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U.S. intelligence community gauges water risks over next 30 years

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 23 Jul 2012 10:30 GMT
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* This story is part of AlertNet's special multimedia report on water. For more go to "The Battle for Water"

By Lisa Anderson

NEW YORK (AlertNet) - Is water as a strategic resource, like oil, gas or uranium?

The U.S. intelligence community thinks so. In a report requested by the U.S. Department of State, analysts from eight intelligence agencies focused their attention on how water-related problems – everything from shortages to floods and contaminated supplies – will affect national security interests over the next 30 years.

This kind of in-depth analysis, coordinated by the National Intelligence Council  (NIC), is usually classified, but for the first time a portion of a so-called intelligence community assessment (ICA) was not only released but presented by the NIC’s director of environment and natural resources at a recent public panel of experts at the Wilson Center, an independent research organisation in Washington, DC.

“An unclassified version allows us to discuss the issues with other countries…and a way to bring home the idea that national security is more than just the traditional face of national security,” said Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

Maria Otera, the State Department’s under secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, said: “Water is not just a human health issue, not just an environmental issue, but a security issue.”

She added that the ICA “confirms much of what we already suspected...that if it’s left unaddressed water challenges worldwide will pose a threat to U.S. security”.

The 16-page synopsis of the 90-page report contains revealing insights into water as a source of political and economic instability, food and energy shortages and as a potential weapon used by countries and terrorists.

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In short, wars over water are unlikely in the next decade, but problems related to flooding and drought, combined with such factors as poverty and social tensions, may contribute to economic stress, regional friction and political instability in some countries.

The report  Global Water Security , which focuses on the geographic area between the Nile River and Mekong Delta, offers key judgments on the state of the world’s water and assesses the risks and opportunities involved in addressing the problems it identified.

Richard Engel, director of environment and natural resources at the National Intelligence Council, outlined the ICA’s five key findings.
 

  • During the next decade water problems will contribute to instability in states important to U.S. national security interests. When combined with factors such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions, these problems can lead to state failure.
  • Water-related state-on-state conflict is unlikely in the next 10 years. But beyond that time, if the problems are not adequately addressed, water may be used as leverage between states or as a coercive domestic tool to pressure dissident groups or marginalized populations. It can also be employed as a weapon by extremists, terrorists or rogue nations targeting dams, filtering plants or other water-related infrastructure.
  • In the next decade, depletion of groundwater due to poor management in some agricultural areas will pose a risk to national and global food markets. Specifically, nearly all countries in the Middle East and North Africa have over-pumped their groundwater.  If not addressed, this problem will lead to declining food production and stress on global markets.
  • From now through 2040, water shortages and pollution probably will negatively affect the economic performance of US trading partners. The effect will be marked in countries dependent on hydropower. More than 15 developing countries now generate 80 percent or more of their electric power from water and that demand is increasing.
  • Improved water management affords the best solutions for water problems and “overwhelmingly, working on agriculture has the highest payoff”. Agriculture uses about 70 percent of the global fresh water supply and reducing that amount offers the greatest potential relief from water scarcity. This can be achieved through simple and inexpensive techniques such as improved irrigation practices and land-leveling to promote even distribution of water.

The NIC is expected to issue a “Global Trends 2030 Report” in November, which will focus on the impact of population growth on resources including food and water.

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