Despite the vast amount of water on Earth, demands for human consumption are reaching constraints with regard to accessibility, quality and use. This concept of “peak ecological water” – limitations to the regional availability of water – has been developed by MacArthur Genius Fellow Peter Gleick in his biennial report The World’s Water, which was launched this past Tuesday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Now in its seventh volume, The World’s Water continues to build on a diverse set of issues centering on water and its implications for energy security, including the necessity of reforming U.S. water policy and the implications of water contamination as a result of producing alternative energy sources.
The U.S. government’s lack of vision is in part to blame for America’s current inability to revamp aging laws and infrastructure for a 21st century environment. In The World’s Water, Volume 7, Gleick and his colleagues devote a chapter to the need to reform outdated water laws and policies. Policymakers working on water issues across the U.S. government have not sufficiently worked together to develop coherent legislation, in part because most of over 30 federal agencies and programs with water-related responsibilities do not view water as their central mission. For example, Gleick recommends improved collaboration, especially between the Farm Service Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and State Revolving Loans, in prioritizing projects that better manage the country’s river basins. Concerns over internationally shared water systems with Mexico and Canada will also require increased planning and diplomacy in order to reduce tensions among neighboring countries. According to Gleick, as demands for water increase alongside the growing population, a more integrated water policy that includes all relevant stakeholders in the U.S. government is needed in order to sculpt a more sustainable approach to federal water management.
We have a lot going on this week, so here is a short post this morning on some suggested reading for the “Back to School” season. Enjoy!
The Quest: Energy,
Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin (2011)
For you energy enthusiasts, Daniel Yergin – acclaimed author of The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power – continues the story in his new book, The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m told Yergin dives into the world of renewable energy, taking on the task of investigating biofuels, wind and solar energy and the implications that these alternative energy technologies may have on the future energy landscape.
Water: Asia’s New
Battleground by Brahma Chellaney (2011)
I’m still reading this book, but Water: Asia’s New Battleground is a must read for security-types. Author and renowned Indian strategist Brahma Chellaney explores the world of water and security across the vast expanse of Asia – from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. So far it’s a compelling read that demonstrates how water is shaping the geopolitical balance in a region of the world that is experiencing critical economic and social inflection points.
Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to
Napa Valley by Stephan Faris (2008)
An oldie but a goodie: Stephan Faris’s Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley still tops my list of must-read climate change and security books. I reviewed the book here on the blog last December. What I particularly enjoy about Forecast is that Faris demonstrates that climate change poses not just challenges for developing countries, but developed countries as well. He points to Napa Valley and the Florida Keys as two areas in particular here in the United States that are already feeling the economic implications of climate change.
Yemen’s political crisis seems to be worsening. On Sunday, New York Times Magazine writer Robert Worth’s recent account was simply titled “Yemen on the Brink of Hell.” Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that “Yemen [has] been rendered ungovernable.”
While Yemen’s embattled President Saleh continues to hold onto power, many Yemenis continue to struggle in the face of perennial challenges that have beleaguered this Middle East nation. In particular, Worth’s story illustrates how Yemen’s resource challenges are exacerbating the situation for many struggling to live day to day. “For those not on the payroll, life has gotten measurably worse since the uprising began at the start of the year, with food prices rising fast and water and cooking gas increasingly scarce,” Worth wrote. “If these trends continue, the appeal of hard-line Islamists or other extremists may grow, upsetting all calculations about the loyalty of Yemen’s military or its tribes.”
The Yemeni government has had a poor track record with managing its resource challenges in a sustainable way. One need only look to the way in which the government has dealt with the state’s acute water crisis to see how vulnerable its resource management practices are: the government has used its oil revenue to subsidize otherwise expensive water extraction practices without addressing the need to manage its water resources better, for example, through conservation practices. But the country’s oil wells are running dry – with some experts predicting that the country could run out of exportable oil by 2017 – leaving the government without the wherewithal to continue to buy its way out of trouble.
Among the books on my shelf that have sat there for years, awaiting their turn at the head of my queue, was John M. Barry’s 1997 tome Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. If I remember correctly, a former boss gave this to me more than 5 years back. I’ve long looked forward to reading it, but I just never quite picked it up – until a few months back when the Mississippi River began another cycle of flooding from Illinois down to the Gulf. It was a sign to finally take it off the shelf.
