The concept of water security implies concern about potentially harmful states of coupled human and natural water systems. Those harmful states may be associated with water scarcity (for humans and/or the environment), floods or harmful water quality. The theories and practices of risk analysis and risk management have been developed and elaborated to deal with the uncertain occurrence of harmful events. Yet despite their widespread application in public policy, theories and practices of risk management have well-known limitations, particularly in the context of severe uncertainties and contested values. Here, we seek to explore the boundaries of applicability of risk-based principles as a means of formalizing discussion of water security. Not only do risk concepts have normative appeal, but they also provide an explicit means of addressing the variability that is intrinsic to hydrological, ecological and socio-economic systems. We illustrate the nature of these interconnections with a simulation study, which demonstrates how water resources planning could take more explicit account of epistemic uncertainties, tolerability of risk and the trade-offs in risk among different actors.