Water-related risks threaten society at the local, national and global scales in our inter-connected and rapidly changing world. Most of the world's poor are deeply water insecure and face intolerable water-related risks associated with complex hydrology. Most of the world's wealthy face lower water-related risks and less complex hydrology. This inverse relationship between hydrological complexity and wealth contributes to a divided world. This must be addressed if global water security is to be achieved. Using a risk-based framework provides the potential to link the current policy-oriented discourse on water security to a new and rigorous science-based approach to the description, measurement, analysis and management of water security. To provide the basis for this science-based approach, we propose an encompassing definition rooted in risk science: water security is a tolerable level of water-related risk to society. Water security policy questions need to be framed so that science can marshal interdisciplinary data and evidence to identify solutions. We join a growing group of scientists in asserting a bold vision for science leadership, calling for a new and comprehensive understanding of the planet's water system and society's water needs.