The author does not exaggerate in claiming that this great natural event helped shape the country. The 1927 flood contributed to Herbert Hoover eventually reaching the presidency, New Orleans declining as the country’s top shipping outlet, race relations inflaming, and even national GDP dropping. Rising Tide introduces the earliest engineers to work the Mississippi, their involvement in the Civil War and post-war politics, and their infighting over whether to build spillways and the scale of levee systems for the great river. The wrestling over Mississippi River governance between Washington and the states, and between the War Department and politicians on the Hill, make today’s D.C. intrigue seem tame and respectable by comparison. The author describes one river engineer during the mid-1800s as “a pawn in a war between military and civilian engineers that would continue for a century.” Barry walks the reader through the decision making of a small group of elites in key Mississippi-bordering cities like Greenville and New Orleans who had the power, money and political connections to basically do whatever they wanted. One of the most fateful of their choices was to (unnecessarily, as it turned out) dynamite a hole in the levee north of New Orleans to flood St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes in order to spare the downtown homes of wealthy residents.
Indeed, much of the book provides a solid history of the Army Corps of Engineers, its efforts to tame the Mississippi River and related political wars in Washington. In its pre-Civil War years and immediately after the war, the surveying and studying of options for attempting to tame the river came largely down to the egos of two men, who cultivated bankers, high-level politicians and other powerful types. The author writes of the report that eventually sculpted how the United States chose to govern the river: “…the study of this writhing river began as a scientific enterprise. The resulting policy became a corruption of science.” The results were disastrous, and rippled throughout the United States.
At the end of the book, Barry identifies one of the looming challenges as the Atchafalaya River eventually becoming the primary Mississippi outlet, as New Orleans-area water systems are further altered. This has been a hot topic with 2011’s floods as well, including a great piece on Forbes tellingly titled “Is This The Year The Atchafalaya River ‘Captures’ The Mississippi?” It is a great reminder that the struggles outlined in the book are not isolated.
While the book is ostensibly about the changing American landscape, it details the intertwined, brutal history of race relations in the Mississippi Delta. The author does not hold back from including the most disturbing details. In this way, Rising Tide achieves what many other books I’ve read on environmental conditions do not – intimately outlining how natural phenomena helped drive social stress, demographic change and economic conditions. These are the relationships we need for considering the security effects of environmental change. I’ve not read a better example of this anywhere, and for this reason recommend Rising Tide as solid summer reading for security types.
As the U.S. military continues its drawdown of troops from Iraq – with the last of those troops to leave by December 31, 2011 – policymakers and analysts are likely to raise concerns over the country’s long-term stability and sustainability given the laundry list of challenges that continue to plague a fledgling and often times beleaguered central government. The New York Times report this morning on China National Petroleum Corporation’s (CNPC) recent oil operations at Iraq’s Al-Ahdab oil field sheds light on some of those seams, including challenges stemming from access to food and water and other basic social services that are largely not provided evenly by the government in Baghdad:
The [CNPC] deal began drawing intense criticism from residents and officials in Wasit Province, where the [Al Ahdab] field is located, shortly after the contract was signed. Some people demanded that Wasit be granted a royalty of $1 a barrel to improve access to clean water, health services, schools, roads and other public needs in the province, which is among Iraq’s poorest. The Iraqi government rejected the demands.
As Iraq continues to grabble with these challenges, one cannot help but wonder how much ill-access to water, food, shelter and adequate electricity (to name just a few social needs) will continue to exacerbate existing grievances and drive a greater wedge between the Iraqi people and the government. I am reminded especially of the hurdles the country faces with acute water shortages. Last June, I wrote a piece for Tom Ricks’s Best Defense blog on this very issue. Here’s what I found:
Two weeks back I was in Beijing and Shanghai to nerd out on maritime security issues with some great thinkers from the United States, Japan, South Korea, and, obviously, China. While I can’t give you much specific detail, I can provide some general impressions. One of them was certainly that the growing water stress – and related energy stress – in China weighed heavily on the minds of several locals I spoke with. The morning of May 25th I read this in China Daily over breakfast:
Data indicated that rainfall in [several regions along the Yangtze] is 30 to 80 percent less compared to normal years, while the provinces of Anhui, Jiangsu, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Zhejiang and Shanghai municipality continue to suffer the worst drought since 1954. Between January and April, the Yangtze River basin received 40 percent less rainfall than the average level of the past 50 years. The water area of Dongting Lake in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River was 73 percent less on May 20 than the same day last year, according to statistics from the administration.
This news is spreading rapidly into the Western media now as well. As I heard from several fellow conferees, talk in the blogosphere and chatter among folks in China are rising to new heights as a confluence of water woes are combining with this year’s particularly harsh weather to stir public dissatisfaction. Its urbanization and rapid economic growth are depleting freshwater rapidly near some cities. Glacial melt in the Himalayas is changing, altering water flows. Many believe that the massive Three Gorges Dam has altered the Yangtze River in ways that are contributing to water shortages. And while news on this is minimal as far as I've seen in English-language media, it sounds like salt water intrusion into freshwater systems may be on the rise as well in some coastal areas.
