Water, Climate & National Security

Posted on October 7, 2012


Excerpts from the US Intelligence Community Assessment on Global Water Security, 2 February 2012.

Climate change has already been identified as a national security issue.  (See here.) Recently the US government brought all their various intelligence agencies together in a room and asked them to assess global water issues in terms of national security.  What follows are large portions of their report.  The full report may be found here.

Global Water Security

 “During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important US policy objectives. Between now and 2040, fresh water availability will not keep up with demand absent more effective management of water resources. Water problems will hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth. As a result of demographic and economic development pressures, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia will face major challenges coping with water problems.”

Introduction—The Global Water Picture.  During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will almost certainly experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will contribute to the risk of instability and state failure, and increase regional tensions. ….

Water Shortages.  Between now and 2040, global demand for fresh water will increase, but the supply of fresh water will not keep pace with demand absent more effective management of water resources. A major international study finds that annual global water requirements will reach 6,900 billion cubic meters in 2030, 40% above current sustainable water supplies. …

  • The 2007 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report projects that by mid-century, annual river runoff and water availability will increase by 20-40% at high latitudes and in some wet tropical areas, and decrease by 10-30% over some dry regions at mid-latitudes and in the dry tropics, some of which are presently water-stressed areas. In the course of the century, water supplies stored in glaciers and snow cover are projected to decline, reducing water availability in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges.

According to the IPCC, semi-arid and arid areas are particularly exposed to the impacts of climate change on water resources. Many of these areas (e.g., Mediterranean Basin, western United States, southern Africa, northeast Brazil, southern and eastern Australia) almost certainly will suffer a decrease in water resources due to climate change. …

Increasing Demand.  Population increases, migration, and changing human consumption patterns resulting from economic growth will be key drivers of rising fresh water demand. World population is projected to grow by about 1.2 billion between 2009 and 2025—from 6.8 billion to near 8 billion people. The developing world, with its rapidly expanding urban centers, will see the biggest increases in water demand, as its population grows larger and more affluent. Migrations to cities will drive major increases in water demand for personal consumption, sanitation, industry, and hydroelectric power. Urban and more affluent populations will demand greater quantities of water-intensive products with diets that contain more meats and fewer grains.

  • Agriculture, which accounts for approximately 3,100 billion cubic meters, or just under 70% of global water withdrawals today, will, if current practices and efficiencies continue, require 4,500 billion cubic meters (bcm)—65% of all water withdrawals—by 2030.

…but Declining Supply.  According to the 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG), one-third of the world’s population will live near water basins where the water deficit will be larger than 50% by 2030. A number of countries (or regions within countries) are already experiencing high “water stress”—when the annual renewable freshwater supplies are below 1,700 cubic meters per person per year. Such areas include the western United States, northern Africa, southern Africa, the Middle East, Australia and parts of south Asia and China.

For reference, US per capita total water used is 2,500 cubic meters per person per year. Water stress is also often expressed as a high water withdrawal ration (WWR)

  • By 2025, ISciences projects that water stress will increase significantly in many locations throughout the world, including north Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. With more than one-sixth of the Earth’s population relying on meltwater from glaciers and seasonal snowpacks for their water supply, reductions in meltwater caused by climate change induced receding glaciers and reduced snow packs will have significant impacts.
  • In the Andes, glacial meltwater supports river flows and water supplies for tens of millions of people during the long dry season. Many small glaciers will disappear within the next few decades, adversely affecting people and ecosystems. Hundreds of millions of people in Asia depend upon glacial meltwater from the Hindu Kush and Himalayas.

…and Poor Water Management.  Inefficient water consumption as well as changing land-use patterns, such as deforestation and soil grading, will reduce the supply of water that would otherwise be available. Poor infrastructure in cities, with leakage rates between 30-50% almost certainly will also diminish supplies, as will evaporation from manmade reservoirs. Other contributing factors include inadequate knowledge of ground and surface water budgets; unsatisfactory representations of water’s value in economic models; and the lack of a generally agreed understanding of water rights. These factors increase the difficulty of managing water effectively within states and hinder the forging of effective water-sharing agreements between states.

Other Water Problems.  In addition to water shortages, countries important to United States will have to cope with poor water quality and the impact of floods. The IPCC report states that the risk of drought and floods will increase markedly in many areas of the world by the end of the century owing to an increase in extreme weather events. During the next few decades rising sea levels and deteriorating coastal buffers will amplify the destructive power of coastal storms, including surges and heavy precipitation. At times water flows will be severe enough to overwhelm the water control infrastructures of even developed countries, including the United States. The challenge will be greater in urban areas of the developing world where flood-control infrastructures are often poorly maintained. Drinking water from both aquifers and surface water resources almost certainly will further decline in many areas of the developing world, as water quality decreases from salt-water intrusion and industrial, biofuel, agricultural, and sanitation processes.

