Water and mental health

Water and mental health

Publication Year:
Wutich, Amber; Brewis, Alexandra; Tsai, Alexander
Resource Type:
Journal Article
This paper argues there is now good theoretical rationale and growing evidence of water insecurity as a possible driver of mental ill-health.
Share to:

Resource Information


There is a well-established connection among water quality, sanitation, and physical health. The potentially important relationship between water and mental health is considerably less studied. Reviewing evidence from ethnography, geography, folklore, indigenous studies, rural medicine, drought research, and large-n statistical studies, we argue there is now good theoretical rationale and growing evidence of water insecurity as a possible driver of mental ill-health. Furthermore, some nascent evidence suggests that emotionally meaningful interactions with water might improve mental health outcomes. Leveraging these literatures, we address the many ways in which mental health outcomes are conceptualized and operationalized in water research, including as emotional distress, perceived stress, depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, somatic symptoms, and quality of life. We outline arguments supporting seven possible (and likely interlocking) mechanisms that could explain such a relationship: (a) material deprivation and related uncertainty, (b) shame of social failure, (c) worry about health threats, (d) loss of connections to people and places, (e) frustration around opportunity losses and restricted autonomy, (f) interpersonal conflict and intimate partner violence, and (g) institutional injustice or unfairness. However, we explain that as most existing studies are ethnographic, qualitative, or cross-sectional, a causal relationship between water and mental ill-health is yet to be confirmed empirically. More research on this topic is needed, particularly given that poorly understood connections may create barriers to achieving Sustainable Development Goals 3 (health) and 6 (water). We further suggest that tracking mental health indicators may provide unique and as-yet underappreciated insights into the efficacy of water projects and other development interventions.

Resource Type

Journal Article

Publication Year



Wutich, Amber; Brewis, Alexandra; Tsai, Alexander



University Affiliation

Arizona State University, Harvard Medical School

Business Connect Takeaways

Urbanization is a major driver of water scarcity, as it leads to increased demand for water and puts pressure on existing water resources
Climate change exacerbates the challenges of water scarcity in urban areas, as it can lead to changes in precipitation patterns and increased frequency of extreme weather events.
Integrated water management approaches that take into account the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of water scarcity are needed to address this issue. Such approaches should involve a range of stakeholders, including government agencies, civil society organizations, and the private sector.

Something To Contribute?

Notice any missing or outdated information in our Knowledge Hub? We welcome your insights! Please contact us with the specific details, and we’ll make sure to review it promptly!