A Chronic Crisis, Now Acute: WWF’s Recommendations for the First U.S. Global Water Strategy
The intelligence community’s landmark Global Water Security assessment in 2012, warned of major water-driven challenges to U.S. national security. The combined assessment of several intelligence agencies foresaw many challenges to U.S. policy objectives and national security arising from protracted drought, declining water quality, and more natural disasters in countries important to U.S. interests. The intelligence community further warned of rising social instability, cross-border tensions, and a steady drain of resources away from other development objectives. These warnings have proven prescient.
In the intervening five years, the world has witnessed increased insurgencies in water-stressed regions like the Middle East and North Africa, threats to the decades-old Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan, and protests over unequal access to water and insufficient provision even to satisfy basic needs in Central America.
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been working to strengthen the U.S. government’s strategy and engagements to forestall similar water-driven disruptions. This year, in particular, provides a major opportunity for the U.S. government and its partners in civil society to do more to support partner governments around the world.
For six decades the U.S. government has worked through a variety of organizations and approaches to improve water security domestically and abroad, only to deliver efforts that are too often fragmented, under-resourced, and insufficiently coordinated.U.S. government efforts are too often fragmented, under-resourced, and insufficiently coordinated
The more than 15 U.S. government agencies active in international water projects are at best loosely organized in their planning and implementation by the global water coordinator, a position – without directive authority – housed at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Because of this lack of coordination across agencies, there is no ability or incentive for systematic monitoring and evaluation of ongoing U.S. government projects, coordination across government functions, development of common metrics, or potential for pooled investment and programs. Cross-project agreements and information sharing are for the most part ad hoc.
This is a poor use of our national talent in the policy and practice of water management. History in the U.S. water sector and elsewhere shows that only White House leadership can obligate entities across government to focus on and expand these nascent opportunities.
The authors and supporters of the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act – passed with bipartisan support in 2014 – envisioned the Global Water Strategy as a way to address these concerns. The Act requires that the United States’ very first Global Water Strategy be prepared by October 1 of this year.
The production and operationalization of this strategy could position the United States to save millions of lives, feed the hungry, empower marginalized women, advance our national security interests, and protect the environment.
A Unique Opportunity
The bipartisan Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act establishes a mandate for a U.S. Global Water Strategy that will accomplish three objectives:
- Increase access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene in high priority countries
- Improve management of water resources and watersheds in such countries; and
- Work to prevent and resolve both intra- and trans-boundary conflicts over water resources in such countries.
The strategy could be the catalyst that coordinates the work of all relevant agencies, from the provision of basic water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services to water resource management to boundary conflicts. It should also take concerted action to address the recommendations of the 2012 intelligence assessment.
Moreover, the opening of a new administration provides the opportunity to elevate global water security as a transcendent and coordinated priority across the full range of U.S. overseas engagements addressing humanitarian, development, and security goals.
We propose the following measures as fundamental steps required to operationalize the U.S. Global Water Strategy and establish the United States as a global leader in meeting current and rising water challenges.
The White House
The Trump White House can use the Global Water Strategy to elevate water security as a new cross-cutting U.S. government objective and streamline responsibility and authority across the various agencies and offices that respond to water-related risks.
In addition to putting its support behind the creation and resourcing of this strategy, we recommend the White House establish a position that would report to the assistant to the president for national security affairs and the assistant to the president for science and technology. This person would oversee all international activities designed to address sustainable water management.
U.S. Department of State
The Department of State should satisfy the mandate of the Water for the World Act by resourcing the existing special advisor for water resources position to meet the duties required by the act. The special advisor for water resources should also be involved in relevant operations of other offices working on water-related issues and should continue to co-chair the interagency water working group.The 2012 intelligence assessment cited a clear link between WASH and U.S. national security
In addition, the Department of State should create regional water desk officers to monitor issues and identify opportunities for the application of U.S. assets in priority basins.
And finally, in furtherance of the Water for the World Act, the department should actively work with other donor governments to coordinate interventions and increase funding streams to address water security. Better coordination will require more than just internal improvements, but changes to how the U.S. government works with others too.
U.S. Agency for International Development
Based on the best available global water resources data, USAID should conduct a strategic assessment of water security risks as they relate to development assistance, pursuant to the 2012 intelligence assessment, which cited a clear link between water- and sanitation-poverty and U.S. national security.
This effort would be conducted in the context of its consideration of potential security threats to the United States and its strategic allies, arising from conflict over water, water shortages, and/or poor water management.
USAID should also identify appropriate mechanisms by which its programming can effectively and efficiently support all the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 6, including WASH targets, protecting water-related ecosystems, improving management and efficiency, and expanding cooperation around shared resources.
U.S. Department of Defense
Building on the implications of the intelligence community’s assessment, the Pentagon should generate a regular report on water and U.S. security interests and make its findings available to other federal agencies. It should also provide expertise and logistical support to U.S. overseas development assistance workers addressing water security threats in collaborative programs with partner governments.
The Department of Defense is also home to considerable technical expertise, particularly through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It should leverage those assets by expanding provision of technical and security support to partner governments, particularly to temper any effort to employ water as a weapon of war.
A Chronic Crisis Is Now Acute
While much has been accomplished in recent decades, there remain tremendous opportunities for the Global Water Strategy to coordinate the currently fragmented resources of the U.S. government to prevent and respond to global water risks.
U.S. law, the intelligence community, academics, the military, technologists, and water professionals share a bipartisan concern: What has for decades been described as a global water challenge has now become an acute global water crisis. This crisis is real and is contributing to job loss, forced migration, and political strife, while undermining productivity gains and even becoming a tactic of terrorism and conflict.
This year, the U.S. government has the legal mandate, assets, and opportunity to become a global leader on this challenge. The Global Water Strategy affords us a unique opportunity to mobilize those many assets to sustain and enhance the prosperity and security of all.
For more on the first U.S. Global Water Strategy, see recommendations from Wilson Scholar Ken Conca, Water 2017’s John Oldfield, and Wilson Scholars Sherri Goodman, Ruth Greenspan Bell, and Nausheen Iqbal.
David Reed is a senior policy advisor at WWF-US and a widely published expert on the dynamics linking macroeconomic policy, the environment, and security issues.
Karin Krchnak is freshwater director at WWF-US and has published extensively in the area of international environmental policy and sustainable development, particularly on freshwater issues.
Chris McGahey is the managing director of Hillaria International and is collaborating with WWF on compiling the history of water management by the U.S. government and its application to future water security.
Sources: Library of Congress (United States), Office of the Director of National Intelligence (United States).
Photo Credit: WWF staff and partners on the Orinoco River, Colombia, used with permission courtesy of Meridith Kohut/WWF-US.