For reference, 25-30% leakage is not uncommon for older US cities (i.e., Detroit, Philadelphia); hydrologists consider leakage of 15% as normal or good.

Impacts of Water Problems

KJA. We assess that during the next 10 years, water problems will contribute to instability in states important to US 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.

  • The lack of adequate water will be a destabilizing factor in some countries because they do not have the financial resources or technical ability to solve their internal water problems. In addition, some states are further stressed by a heavy dependency on river water controlled by upstream nations with unresolved water-sharing issues. Wealthier developing countries probably will experience increasing water-related social disruptions but are capable of addressing water problems without risk of state failure.

Potential Water-Related Social Disruptions and State Failures…

States at Risk.  We judge that over the next 10 years, water shortages, and government failures to manage them, are likely to lead to social disruptions, pressure on national and local leaders, and potentially political instability. Social disruptions eventually leading to state failure are plausible when the population believes water shortages are the result of poor governance, hoarding, or control of water by elites and other destabilizing factors are present.

Some States Better Able To Cope.  Large developing countries will face water problems that will vary significantly across their territory. However, given their geographic position, economic strength, and capacity to engineer solutions, we assess the risk is low that social disruptions will lead to state failure in these countries. Nevertheless, central and regional governments will be preoccupied with managing water problems.

Water Pressures.  If water problems are not managed successfully, food supplies will decline, energy available for economic growth will be reduced, and the risk of certain diseases will increase.  We assess that water stresses contribute to or aggravate existing problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions.

Increased Risk of Disease.  Water scarcity—driven in part by poor or inadequate water infrastructure—forces populations to rely on unsafe sources of drinking water, increasing the risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and typhoid fever. During the dry season, as water supplies (including ground- and surface water) become more limited, concentrated pathogenic organisms increase the chance for outbreaks of waterborne diseases. These dry season outbreaks typically portend explosive transmission of waterborne diseases—particularly cholera—in the rainy season when the total quantity of pathogen in the environment dramatically increases. Furthermore, water diversion projects (e.g., dams, reservoirs, and irrigation systems) cause waters to be stagnant or slow-moving, which creates favorable conditions for increased populations of disease-transmitting vectors such as mosquitoes (e.g., dengue, malaria), flies (e.g., onchocerciasis), snails (e.g., schistosomiasis), or copepods (e.g., Guinea worm). Water scarcity, and the inability to wash, directly results in skin infections and trachoma, the leading cause of preventable blindness. In general, water scarcity-related diseases will disproportionately sicken poorer populations in developing countries, leading to decreased economic productivity, missed educational opportunities, and high health care costs.

  • On average, a child dies from a water-related disease every 15 seconds, according to a 2006 United Nations Human Development Report. Unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation are leading causes of death in the developing world for children under age 5. Close to half of all people living in developing nations are suffering from a health problem related to water and sanitation deficits.
  • The cholera outbreak in Haiti was initially propagated by a concentrated contamination of the ArtiboniteRiver during low flow levels. During the rainy and hurricane season of 2010, cholera spread nationwide, further contaminating drinking water supplies. As of 30 September 2011, more than 455,000 Haitians had been treated for cholera, 242,000 were hospitalized, and 6,400 died.
  • Trachoma—which threatens 400 million individuals with blindness and is prevalent in children—is a direct result of dry, dusty water-scarce environments where sanitation is lacking, according to the World Health Organization.

Risks to Agriculture and Economic Growth

KJ C. We judge that 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.

Numerous countries have over-pumped their groundwater to satisfy growing food demand. Depleted and degraded groundwater can threaten food security and thereby risk social disruption. When water available for agriculture is insufficient, agricultural workers lose their jobs and fewer crops are grown. As a result, there is a strong correlation between water available for agriculture and national GDP. Over the long term, without mitigation actions (e.g., drip irrigation, reduction of distortive electricity-for-water pump subsidies, improved use of agricultural technology, and better food distribution networks), the exhaustion of groundwater sources will cause food production to decline and food demand will have to be satisfied through increasingly stressed global markets.

  • In developing countries, annual precipitation fluctuations shape water available for agriculture and can determine crop production
  • Currently, 35% of the global labor force is employed in agriculture, with a higher percentage in many developing countries, where agriculture accounts for as much as 95% of total water use, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Many advances in agricultural production have been due to the unprecedented use of finite groundwater reserves.
  • An estimated 99% of the Earth’s accessible fresh water is found in aquifers, and about 2 billion people rely on groundwater as their sole source of water. Some groundwater is located in aquifers that are not renewable (fossil aquifers); in other cases, water extraction from aquifers exceeds the replenishment rate. Certain groundwater systems need multiple centuries to replenish.
  • Total annual overdrafts from aquifers around the world are probably double the annual flow of the NileRiver.
  • Based upon NASA satellite data, water is being depleted faster in northern India than in any other comparable region in the world.  The World Bank assesses that groundwater irrigation directly or indirectly supports 60% of irrigated agriculture, and 15% of India’s food production depends on unsustainable groundwater use, according to a 2005 World Bank study citing a 1999 Indian report.

