March 27, 2012

From the New Security Beat - Global Water Security Calls for U.S. Leadership, Says Intelligence Assessment

As I mentioned last week on World Water Day, the intelligence community released its assessment on Global Water Security, timed very well I thought with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's launch of the new U.S. Water Program. Special thanks to our friends (and my former colleagues) across the way at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program for writing this thoughtful piece on the new intelligence community assessment that originally appeared on the New Security Beat blog.

Global Water Security Calls for U.S. Leadership, Says Intelligence Assessment

By Schuyler Null, Managing Editor of the New Security Beat

Alongside and in support of Secretary Clinton’s announcement of a new State Department-led water security initiative last week was the release of a global water security assessment by the National Intelligence Council and Director of National Intelligence. The aim of the report? Answer the question: “How will water problems (shortages, poor water quality, or floods) impact U.S. national security interests over the next 30 years?”

The assessment, Global Water Security, was requested by the State Department and carried out primarily by the Defense Intelligence Agency, drawing on intelligence community resources as well as peer-reviewed research and consultations with outside experts. 

The authors’ five broad conclusions are well summarized in the text; we’ve quoted the central nuggets of each below:

1) Over the next 10 years, water problems will contribute to instability in states important to U.S. national security interests. Water shortages, poor water quality, and floods by themselves are unlikely to result in state failure. However, water problems – when combined with poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions – contribute to social disruptions that can result in state failure. 

Why? The intelligence community lists underdevelopment and dependence on upstream nations with unresolved water-sharing issues as destabilizing factors. (Interestingly, this prediction appears to have the intelligence community’s lowest degree of confidence – “moderate” as opposed to “high to moderate” for the others – and may well end up being the most cited.) 

2) Water-related state-on-state conflict is unlikely during the next 10 years.Historically, water tensions have led to more water-sharing agreements than violent conflicts. However, we judge that as water shortages become more acute beyond the next 10 years, water in shared basins will increasingly be used as leverage; the use of water as a weapon or to further terrorist objectives also will become more likely beyond 10 years.

This prediction was also made by panelists at this year Environment and Security Conference in Washington, DC, who cited rapid and considerable social and environmental changes in the near future as a threat to make the hitherto mostly-hyperbolic phenomenon of “water wars” more likely.

3) During the next 10 years the depletion of groundwater supplies in some agricultural areas – owing to poor management – will pose a risk to both national and global food markets.

Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of water usage worldwide, so it comes as no surprise that food security is closely tied to water security. But it is important that the intelligence community explicitly ties these concerns with global food markets and therefore the prosperity and stability of all nations.

4) From now through 2040, water shortages and pollution probably will harm the economic performance of important trading partners.

Hydropower, write the authors, generates 80 percent or more of all the power for more than 15 developing countries. Water shortages and erratic supplies affect power generation and therefore limit economic growth – they’re already having an impact on the development of some countries, according to the report.

5) From now through 2040, improved water management (e.g., pricing, allocations, and “virtual water” trade) and investments in water-related sectors (e.g., agriculture, power, and water treatment) will afford the best solutions for water problems.

In the long-term, the “greatest potential for relief” for water scarcity, write the authors, is “simple and inexpensive” improvements in agriculture. They cite a substantial body of “open source reporting” on water-related social tensions and have high confidence in this conclusion.

Drivers of Supply

In addition to these broad predictions, Global Water Security assesses strategically important basins – the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Mekong, Jordan, Indus, Brahmaputra, and Amu Darya – and finds the Amu Darya and Brahmaputra to be the most vulnerable to instability.

The key drivers of these vulnerabilities are economic development, climate change, and population growth. Consumption – due to economic development – and population are of course tied to closely to one another, but climate change is the wild card. The IPCC projects that river runoff and water availability will increase by 20 to 40 percent at high latitudes and some wet tropical areas, while decreasing 10 to 30 percent in other areas. The authors judge this variability will lead to waste and mismanagement of existing resources – especially groundwater overdrafts.

Growing populations are a key factor too but mainly because of where they are located: by 2030, “one-third of the world’s population will live near water basins where the water deficit will be larger than 50 percent,” write the authors.

Overall, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia – all demographic hotspots – are predicted to face “major challenges coping with water problems” that can “only be met through increased trade.”

America, Prepare to Engage

The assessment cannot make explicit policy recommendations by law, but the section on how these issues will affect the United States points to some logical conclusions. 

The United States, long seen as a source of water expertise, will be leaned on even more to work with developing and developed countries alike and support “major development projects,” the authors predict. And this call will be heard not just by the U.S. Government but by the private sector as well.

Beyond financial assistance and big project leadership, the intelligence community suggests the United States will be relied on for legal aid to strengthen water sharing agreements and institutions, satellite data and other remote sensing data to provide valuable measuring and metrics, and as a reliable source of agricultural exports.

These demands on U.S. assistance provide “opportunities for leadership and forestalling other actors from achieving the same influence at U.S. expense,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence writes in their press release. Not meeting these calls for action carries implicit consequences and, I would argue, points to a tacit recommendation: engagement. American leadership can help countries achieve more with limited resources and meet growing global food demand – all while achieving some enlightened long-term self-interest by strengthening global stability and prosperity and keeping competitors out of this space.

One thing that is not recommended is over-engineering, especially in developing countries. Large infrastructure projects to feed growing urban demands “are expensive and degrade natural processes such as water cleaning and flood and drought mitigation,” write the authors, and “often harm the livelihoods of local populations, leading to increased poverty and food insecurity.” The risk of unintended consequences is high, they warn.

As one might expect given that the assessment was asked for by the State Department, Secretary Clinton’s new U.S. Water Partnership initiative delivers on some of these predictions, particularly in fulfilling the need for U.S. expertise. The public-private endeavor, announced with 22 initial partners, is designed to “connect people and resources” – including foreign governments at national, regional, and local levels; non-government organizations; and international organizations – “making information easily accessible and leveraging the assets of partners to offer a range of ‘best of the U.S.’ solutions tailored to priority water needs.” 

Given the strong role of water issues in global stability predicted by the intelligence community, the initiative seems like an excellent step in the right direction. How the initiative shapes up operationally, however, will be critical, especially in the face of increased budget pressure and the specter of more isolationist domestic politics in the near future.

Sources: Office of the Director of National Intelligence, U.S. Department of State.