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Confronting Water Insecurity from Chicago to Kathmandu

Northwestern research with local and global impacts

Mike M. McMahon | November 12, 2018
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Sera Young
Sera Young, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Global Health, Northwestern University

Floods and droughts are two sides of the same catastrophic coin. They are both types of water insecurity—one having to do with excessive amounts of water and the other with a lack thereof. Through its Resnick Family Social Impact Program, the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) is helping to support new research initiatives aimed at better understanding these phenomena in global and local contexts.

The research projects, led by Northwestern assistant professor of anthropology and global health Sera Young, postdoctoral fellow Vidya Venkataramanan, and teams of student researchers, are tackling the issue of water insecurity from two different angles. First, the team is studying urban flooding and green infrastructure in Chicago. At the same time, they’re working on developing a first-of-its-kind scale used to measure global water insecurity experiences at the household level. ISEN’s Resnick Family Social Impact Program, which aims to bridge resource gaps between basic research and solution implementation, is helping fund the projects beginning in early 2018 through August of 2019.

Human Impacts of Urban Flooding

Vidya Venkataramanan
Vidya Venkataramanan, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology and Center for Water Research, Northwestern University

In Chicago, the frequency of heavy rainfall events doubled over the past 100 years due to unprecedented shifts in weather patterns (see: Hayhoe K., Wuebbles D. et al.). Such increased rainfall leads to higher rates of flooding as aging sewer and storm water infrastructure struggles—and often fails—to keep up. To study these challenges and the impact of proposed solutions, Young and Venkataramanan are initiating a partnership with one of the most flood-prone areas in the region—the neighborhood of Chatham on Chicago’s southwest side.

“A lot of flooding-related research tends to focus on catastrophic flooding, like what you saw in Houston during Hurricane Harvey. This more low-grade flooding often gets ignored, but it can have just as devastating effects on people’s lives except over a longer, chronic time period,” says Venkataramanan. “We’re trying to understand the community’s lived experiences of routine urban flooding and how green infrastructure approaches might impact those experiences.”

In contrast with traditional “gray” infrastructure (e.g. conventional gutters, storm sewers, tunnels, pipes, etc.), “green” infrastructure mimics nature by capturing rainwater so it can be reused, temporarily retained, or allowed to seep into the soil, rather than flowing into overburdened sewer systems. Examples of green infrastructure include rain gardens, pervious pavement, planted trenches, green roofs, and rain barrels.

We’re trying to understand the community’s lived experiences of routine urban flooding and how green infrastructure approaches might impact those experiences.”

Vidya Venkataramanan

In partnership with the City of Chicago and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD), local environmental organization the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) plans to deploy various green infrastructure technologies throughout Chatham in the coming months. While Young and Venkataramanan agree that a before-and-after quantification of the hydrological impacts of the new green infrastructure is essential, they say it doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Instead of focusing exclusively on flooding levels, we want to speak with people to understand how households are experiencing the green infrastructure interventions,” Venkataramanan says. “How has it affected their physical and mental health? How has it impacted their economic well-being? Has there been mold, and have they had related respiratory issues and injuries? We want to get a sense of whether or not there was any improvement in these indicators as a result of the green infrastructure projects. And we also want to assess the process as the interventions are happening—what were some challenges, and what worked well? There’s a need to have people’s voices heard and… to expand this type of work across Chicago and then to other communities around the country.”

Northwestern student researchers involved in the green infrastructure project include: Dan Peters (undergraduate student, Environmental Science), David McCuskey (undergraduate student, Social Policy and Global Health Studies), Denise Lopez (undergraduate student, Environmental Policy and Culture and Global Health Studies), and Allison Mark (graduate student, Civil and Environmental Engineering).

“The students have gotten a deep dive into the technical background through two large-scale systematic literature reviews, and we’d really like to get them involved in field research—doing surveys or interviews with residents about the human impacts of green infrastructure,” says Venkataramanan.

photo collage
Above: Teams of student researchers are integral to the two water insecurity projects. (Left) Dan Peters, David McCuskey, and Vidya Venkataramanan; (Middle) Ben Thomae; (Right) Denise Lopez.


A Global Perspective on Water Insecurity

While residents of Chatham battle against an overabundance of water, how do people cope when the precious resource is difficult to come by or is of poor quality? Simply put, researchers aren’t quite sure. While a variety of data and indicators exist to capture water availability at national or regional levels, no metric exists that allows for global comparisons of the experiences of inadequate access to or use of water. Housed at Northwestern and developed in collaboration with researchers at Arizona State University and Texas A&M, the Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) Scale hopes to fill that gap.

“We want to measure water insecurity in a way that’s valid and comparable across ecological and cultural settings,” says Young, leader of the HWISE consortium of interdisciplinary researchers and practitioners, including Venkataramanan.

HWISE has currently collected data from more than 8,000 households in 31 sites around the world. The consortium is currently focused on a wide range of low- and middle-income countries, from Ghana to Guatemala and Indonesia to India.

We want to measure water insecurity in a way that’s valid and comparable across ecological and cultural settings.”

Sera Young

Above: So far, the Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) Scale has collected data from more than 8,000 households in 31 sites around the world.


Young, who also conducts research on global food insecurity, stresses the importance of developing metrics that capture a wide range of experiences while also allowing for meaningful comparisons across groups. Such information could provide valuable insight into the types and severity of problems with water, when they occur, who is affected by them, and the effectiveness of possible solutions.

“Policy makers need quick, comparable numbers when they make decisions,” she says. “Similar data already exist when it comes to household food insecurity. People have learned a lot about how food security works by studying it within a country and comparing data between countries. The household scale food insecurity metric has been transformative. Similarly, HWISE data can tell us a lot about where resources are needed, who needs them the most, which interventions would be appropriate, and it would help us quantify the impact that technical or policy interventions can have.”

As is the case with the project in Chatham, Young and Venkataramanan have formed a team of Northwestern student researchers to help analyze the large HWISE dataset, guiding them on quantitative and qualitative analysis along the way. Students involved include: Ben Thomae (undergraduate student, Neuroscience and Global Health Studies), Kathleen Clark (’18 alum, Biology and Global Health Studies), Julia Yeam (graduate student, Accelerated Public Health Program), Virginia Nowakowski (graduate student, Accelerated Public Health Program), Patrick Mbullo (PhD student, Biological Anthropology), and Margaret Butler (PhD student, Biological Anthropology).


Launched in 2016, the Resnick Family Social Impact Program at ISEN supports student projects that address significant local and global challenges in sustainability and energy. The Program, seeded by a generous gift from Paula Stamler Resnick (WCAS ’86) and Ira Resnick, bridges resource gaps between research and solution ideation, proof-of-concept work, and testing methods for implementation-at-scale.