Water-Energy-Industry Nexus

KJ D. We assess that from now through 2040 water shortages and pollution probably will harm the economic performance of important trading partners.

Economic output will suffer if countries do not have sufficient clean water supplies to generate electrical power or to maintain and expand manufacturing and resource extraction. Hydropower is an important source of electricity in developing countries—more than 15 developing countries generate 80% or more of their electrical power from hydropower—and demand for water to support all forms of electricity production and industrial processes is increasing.

  • In some countries, water shortages are already having an impact on power generation. Frequent droughts in other countries will undermine their long-term plans to increase current hydropower capacity.

Improving Water Management and Investments

KJ E. We judge that, 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. Because agriculture uses approximately 70% of the global fresh water supply, the greatest potential for relief from water scarcity will be through technology that reduces the amount of water needed for agriculture.

Effective water management has several components:

  • Use of an integrated water resource management framework that assesses the whole ecosystem and then uses technology and infrastructure for efficient water use, flood control, redistribution of water, and preservation of water quality.
  • Water management includes pricing decision, allocations of water based upon hydrological modeling, development of water infrastructure (dams, levies, canals, water treatment facilities, etc.), the use of water infrastructure to control waterflow, trade of products with high water content, and effective transboundary water agreements.

Biofuels.  Biofuels are often seen as a renewable carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuels. Current biofuel development requires water and aggravates water scarcity. Access to water will become a primary factor in the development of biofuel feedstock production. At present, biofuel production uses a small fraction of both agricultural land and transportation fuel supply. The biomass needed to produce one liter of biofuel (under currently available conversion techniques) consumes between 1,000 and 3,500 liters of water, on a global average, according to the “Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture” published by Earthscan and the Colombo International Water Institute.

The World Bank reports land allocated to biofuels is projected to increase fourfold by 2030, with most of the growth in North America (accounting for 10% of arable land) and Europe (15% of arable land). In the developing world, research projections indicate that a small amount of arable land will be dedicated to biofuel production by 2030: 0.4% in Africa; 3% in Asia; and 3% Latin America.

Water Technology to 2040.  Technology will have an important impact on fresh water supply and demand in the next 30 years,but changes will be evolutionary, according to a NIC-sponsored contractor study. Changes are expected in salt-tolerant crops and point-of-use applications for the safe human consumption of untreated water. Membrane and other nanotechnology applications that dominate the current desalination and water-purification industries are likely to account for the biggest advances and effects on fresh water availability. Although desalination may be economically feasible for household and industrial water, it is not currently feasible for agriculture. In providing new sources of water, any technology faces three hurdles: reducing energy consumption, lowering production costs, and eliminating the fouling of membranes and filters.

  • Because all desalination processes produce a saline concentrate, the environmental impact of using or disposing of this concentrate also poses a hurdle.
  • Given the low price of water charged in most regions of the world, users are less motivated to adopt technologies such as desalination and drip-irrigation systems. For industry and households, water prices in developed countries range from $0.60/cubic meter to more than $3/cubic meter. Water for agriculture in most countries is priced at approximately $0.10/cubicmeter. Recent data indicate that desalination processes produce water at much higher costs: $0.61/cubic meter for reverse osmosis, and $0.72/cubic meter to $0.89/cubic meter for thermal processes. Technology that reduces the amount of water needed for agriculture offers the greatest potential for relief from water shortages. Local point-of-use technologies can also provide safe drinking water in the developing world.
  • Advances in large-scale drip-irrigation systems are the most likely approach to address water shortages for agriculture.
  • Research to develop drought resistance in crops has been conducted for several decades, but no commercialization exists to date. During the next three decades, selected crops could be developed that require half the water used by current crops, but widespread cultivation of such crops is problematic.
  • Limited experiments are being conducted to develop food plants that can tolerate salt or wastewater. The advances in biotechnology may result in new plants or genetically altered strains that can grow in salt water from the ocean or large saltwater aquifers. Point-of-use water-purification technology relies upon portable systems that tend to be self-contained. These systems are used by recreational enthusiasts and military personnel, and will be used by habitants in the developing world who must obtain drinking water from untreated sources (e.g., rivers,lakes). New technology is currently emerging in the commercial market, and evolutionary advances in lowering costs and fail-safe designs are likely.
  • Point-of-use technology is not capable of supporting larger agricultural or industrial needs.