March 22nd will mark the eighteenth World Water Day, an annual UN-sponsored day to recognize the importance of water, including its increasing scarcity and competition for it. As we approach this annual event, a new Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia's Growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, should help frame the conversation that many will have this month on water and security.
Water challenges have increasingly garnered the attention of top U.S. policymakers. Secretary Clinton told an audience last March on World Water Day that “The stability of young governments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other nations depends in part on their ability to provide their people with access to water and sanitation.” Last month, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress that, “The growing pressure generated by growing populations, urbanization, economic development, and climate change on shared water resources may increase competition and exacerbate existing tensions over these resources.” In places such as Yemen, the next decade looks bleak due to the country’s declining oil reserves and water resources, Clapper said. And now the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, while focused on Central Asia, has shed light on the implications of water shortages for security broadly.
Yet Secretary Clinton and others have acknowledged that water scarcity is just as much an opportunity as a challenge. “In the United States,” she said last March, “water represents one of the great diplomatic and development opportunities of our time.” Indeed, the Senate report acknowledged the Obama administration’s efforts to integrate water issues into U.S. bilateral and multilateral arrangements, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which received about 47 million dollars from the United States in 2009 to fund water-related projects, according to the committee report. “For the first time, the United States has elevated water-related issues in its bilateral relationships with priority countries, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the report said. “Accordingly, the U.S. strategy and foreign assistance budgets now include significant investments allocated toward activities that promote water security through high-visibility projects, such as expanding water storage capabilities and irrigation.”
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, water has been a perennial challenge for achieving stability goals. President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan last March where he spoke to the important role that agricultural production will play in bolstering long-term stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which rely on agriculture for approximately 31 percent and 21 percent of their GDPs, respectively. Yet water scarcity in both those countries – exacerbated in part by unsustainable irrigation practices, poor water governance, uneven development, and, scientists say, the impact of climate change on the Himalayan glaciers that supply many of the rivers with fresh water – threatens to undermine agricultural development and stability, which could undermine regional security. Nevertheless, it is a challenge that the administration is clearly grappling with, as evidenced by the support for water-related development projects.
While water scarcity in Afghanistan and Pakistan is an important issue that should continue to be integrated into the whole-of-government strategy for those countries, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urged that United States to develop a broader regional strategy to ensure that the U.S.-funded Afghan and Pakistani projects do not agitate neighboring states in Central Asia. “By neglecting the interconnectivity of water issues between Central and South Asia, the U.S. approach could exacerbate regional tensions,” the report warned.
In a post I published last June, I pointed to the potential challenges with water in Central Asia, including between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. At the time I was less sanguine as to the potential for U.S. national security policymakers to keep their attention on these issues in Central Asia, at least in the long term. Back then I wrote, “Looking through a U.S. national security lens, it’s not difficult to see our inherent interest in a stable Central Asia – especially considering the tenuous situation to the south in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Looking long term, it is not unlikely that U.S. national security policymakers will keep attention in Central Asia (beyond just Afghanistan and Pakistan) even long after U.S. military operations in Afghanistan have ended.”
I’m willing to reassess given some of the proposed recommendations from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Right off the bat, the Senate report acknowledged the opportunity to improve water management in Central Asia by integrating data sharing into our relationships with Central Asian states:
Providing basic technical information to all countries is a constructive way for the United States to help create a foundation for bona fide discussion and debate over water management. The United States should support data-related activities specific to measuring and monitoring water flow and volume for key rivers and river basins. We should also promote technical partnerships in the region to monitor glaciers, track shifts in monsoons, and model climatic changes across a range of water flow scenarios.
This kind of sustained engagement could not only help bolster governance in those countries by giving them access to the data they need to design effective water management policies, but could also draw continued interest from the U.S. national security community by giving practitioners access to the data they’ll need to develop mid- to long-term strategy in the region (including helping them understand how these resource trends could be impacted by climate change). Indeed, one of the challenges we’ve continually heard from security practitioners is that the data they need to integrate resource challenges into their security planning is not available, in part because the states themselves don’t collect the data, or don’t have the capability to. Supporting an effort to share data could help address this issue and ensure that water issues are more regularly and evenly integrated into security planning for the region – including our development and diplomatic efforts. It is certainly a step in the right direction.
Photo: A USAID constructed tap in the community of Zamankor in Anaba District of Panjsher Province provides fresh water to locals. Courtesy of USAID.