Creating a Water Ready World

Sitting at my desk looking at bills to be paid, the first one on the stack is for the water company, emblazoned with the phrase, “Water is Life.” Yes, we all know that. But really, as my teenagers would say, “Duh, Mom. So what?”

Well, here’s the “so what” on this World Water Day 2016.

From Michigan to Mogadishu, we live in a world less prepared than ever to address the challenges of water contamination, scarcity, and flooding.

In the United States, we have poisoned people in Flint and likely other communities by cutting corners on aging water infrastructure. In the desert Southwest and California, we face shrinking aquifers from years of drought and over withdrawals for agriculture and other uses. Along the East Coast, many communities, from Miami to Norfolk to New York, are at risk from the trifecta of devastating sea-level rise, storm surge, and subsidence that could put large swaths of these regions under water even longer than Hurricane Sandy did a few years ago.

Around the world, communities face similar problems and risks: water too polluted for drinking or bathing, children who die prematurely from water-borne diseases, and entire regions in peril from either too much or too little water.

From Michigan to Mogadishu, we live in a world less prepared than ever

In the Horn of Africa, drought threatens hunger for millions once again. In the Middle East, the very cradle of world civilization is at risk of almost complete water poverty from years of drought, conflict, and poor management. New research shows that water scarcity has been a driver (among many) of conflict in Syria and Iraq, and that the use of water as a weapon is likely to become an even greater factor unless countervailing strategies are designed and implemented by those committed to defeating the Islamic State and other extremists.

What makes water issues more pressing today is a combination of changing environmental conditions, increasing demand, and more widespread low-level conflict. Water has historically been a stronger source of cooperation than conflict, but these dynamics threaten to upend the trend. Marcus King notes that the degree of weaponization of water in Syria and Iraq has already broken from the past.

So, on this World Water Day, how do we create a more “water ready” world? Here are a few important guiding principles to help the international community navigate these choppy waters and achieve a water ready world.

Reduce Water and Sanitation-Related Disease

Every person needs safe water to drink. People should have access to the water they need, when they need it, where they need it, without living in fear of poor quality. Each day, more than 5,000 people – mostly children under the age of six – die from preventable water-related diseases.

It should be a goal of the United States and other governments that no person should suffer from a water or sanitation-related disease.

Promote Economic Growth and Sustainable Development

Water is at the core of economic development and threats to livelihoods are at the core of conflict. Without water, people cannot grow food, produce energy, build industry, or sustain the environment on which all life depends.

Globally, the largest consumer of water is agriculture. Experts predict that by 2030, we will need to produce 50 percent more food. Achieving sustainable increases in food production will require sound management of both land and water resources. When there are competing uses, a long-term, sustainable outlook is needed, as well as engagement from all stakeholders.

Perhaps the greatest impact of climate change will be on the hydrological cycle. Changing rainfall patterns, receding glaciers, less snow pack, rising sea-levels, and stronger/more frequent storms will threaten freshwater supplies and pose significant risks both for people and economies.

We cannot allow water to become an impediment to economic growth.

Advance Cooperation Over Water

More than 270 river basins, home to over 40 percent of the world’s population, are shared between two or more countries. Increasing demands for water and energy will increase tensions both within and among countries. Poor environmental conditions, floods, and droughts will also cause people to move both within countries and across borders, contributing to instability.

But water can be unifying. Community resilience and climate adaptation strategies are a key component of enabling 21st century cities and towns to have the water they need when they need it and reducing the risk of climate shocks. Water can be a bridge between communities and countries and a means of building trust and improving transparency and accountability.

We cannot allow water to become defined as a weapon of war, rather it should be used as an impetus for cooperation.

We have it in our power to create a water ready world.

Twenty years ago, as the person responsible for cleaning up contaminated water and waste at U.S. military bases, I directed that bottled water be delivered to communities on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, whose local water supply had been contaminated by pollutants from military operations. At the time, officials in the Pentagon said we couldn’t do it. I said, “If we made the mess, we need to clean it up.” Providing water to the local communities helped bring together people that had earlier opposed the military’s cleanup plan. It created the type of cooperation that we will need both at home and abroad this World Water Day.

Sherri Goodman is a Wilson Center public policy fellow and former deputy undersecretary of defense (environmental security). She is the founder and former executive director of the CNA Military Advisory Board, and former president and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership.

Sources: Al Jazeera, Forbes, Transboundary Freshwater Spatial Database, United Nations, The Washington Quarterly.

Photo Credit: Flooding in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, November 2014, courtesy of Logan Abassi/UN Photo.