WSAF) and includes decision-support tools for water managers. This research project, led by Dr. Karen Bakker and Dr. Diana Allen, was funded by grants from the Canadian Water Network (CWN) and the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation. We would particularly like to thank our case study partners in the Township of Langley (Asher Rivzi, Mark Sloat, and Kevin Larsen) and the Water Availability Index development team (Michel Villeneuve, Francis Savignac, and Gillian Walker), and Gwyn Graham from Environment Canada. We would like to acknowledge the contributions of our team researchers, in particular Christina Cook, Judy Isaac-Renton, Natalie Prystajecky, Kay Teschke, Renuka Grover, Mike Simpson, Ed McBean and Cassandra Banting. In addition, thanks to Eric Leinberger for creating Fig. 1. We would also like to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) for financially supporting the dissemination of this research and the BC Ministry of Environment for funding our workshop on water security in September 2009.

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012