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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Making Water Insecurity Visible

The Making Water Insecurity Visible group aims to address major gaps in the measurement and visibility of the underlying issues driving the global water crisis by using ethnographies, surveys and biosensors to produce new data on water insecurity and issues of water quality.

About the Project

More than two billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services, yet there are major gaps in the measurement and visibility of the underlying issues driving the global water crisis, such as inadequate water infrastructure, demand exceeding supply or institutions failing to balance communities’ needs. This group seeks to shed new light on the water crisis by conducting social science research, engineering testing and remediation solutions and fostering policy conversations that translate data into action. The group will conduct research in the U.S., Mexico and Kenya, using ethnographies, surveys and biosensors to produce new data on water insecurity and issues of water quality. Learn more in our Buffett Brief on Making Water Insecurity Visible, or explore more Global Working Groups' research in our collection of Buffett Briefs >>


Group Members


  • Julius Lucks, Chemical and Biological Engineering, Northwestern McCormick School of Engineering
  • Sera Young, Anthropology and Global Health, Northwestern Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences

Group members:

  • William Dichtel, Chemistry, Northwestern Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
  • Jean-François Gaillard, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Northwestern McCormick School of Engineering
  • Charlayne Mitchell, Global Health Studies, Northwestern Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
  • Noelle Samia, Statistics and Data Science, Northwestern Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
  • Robert Weinstock, Clinical Law, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law
  • Pablo Gaitán, Research Professor, Ibero-American University's Research Institute for Equitable Development (EQUIDE)
  • Simon Thuo, Consultant, Alliance for Global Water Adaptation

Latest Work and Developments

Research Activities

  • In March 2024, the Center for Strategic & International Studies published Water Insecurity Experiences (WISE) Scales data for 40 countries.  Group co-lead Sera Young led the development of the WISE Scales, which offer cross-culturally equivalent data on water insecurity. CSIS launched the interactive publication on World Water Day 2024 during an online event.
  • Young also published the WISE Scales Impact Report in March 2024, which was released at Gallup’s headquarters in London.
  • In August 2023, the National Science Foundation awarded a new Northwestern University pilot study a $3 million grant that will enable the Making Water Insecurity Visible Global Working Group to expand upon their work in Chicago. The study, led by group co-leads Julius Lucks and Sera Young, will follow a phased roll-out of hand-held, easy-to-use test kits developed by the Lucks Laboratory to 350 Chicago-area households to assess their home water quality.
    • In winter 2024, the group and their collaborators on the study distributed lead tests as part of the first phase of the study. They will distribute copper tests during the second phase, and the third phase will roll out PFAS test kits that combine Lucks Laboratory technology with new breakthroughs from the lab of group member William Dichtel.
  • With leaders of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, group members co-authored an article in Nature Water on the critical role of water in food security and nutrition, which was published ahead of World Food Day 2023.

Engagement Activities  

  • In April 2024, the World Health Organization and UNICEF recommended the WISE Scales as a "priority indicator” for global monitoring of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #6: Clean Water and Hygiene.
  • Members of the group convened representatives from the World Food Program, Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations Children’s Fund and dozens of other organizations in Mexico City in April 2023. Later that year, policymakers in Nuevo León, Mexico committed to administering regular surveys of vulnerable residents’ water insecurity experiences—creating a playbook for other government entities to follow.
  • Members of the group also launched a research network on Water Insecurity Experiences in Latin America & the Caribbean (the WISE-LAC Network). In September 2023, the network published a declaration on the value of experiential measures of food and water insecurity to improve regional policies in the International Journal for Equity in Health.
  • Group co-lead Sera Young and her external collaborators presented the event "If climate change is a shark, water is its teeth: How water insecurity data can mobilize action" at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Pavilion at the United Nations’ annual climate change conference (COP28) in December 2023. The presentation revealed the first-ever picture of how water insecurity experiences covary with climate events. 
  • In November 2023, Young delivered a Leverhulme Trust Lecture, “The value of quantifying human experiences with water: Global evidence and opportunities,” at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. 
  • At the 2023 Foreign Policy Climate Summit, Young discussed the Making Water Insecurity Visible group's unique approach to its mission during the summit's panel discussion on Strategies for Strengthening Water Security, sharing her insights into how quantifying the types and degrees of water insecurity can inform strategies to more effectively address these vulnerabilities.