Acknowledged but Unheard: The Absence of Children’s Voices in Water Insecurity

Steven Rhue //

Children’s voices are all but absent from research on water insecurity or the condition where access to and benefit from affordable adequate, reliable, and safe water for health and well-being is unobtainable or precarious (Jepson et al.). This body of work has been dominated by the underlying assumption that a child’s experience is primarily determined by their adult caretakers, resulting in an overemphasis on household-level assessments and parental narratives (Jepson et al.; Young et al.). A single adult’s response is often taken to represent a home’s collective reality and, even where inter-household variation is considered, children’s experiences remain commonly subsumed under those of their parents. Thus, despite the great emphasis placed on assuring children’s right to water and health and wellbeing (Nandy & Gordon; Pink), we are left with an adult-biased and incomplete understanding of water insecurity. 

However, it is not as if we are unaware of the significant risk children face. Children’s water insecurity has become a central emphasis of global policy, as hundreds of children die every day due to lack of adequate water and sanitation, and the provision of water is seen as requisite for the realization of other human rights (OHCHR; UNESC; UNICEF “WASH”). Lacking safe and sufficient water, children are particularly vulnerable. They are often the first to become ill and more likely to die during infancy and childhood, burdened by a disproportionate risk of diarrhea and dehydration (UNICEF “Thirsting for a future”; UNICEF “WASH”). Co-occurring with other human insecurities, water insecure children may become malnourished (Choudhary et al.), unable to consume nutritious food, and targets of violence or predatory exploitation while attempting to collect water (Sommer et al.). The necessity of securing water may further rend children unable to attend or perform poorly school (Cooper-Vince et al.; UNICEF “Collecting water”). Those that are able to attend may find no reprieve, as many schools fail to meet standards that ensure a child’s right to adequate water and sanitation (UNICEF “Thirsting for a future”; Coswosk et al.). 

For the sake of brevity, these represent only a few of the risks and consequences children may face, although two more are of noteworthy consideration. Those being, that water insecurity is believed to contribute to injury and disability should children regularly carry heavy water loads (Geere et al.), and that children may be subjected to the stress and emotions of their similarly water insecure caretakers (Wutich; Mushavi et al.). The intent of these examples is to illustrate that water insecurity is both mentally and physically taxing, and the pathways by which children’s health and wellbeing can be jeopardized are numerous. While documented to varying degrees in both academic and gray literature, the central issue remains that rarely have these concerns been explored from the perspective of the child.

Research has overwhelmingly focused on quantifying children’s water insecurity and statistically identifying the risk to health and well-being. Homes and participants are often recruited on basis of young children being present, generally those under 5 years of age, though adults are assumed the most knowledgeable of the stressors surrounding water use, consumption, and its scarcity. Insights on children are then commonly derived from heads of household, and where children are considered alongside adults, their voices may become muted as narratives are constructed around shared communal experiences. This is particularly concerning as complementary research in other areas of resource insecurity have demonstrated that children have experiences and perceptions distinct from their parents, which adults may be entirely unaware of or underestimate (Farm et al.; Bernard et al.). Unfortunately, the number of works that emphasize children’s water insecurity in their own words are limited and disparate at best. 

The emphasis on quantifiable aspects of childrens’ water insecurity and adult perspectives is similarly mirrored in policy and intervention. The noted lack of empirical work concerning water and poverty from the perspective of the child has led to overall poorly designed solutions. Many of the initiatives aimed at the provision of “improved” water and sanitation infrastructure are ill-suited for households with children and the children themselves. They are designed under the ideology that the provision of water will benefit members of a home or community equally, and this fails to account for the specific needs of children. In some cases, interventions, while implemented with good intent, are detrimental to children’s health and well-being, as they, designed for use by adults, remain inaccessible to children, or place a greater burden of responsibility on children to collect water for the home (Bartlett “Children’s experience”; Bartlett “Water, sanitation”; Nandy & Gordon).

