drought by IRRI, 2008.
On March 22, the National Intelligence Council, a senior body of U.S. government intelligence analysts, released an unclassified report on global water security. The report assesses the effect of global water problems on geopolitics to 2040, the next thirty years. Annual global water requirements will reach 6,900 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2030, 40 percent above current sustainable water supplies. The report projects declining supply of sustainable sources of water and increasing demand, affecting economic growth, health, food supplies, social stability, and interstate politics.
The reports projects that within the next ten years, water problems may bring failure in states with existing socio-economic pressures. After ten years, water problems will become so critical that states will use it as leverage, states will use it as a weapon to harm and suppress populations, and terrorist and insurgent groups will target water supplies. Water problems will be particularly acute in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.
The widespread effects of water problems reveal how interconnected security issues are. The growing global urban population means that water management will increasingly shift to cities. Poor infrastructure in rapidly populating developing cities allows 30-50% leakage rates. Cities without the infrastructure for water management will suffer damage to roads, buildings, and other structures, and will be less able to handle extreme weather events, especially coastal flooding.
Water problems will also lead to greater health risks. Poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water are among the leading causes of death for children under five in the developing world. Stagnant water breeds mosquitoes, flies, and other animals that transmit diseases. Unsafe water can lead to illnesses such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever, and skin infections.
Over-pumped and depleted groundwater will affect agriculture, leading to risks in national and global food markets. But economic risks will extend beyond the food markets, as 35 percent of the global labor force is employed in agriculture. This will be severe in developing countries where “agriculture counts as much as 95 percent of total water use.” Groundwater, which takes centuries to replenish, supports 60 percent of irrigated agriculture. The region with the fastest depletion rate is northern India and fifteen percent of Indian agriculture depends on groundwater use.
Energy will be affected by water problems as well. More than 15 developing countries generate 80 percent or more of their electrical power from hydropower. Even biofuels will aggravate water scarcity. Yet while water becomes depleted, the demand for energy will only increase.
The report is not all pessimistic. It identifies practices that can mitigate water problems. In agriculture, practices can be adopted such as drip irrigation, reduction of distortive electricity-for-water pump subsidies, agricultural technology, and better food distribution networks. In Central Asia’s Amu Darya Basin, for example, improved water management led to saving 2,000 cubic meters of water for 4 million hectares of irrigated area, totaling about 8 billion cubic meters throughout the basin.
The report points out that shifting water usage from agriculture to industrial and domestic sectors can lessen the effects of water problems. In China, 50 percent of water used in agriculture, but largest growth rate is in industrial and domestic sectors. Improved efficiency and treatment for industrial use can fill China’s water gap to 2030 and reduce operating costs enough to offset investments. Improved water infrastructure, water data, and trading water-intensive goods can all mitigate future water problems. Countries will have to reexamine their water-sharing agreements to protect regional water sources.
Growing water issues provide an opportunity for the United States. The United States is a world leader in environmental monitoring needed for planners and sustainable technology and has met development challenges in the last century that required investments in water infrastructures. Yet, the United State faces competition as other countries have pinpointed sustainable technology as key industrial sectors. And the United States still faces challenges with the Colorado River.
This report is a sign national security policymakers are beginning to pay attention to sustainability. Water issues are increasingly affecting agriculture, economic development, and energy—all key areas for how nations navigate the 21st century. The NIC report shows it’s time to think deeper about America’s approach to these issues.