Five Reasons Why Water Security Matters to Global Security

By Franky Li, WASH Technical Advisor for Global Communities  |  This blog originally appeared on Medium.

Ethiopia water truck

Across the globe, populations face the challenge of growing water scarcity. More than one-fifth of the world’s population — 1.6 billion people — live in areas that are suffering from water scarcity of some type. This includes “physical scarcity,” which means there is a not an adequate volume of water to meet people’s needs, and “economic scarcity,” which results from a lack of investment and proper management of infrastructure. In both cases, whether physical or economic, the situation for most countries is getting worse. According to the United Nations, over the last century global water use has been increasing at twice the rate of world population growth. It is estimated that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may be facing water shortages.

In places where water is scarce, existing water resources face pressure on many fronts. The many demands placed on water for agricultural, industrial and energy production continue to grow. At the same time, rapid population growth, increased urbanization, lack of proper management and climate change all tax water resources even further. It is important to recognize that the impact of water scarcity does not stop within a country’s borders. In our increasingly connected world, water scarcity in one place can have global implications.

1. Water scarcity can lead to or exacerbate already existing civil unrest.

Syrian refugee camp
Tankers are used to provide clean water to a camp for people displaced by fighting in Northern Syria.

When a resource as essential as water becomes scarce it can lead to tension and ultimately conflict. The Pacific Institute has compiled a history of water-related conflicts dating back to 3000 BC. More recently, they have documented more than 20 water-related skirmishes in the Middle East and North Africa region since 2012. One of the most arid parts of the world, the MENA region is already dealing with significant water challenges. Environmental stresses combined with political instability could lead to even greater insecurity and violence. In Syria, water has been used as a tool of war by all sides of the conflict. Last year, bombing by the Syrian air force left more than five million residents in and around Damascus without water for over a month.

In Cape Town, South Africa, we can see the implications of water scarcity and security on smaller, more localized scale. For months, residents of Cape Town have been anticipating the arrival of “Day Zero” — the date when the city’s water system will run dry. The current date has been pushed back to 2019, but the crisis has highlighted the already sharp divide between the city’s rich and poor. Water scarcity does not affect all populations equally and can exacerbate already existing economic inequalities. In a situation of vast inequality, where some residents have access to swimming pools and golf courses, while others only have a few gallons for drinking and cooking, it is easy to see the potential for tension and unrest.

2. Water scarcity can diminish agricultural production and reduce food security.

Kenyan farmer
A farmer surveys his crops in Kenya. Droughts in East Africa becoming more frequent and more devastating.

Water scarcity has a direct link to agricultural production. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, agriculture accounts for 90 percent of global water consumption. But agricultural uses are facing unprecedented pressure and competition from domestic, industrial, environmental and energy uses. As the world’s population is expected to reach 10 billion people in 2050, the FAO predicts global food demand will increase by more than 50 percent. At the same time, climate change is affecting agricultural production as droughts become longer and more frequent and rising temperatures lead to increased water demands.

Communities that rely on agriculture for subsistence and livelihoods are becoming more vulnerable than ever. Young people that may have formerly worked as farmers will need to seek new economic opportunities. In impoverished countries, governments that are unable to sufficiently feed their population may face increasing dissent and political unrest. In Egypt, after food prices rose nearly 40 percent, protesters took to the streets demanding “bread, freedom and social justice.” There is also fear that political instability combined with a lack of economic options will help push young people toward extremist movements.

3. Water scarcity can spur population shifts.

city scene
Rural to urban migration is increasing at an accelerating rate, especially in places like sub-Saharan Africa, as people seek better economic opportunities.

There is a long history of human migration in response to water scarcity. Nomads and agro-pastoralists have migrated in search of water for centuries. Today’s migration is spurred not so much by the physical lack of water, but by the lack of economic opportunities. Increasing water scarcity can lead to more vulnerable livelihoods, food insecurity and loss of employment opportunities. Individuals adapt to such conditions by migrating in search of better opportunities or more favorable conditions.

A new factor in current migration patterns is also the sharp rise of urbanization. Large-scale rural to urban migration can have deleterious effects on national and global security. In Syria, research highlights the role of a prolonged, five-year drought. The loss of agricultural livelihoods resulted in the migration of 1.5 million rural residents to urban areas. Some of these urban centers were the sites of political unrest and uprising in the spring on 2011. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where 60 percent of the population is engaged in agricultural activities, water scarcity directly impacts already precarious livelihoods. As people across the continent flock to urban centers looking for work, city governments find themselves straining to meet their demands for employment and public services. Unable to find work, new migrants may turn to crime for survival or become susceptible to radicalization.

