Water Security and Global Dynamics

Furthermore, whatever the causes of climate change, it is clear that climate is becoming much more variable than it was for most of the 20th century (the emerging term for this is “global weirding”). And the impact of climate change on the availability of water grows more and more visible each year. Look at Sao Paolo, Brazil, a mega-city facing its worst drought in decades. Look at the drought in California. Look at the the huge amounts of water demanded in new methods of carbon energy production such as hydrological fracturing or “fracking.” Or the increased and unprecedented flooding in recent years. And this is to say nothing of the collapse of water-based ecological systems and the massive global depletion of groundwater.

So what are the big risks to the First World? More traditional national-security issues play into this question, of course. Most experts believe that due to the large volume involved in contemporary urban water supply systems, deliberate attempts to contaminate them would not really be feasible for most terrorist groups. A more realistic scenario is a cyberattack on national utility software that could interfere with the ability to deliver water to a population. Given the growing aptitude for cyberwar shown by rogue states like North Korea, state-adjunct groups like the Syrian Electronic Army, and emergent forces like ISIS, the risk here is real.

But the key issue is that homo sapiens developed a very complex globalized civilization during what now seems to have been a period of unusual climatic stability over the last half of the 20th century. If that is now changing significantly for the middle- or long-term -- no matter the reasons -- the effects could be disastrous to a global society dependent for survival on the conditions that birthed it continuing. Water is the sine qua non in this equation: the fundamental resource on which food, energy, industry, employment, and every social structure on earth depends. Therefore, when water availability changes significantly, instability hockey-sticks with devastating ubiquity, rapidity, and effect.

This is why it is in the direct interests of those better-off to pay attention to finding solutions to a problem that may seem largely to affect only the poor. The good news is that better policies could in fact ameliorate the problems significantly and provide a pathway to continued social and economic stability. There are policy options that, through a concerted process to achieve water and sanitation for all by means of a global plan of action coupled with wise national strategies, could go far to mitigating the worst (and most conflict-prone) possible developments. However — as in the solution to so many problems — this would require a level of cooperation and enlightened self-interest that seems to elude the political leaders of most nations.

Seriously tackling this problem will require a coordinated effort between governments of nations where the problems are at their worst, multi-lateral organizations, and large donor nations (like the US and some EU countries). This needs to be a concerted international response on the level of the anti-HIV/AIDS epidemic effort, which has made a difference over the last several decades. Unfortunately, all indications are that this is a problem where an inductive, “grass-roots” approach will have very limited effect.

There would be several key components to an effective approach:

  • Create a concerted international program to encourage governments to extend water and sanitation access to all citizens, including those living in slums (some of the poorest people in the world are paying the highest prices in the world for water, because of the limited formal supplies in villages but particularly in slums in large cities). This program would have to be supported with money, expertise, and political will.
  • Support the efforts by people who live in rural villages and slums to come up with their own innovative solutions to mobilize resources, through community-government partnerships.
  • Because water is a “natural monopoly,” ensure that water providers are either highly regulated public entities or highly regulated private providers.
  • Ensure through a variety of resource availability and economic support programs that no household has to pay more than three percent of its income for water (household water use usually reflects less than five percent of total water use in most countries).
  • Provide guidelines and enhancements to countries to change public policies involving underpricing and subsidies in wealthier urban areas that have encouraged significant overuse of water.
  • Create specific enhancements to ensure that sanitation is in place at the very least for all residents of all large urban environments. The absence of toilets and the presence of open, public waste creates breeding grounds for disease -- and in our global world, disease can travel fast.
  • Engineer financial “frontloading” to make sufficient critical resources immediately available for investment in water and sanitation development, in which the repayment of such funds is made over longer periods.
  • Help countries competing over water resources negotiate realistic treaties.
  • Perhaps most important, make goals attainable: pie-in-the-sky aspirations are worse than none.

Water security issues will get progressively worse if they are not addressed as an international priority. The people most affected by the water crisis are currently the poor, whose circumstances make it difficult for them to have a political voice without resorting to violence. It is there where a key danger lies. If these issues are not addressed, and addressed quickly, more and more countries will drift towards the precipice of a real water crisis, with the massive social instability that can result. And failed states are breeding grounds for terrorism and crime, primed as they are for the attractions of extremist ideologies. It is not only the right thing to do from a humanitarian standpoint to start addressing this crisis in a much more serious way. It is the sound thing to do if we are interested in our own and our children’s futures. Water is everybody’s problem -- right now.