Advancing U.S. Prosperity and Security in a Thirsty World

The waters of Lake Chad sustain 70 million people in four countries. Beginning in the 1970s, the 25,000-square-kilometer lake began shrinking due to excessive drawdown for agriculture and mining. Now only 10 percent remains. The dwindling water supply devastated food production and fostered massive economic and political tensions. Many experts credit the worsening conditions for contributing to the rise of Boko Haram, an extremist group that has killed 20,000 people and forced 2.3 million more to flee.

Here at home, water challenges may not drive violent conflict, but they do threaten our economy. Last year, Los Angeles was parched, and strict measures to save water were imposed by Governor Jerry Brown. This year, Governor Brown declared a different kind of emergency in the wake of massive flooding – the result of record-setting rainfall exacerbated by soil too dry to efficiently absorb it.

Crises like these are becoming all too common around the world and have far-reaching consequences for U.S. interests. We rely on water to cultivate, cleanse, support energy generation, and supply the basic goods and services that keep societies stable and functioning. Meanwhile, our supply chains depend on the agricultural productivity of partner countries. Our national security in turn depends on good governance and regional stability.

Water supplies the basic goods and services that keep societies stable and functioning

We cannot realistically expect any single government to solve this problem alone. Managing the complex challenges of water is a quintessential global commons dilemma. Freshwater flows across national boundaries in many forms, from rivers to rainfall. And global climate change is altering evaporation rates and precipitation in increasingly consequential ways.

For some, it’s nearly too late. Some scientists predict that Yemen, one of several unstable countries where Al Qaeda has found new life, could become the first modern nation to literally run out of water. Without steady provision of water, millions of families are abandoning their farms and moving to urban areas to seek better conditions. Some are leaving their countries altogether.

With these new movements of people, we are also seeing increased outbreaks of conflict. These conflicts are not always violent, but they do challenge governments to address grievances and provide support. When governments fail that test, conflict can escalate, become violent, and even threaten regional security. In the last five years alone, we saw the Arab Spring shake the Middle East, sparked in part by high food prices. We witnessed the Syrian civil war, fueled in part by record-breaking drought. And we experienced the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria’s drylands.

The many institutions, laws, and regulations we have created to manage water are proving ill-suited to present day challenges. In South Asia, for example, increased water stress has brought India to the brink of withdrawing from the Indus Waters Treaty, one of the oldest and most successful water sharing agreements in the world. Other agreements suffer from glaring omissions. The 70-year old U.S.-Mexico treaty that manages the Rio Grande and Colorado rivers only addresses surface water. Today, both countries are dangerously overexploiting the underground aquifers along the border.

These emerging challenges require a new approach. The first-ever U.S. Global Water Strategy, which President Trump is required to submit to Congress by October 2017, could transform the way our government manages water and head off the most disruptive effects of increasing scarcity and demand.

As a global conservation organization working in more than 100 nations, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) sees a robust U.S. Global Water Strategy as a potential game-changer. We see opportunities to reduce environmental degradation, improve peoples’ health, and strengthen cooperation around shared waters. Doing so will encourage sustainable use of natural resources, reduce conflict and displacement, and open new development opportunities.

But government-driven solutions need private sector support to succeed. That is why we are also working with some of the world’s largest companies – including The Coca-Cola Company and Levi Strauss & Co. – to better understand the impact that changing water availability has on sustainable supply chains. Indeed, these companies have been ahead of the curve when it comes to water management.

Sustainable provision of water should remain a central focus of U.S. domestic and foreign policy

At the Wilson Center, we are helping policymakers understand the different ways water affects prosperity and stability, from migration and conflict to energy and health. Through our Environmental Change and Security Program, we have helped turn ideas into action for more than decade, serving as a key node for non-partisan dialogue between researchers and policymakers, journalists and advocates.

As we explore in our water and conflict toolkit for the U.S. Agency for International Development and policy guides on migration and climate-security risks, the Wilson Center sees the opportunity to achieve a “triple bottom line” of peace, prosperity, and environmental sustainability by more aggressively and holistically tackling global water challenges. The first U.S. Global Water Strategy must make this objective a guiding principle.

Every day, WWF and the Wilson Center are expanding our knowledge around the complex set of interactions between water scarcity and instability. Over the next several months, we will work together to accelerate that effort through a series of roundtables, honing in on the water-conflict nexus. In consultation with policymakers, military personnel, members of the intelligence community, academics, and representatives of NGOs, we will uncover new perspectives on the social and ecological factors that contribute to water challenges around the world, how those challenges affect U.S. interests, and what interventions may help prevent and mitigate crises in cost-effective ways.

The world is changing. But even as shifting political dynamics reshape our overseas engagements, ensuring sustainable provision of water around the globe should remain a central focus of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Our collective security depends on it.

Jane Harman is director, president, and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She served nine terms in Congress representing California’s 36th district.

Carter Roberts is president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund in the United States. WWF is the world’s largest network of international conservation organizations with more than 5 million members worldwide in 100 countries.

Sources: The Guardian, The Library of Congress, The Los Angeles Times, Voice of America.

Photo Credit: Lake Chad, as seen from the International Space Station in 2014, courtesy of NASA.