4. Water scarcity can worsen the spread of disease.

The supply of clean and adequate water is critical for maintaining human health and preventing the spread of disease. The simple act of handwashing can reduce the spread of infectious diseases by 50 percent. But good hygiene practices require access to clean water, something that poorer countries struggle with. More than 800 million people worldwide do not have access to clean water. Whether due to a lack of infrastructure, investment or mismanagement, health clinics and hospitals in developing countries routinely lack clean water. In an increasingly connected world, infectious diseases will be able to cross borders more rapidly and with greater repercussions.

Yemen water point
Girls access clean water at tap constructed by Global Communities with support from USAID. Already suffering from a brutal civil war, It is estimated that 50 percent of Yemenis do not have access to clean water.

The start of the most recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa has been traced to a two-year old boy in a small, isolated village in Guinea. Within two years it reached 10 countries and resulted in more than 11,000 deaths. In Yemen, which has been fighting a devastating civil war since 2015, they are experiencing largest and fastest spreading cholera epidemic in history with an estimated one million people infected. It is estimated that 50 percent of Yemen’s population do not have access to clean water.

5. Water scarcity can undermine economic development.

We all understand that water is essential for human life and health; but it is also the lifeblood of national economies. According to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, “Water scarcity is a major threat to economic growth and stability around the world.” A report by the World Bank finds that water scarcity could mean that some nations may see their gross domestic product (GDP) decline by as much as 6 percent over the next 30 years. They predict this decline could occur in areas already under water stress like the Middle East and the Sahel in Africa, as well as in areas with relative water abundance like Central and East Asia. With emerging economies and rising consumerism, nations will need more water to sustain improved quality of life for their citizens. As a result, competition for water will continue to grow and there will be increasing battles between uses for agricultural production, domestic consumption, industry and energy creation.

While water is renewable, the amount that is accessible at any one time is finite. If there is not enough water to meet a developing economy’s needs, growth could be stymied. We have already noted how water scarcity impacts agricultural production which is critical economic sector in many nations, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Cape Town, the water crisis not only has the potential to cause civic unrest, it already impacting the local economy as tourism declines — a major source of income for the city. The recent drought in Southern California is estimated to have resulted in economic losses in the billions.

Water for a Healthier, Safer and More Secure World

The world is facing an unprecedented challenge when it comes to water scarcity. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predicts that with increasing water demands, water will become one of the most contested resources on the planet. A recent Foreign Policy Journal article argues that threat of water scarcity should be treated with same urgency as a refugee crisis and a 2017 report by CNA describes how in great detail how water stress can be an accelerant of instability, violence and conflict which could have negative effects on US national security interests.

The US government is responding growing global concerns about water scarcity through USAID’s 2017 Global Water Strategy. The new strategy builds on the previous bipartisan legislation such as the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World and Water for the Poor acts which made water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) a US foreign policy priority. The 2017 Global Water Strategy lays out a plan for a more water-secure world by providing direct assistance to priority countries and support to international organizations, institutions and partnerships.

International organizations like Global Communities have a key role to play in pressing for water security. Whether working to ease conflict, promoting agricultural and livelihoods resilience or supporting access to clean water and other hygiene initiatives, NGOs are on the forefront of helping vulnerable communities and governments deal with water scarcity challenges. Over the last decade with USAID support, Global Communities has worked to provide small-scale water systems in Iraq that helped bring diverse communities together and ease sectarian tensions. In Ethiopia’s highly vulnerable and drought-prone Somali region, we supported agro-pastoral communities. By building and rehabilitating boreholes, we were able to provide clean water for people and animals resulting in improved health and more resilient livelihoods.

In Honduras, we are currently working with small farmers to implement a rainwater harvesting project to spur increased agricultural production. In addition, to increasing yields by enabling farmers to grow crops year-around, it is helping reduce migration as families find they can once again make a living through farming. In Liberia, we are identifying and empowering Natural Leaders to provide frontline monitoring within their communities for disease indicators, and rapid response messaging to prevent potential disease outbreaks from spreading. Their training also includes repairing of hand pumps in health facilities within the country’s hardest-hot counties. By restoring access to water, the Natural Leaders ensure that facilities have the resources they need to promote hand washing and safe hygiene practices to combat the spread of disease. And, in Syria and Yemen, we continue to provide water and sanitation services to vulnerable households severely impacted by the ongoing crises.

Liberia sanitation natural leaders
Natural Leaders in Liberia are on the frontline when it comes to preventing the spread of infectious disease by monitoring potential outbreaks and repairing essential water infrastructure.

As we recognize World Water Day 2018, we must be ever vigilant about the world’s growing vulnerability to water scarcity. It is no longer just an issue for arid countries. It is a challenge that has the potential to affect us all by intensifying conflict and instability, diminishing food security, accelerating migration, expediting the spread of disease and stunting economic development. The availability and access to clean and adequate supplies of water is the cornerstone to creating a healthier, safer and more secure world for us all.