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How Does Water Scarcity Affect Mental Health?

Studies have found that people who lack access to water often suffer from emotional distress.
People walk on a beach that used to be the bottom of Lake Powell on March 29th, 2015, near Big Water, Utah. Lake Powell is one of the Colorado River Basin's two biggest reservoirs, along with Lake Mead.

People walk on a beach that used to be the bottom of Lake Powell on March 29th, 2015, near Big Water, Utah. Lake Powell is one of the Colorado River Basin's two biggest reservoirs, along with Lake Mead.

A nearly two-decade drought has drained the Colorado River, leaving regulators scrambling to protect the waterway, which provides water to 40 million people across seven states. Colorado officials are treating the situation as an emergency, the Aspen Times reports. But their efforts may come too late; the Bureau of Reclamation predicts a 57 percent chance that the river's largest reservoir will be too low to give each state its agreed-upon share by 2020, according to a Colorado Public Radio report.

More and more people in the American West, like millions of others worldwide, may soon suffer the effects of water scarcity. According to a 2017 NASA study, rising global temperatures will bring more frequent and severe droughts, with consequences for the planet, including increased greenhouse gas emissions and forest decline.

But drought's effects have also been found to harm people on an individual level, affecting mental health and aggravating anxiety. A growing body of social science research links water insecurity to emotional distress. Here are a few of the relevant findings:

  • A 2016 California Department of Public Health survey found that nearly half of the residents in a drought-stricken Central Valley community reported feeling that the drought harmed their "peace of mind"; a smaller portion experienced agitation and insomnia.
  • In 2008, researchers found that people with fewer economic assets are more likely to experience "water-related emotional distress" than their well-off peers, according to an analysis of water insecurity in Bolivia. Participants expressed fear and anger over their lack of access to water—although, the study cautions: "Results suggest that water-related emotional distress develops as a byproduct of the social and economic negotiations people employ to gain access to water distribution systems in the absence of clear procedures or established water rights rather than as a result of water scarcity per se."
  • A 2015 meta-analysis of 82 studies found evidence suggesting that drought's adverse economic effects can compound stress and social isolation. "These economic-related pathways overlap and interact in such a way that they may result in depression, anxiety, and suicide," the study says.
  • In one of the first quantitative studies on drought's relationship to mental health, researchers used rainfall data to analyze the effects of a widespread, seven-year drought in Australia, finding that distress increased by 6 percent for rural residents, but not for urban residents. Study authors explain the disparity, saying, "drought in the country means failing crops and starving livestock"—not so in the city. A 2004 study on the same drought found that young people living in rural Australia reported greater emotional distress after four years, suggesting that mental-health outcomes worsen with disaster over time.
  • Contaminated water has been linked to similar effects: A 2016 study of community-level health in Flint, Michigan, included responses from residents who noted "increasing stress, anxiety, and depression" during the water crisis.

This research could affect the 1.1 billion people who lack access to water worldwide. Meanwhile, in the Colorado River Basin, a drying climate could mean water shortages first for those in Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico, CPR reports—and, with them, new dilemmas in mental health.