Christine is in Asia this week to conduct research for the South China Sea project the Natural Security team is working on with some of our CNAS colleagues. One place she’ll be visiting during her time abroad is the Lower Mekong River Basin (LMRB), an area shared by Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. The LMRB was recently in the news when Laos’s plan to build a hydropower dam sparked tensions with its neighbors. Having researched this for our South China Sea project, it’s worth discussing some of what we’ve learned.
First, what makes the river so important? The river serves as a lifeline for the region’s 60 million people in two ways: agricultural production (primarily rice) and fisheries. Together these two industries employ 85 percent of the population and feed nearly everyone. While it is well known how important rice is in the daily diets for people from these countries, perhaps less known is how important fish is as well. In Cambodia, for instance, fish accounts for 80 percent of the nation’s total animal protein consumption. It’s therefore no trivial matter that the lower Mekong River, the world’s largest inland fish source, accounts for 20 percent of the world’s freshwater fish.
The river’s importance and the shared threat China’s economic growth may pose to the river have led Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand to, in general, adopt a cooperative approach in developing the region’s water resources. In 1957, these states established the Mekong Committee, which existed until 1995 when it was supplemented and expanded by the Mekong River Commission. These regional organizations have provide a forum to resolve any controversies that arise, the most recent example being Laos’s decision to delay the construction of a new dam project.
Yesterday, the Army rolled out the names of 17 Army/Joint installations that will participate in its Net Zero Energy, Water and Waste contest. The contest is part of the Army’s broader Net Zero initiative to better manage natural resources at its installations in an effort to reduce the constraints posed by its large energy and water requirements and waste generation. At an October 2010 DOD Bloggers Roundtable, Assistant Secretary of the Army (Installations, Energy & Environment) Katherine Hammack described the initiative, saying that “The primary goal is a focus toward net zero and when we talk about net zero, it's not only net zero energy, but it's net zero energy, water, and waste. When you look at the term ‘net zero’ or a hierarchy of net zero you must start with reduction, then progress through repurposing, recycling, energy recovery, disposal being the last.”
As other services have articulate in the past, better natural resource management – especially with energy and water – can be a force multiplier that maximizes operational capacity and mission effectiveness. According to a December 2010 Army White Paper, “In an era of persistent conflict, with a mission of stabilizing war-torn nations, a true stabilizing factor can be that of appropriate resource management.”
Today marks the eighteenth annual World Water Day, an annual UN-sponsored day to recognize the importance of water management and the role that it plays in civil society – and as we have emphasized, foreign policy. The focus this year is on water and urbanization, and festivities have kicked off in Cape Town, South Africa to recognize the importance of access to freshwater in urban communities, especially as urbanization rates increase worldwide.
UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of UN-HABITAT Dr. Joan Clos recently wrote that “The urban water challenge must be recognised for what it really is – a crisis of governance, weak policies and poor management, rather than a scarcity crisis. We need to shore up water security against the added problems of pollution, and climate change. We need innovative ideas and good practices to implement.” Often, many urban societies in developing states lack the capacity or financial capability to make investments in sustainable infrastructure or exercise good water management programs. As Clos wrote, “Investments in infrastructure and planning have not kept up with the rate of urbanisation…Africa for example invests only 4% of its GDP in infrastructure compared to 14% in China.”
China is experiencing one of the worst droughts in 60 years experts say, in part a consequence of the Asian giant’s insatiable appetite for energy and water resources that are needed to sustain economic growth and newly accustomed standards of living. Beijing appears to be working to alleviate these conditions, spending more than a billion dollars on agricultural subsidies and farming irrigation to counter food shortages, deploying weather modification teams that cloud seed the atmosphere to generate precipitation (despite potential consequences from this and other geoengineering activities) and “moving heaven and Earth” to divert water from the south to bring it north to Beijing. But one thing Beijing should do is look for opportunities to cooperate with regional partners to help the country deal with its water woes. And with the Obama administration increasingly elevating water issues in bilateral relations with key partners around the world, Washington could use this as an opportunity to strengthen ties with Beijing.
Last month, Circle of Blue reported on the cascading effect that China’s energy demand is having on water scarcity. “Underlying China’s new standing in the world is an increasingly fierce competition between energy and water that threatens to upend China’s progress,” Circle of Blue’s Keith Schneider wrote. As Schneider pointed out, China’s history is fraught with challenges stemming from scarce fresh water resources, writing that it is nothing new for a state where “80 percent of the rainfall and snowmelt occurs in the south, while just 20 percent of the moisture occurs in the mostly desert regions of the north and west.” But what is different, Schneider noted, is the expanding industrial sector that consumes 70 percent of the nation’s water, and the need for the government to tap into its coal reserves in the north in order to feed this growth. The problem is that mining coal and coal-fired power plants themselves are water-intensive, and according to government officials, “there is not enough water to mine, process, and consume those [coal] reserves, and still develop the modern cities and manufacturing centers that China envisions for the region.”