For academic research to continue supporting the policies, initiatives, and articles of law that set out the rights of children to clean, safe, and accessible water (OHCHR; United Nations), children’s perceptions and lived experiences must be brought further into the fold of water insecurity research. It is insufficient to continue draw conclusions or design solutions primarily grounded in insights from adults alone. For as much as children’s vulnerability to water insecurity is emphasized, they essentially remain acknowledged, but unheard.  

Works Cited 

Bartlett, S. “Children’s experience of the physical environment in poor urban settlements and the implication for policy, planning, and practice.: Environment and Urbanization, Vol. 11, no. 2, 1999.’s_experience_ofthe_phy sical_environment_in_poor_urban_settlements_and_the_implications_for_policy_and_practice

Bartlett, S. “Water, sanitation and urban children: The need to go beyond “improved” provision.” Environment & Urbanization, vol. 15 no. 2. 2003, /pdf/10.1177/0956 24780301500220

Bernard et al. “Parent and child reports of food insecurity and mental health: Divergent perspectives.” Ochsner Journal, vol. 18, 2018, doi: 10.31486/toj.18.00373

Choudhary et al. “Water insecurity potentially undermines dietary diversity of children age 6-23 months.” Maternal & Child Nutrition, 2019, doi: 10.11.mcn.12929

Coswosk, et al. “Having a toilet is not enough: The limitations in fulfilling the human rights to water and sanitation in a municipal school in Bahia, Brazil.” BMC Public Health, vol. 19, no. 137, 2019, doi:10.1186/s12889-019-64649-y

Cooper-Vince et al. “Household water insecurity, missed schooling, and the mediating role ofcaregiver depression in rural Uganda.” Global Mental Health, vol. 4, e. 15, 2017, doi: 10.1017/g mh.2017.14

Farm et al. “Children are aware of food insecurity and take responsibility for managing food resources.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 11, 2011. doi: 10.3945/jn.110.135988

Geere et al. “How do children perceive health to be effected by domestic water carrying? Qualitative findings from a mixed methods study in rural South Africa.” Child: Care, Health, and Development, vol. 36, no. 6, 2010, doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2214.2010.01098.x

Jepson et al. “Progress in household water insecurity: A cross-disciplinary approach.” WIREs Water, vol. 4, 2017, doi: 10.1002/wat2.1214

Mushavi et al. ““When you have now water, it means you have no peace”. A mixed-methods whole population study of water insecurity and depression in rural Uganda.” Social Science & Medicine, 2020, doi: 10.1016./j.socscimed.2019.112561

Nandy, S. & Gordon, D. “Children living in squalor: Shelter, water and sanitation deprivation in developing countries.” Children, Youth and Environments, vol. 12, no. 3. /stable/10.7721/chilyouthenvi.19.2.0202

Office of the High Commission on the Rights of the Child. “Convention on the Rights of the Child.” OHCHR, 1989, professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx

Pink, R. “Childs rights, water rights and human security.” Health and Human Rights, vol. 14 no. 1, 2012,

Sommer, et al. (2014). “Violence, gender and WASH: Spurring action on a complex, under-documented and sensitive topic.” Environment & Urbanization, vol. 27, no. 1, doi:10.1177/ 0956247814564528

United Nations. “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2021.

United Nations Economic and Social Council. “Substantive issues arising in the implementation of the international covenant on economic social and cultural rights.” United Nations, 2002,

United Nations Children’s Fund. “Collecting water is often a colossal waste of time for women and girls.” UNICEF, 2016,

United Nations Children’s Fund. “Thirsting for a future: Water and children in a changing climate.” UNICEF, 2017,

United Nations Children’s Fund. “Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH).” UNICEF, 2021,

Wutich, A. “Intrahousehold disparities in women and men’s experiences of water insecurity and distress in urban Bolivia. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 4, 2009. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1387

Young et al. “Development and validation protocol for an instrument to measure household water insecurity across cultures and ecologies: the Household Water InSecurity Experiences (HWISE) Scale.” BMJ Open, vol. 9, 2019, doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2018-023558 

Image: Steven Rhue

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