Water Scarcity: The Most Understated Global Security Risk

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Water Scarcity: The Most Understated Global Security Risk

Major David J. Stuckenberg, MPS

Anthony L. Contento, Ph.D.*

The Industrial Revolutions improved living standards for people in most nations where technology proliferated.[1] Populations in modern societies are not overly concerned with accessing food or water on a daily basis. In particular, the availability of clean, fresh water is a reasonable expectation throughout the modern world. However, a growing lack of water (“water scarcity”), propelled by continued technological advancement and high demand, is creating a global crisis. This resource scarcity will change long-held expectations and demonstrate the capacity to disrupt the security and stability of entire regions.

This Article examines the global state of freshwater scarcity[2] and the often-neglected linkages of water scarcity to economic, social, political, legal, and security consequences arising from disruptions, failures, or attacks on water access and distribution systems.[3] Our research concentrates on examples of the impacts of water scarcity from past and present utilizing selected examples from North America, the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. We contend that poorly understood links between access to adequate water and national stability pose severe global security risks, especially if technological and policy correctives are not implemented to increase water resiliency and ensure availability and access.

I. Introduction

A direct line can be drawn between a nation’s economic strength and the degree to which it meets the basic needs of its population. According to the Federal Reserve Bank, “lower poverty rates coincide with decreases in unemployment or increases in income.”[4] This premise is both logical and intuitive, because as people shift concern from procuring basic sustenance, they may shift effort toward social advancement. Therefore, the predictable availability of food and water have created competitive advantages in the societies that cultivated these resources, by allowing workforces to develop in sophistication and propelling societal transformation.

For example, in the United States, learning and advancement have driven the population from an agrarian existence to a post-industrial-age lifestyle marked by urban and suburban living.[5] With much of the population’s focus shifting to lifestyle, education, and advancement, the food production of the United States—once provided by forty-one percent of the population circa 1900—is now supported by 1.8 percent of the population.[6] At the same time, the once sixty-percent rural population diminished to about twenty-percent during the same period.[7] Such shifts are typical of many modern societies.[8]

However, the improvements and technologies that enabled these changes are posing deep (but scarcely understood) economic and security risks. These risks are now beginning to undermine the very stabilities that they created, specifically with respect to food and water. With most attention today directed to better-known and better-understood risks, such as cybersecurity and weapons of mass destruction, water scarcity may pose even more significant risks to states and populations if not mitigated. In fact, the 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community noted that “[t]he impacts of the long-term trends toward . . . water scarcity [is] likely to fuel economic and social discontent—and possibly upheaval—through 2018.”[9]

II. The State of Global Freshwater

Next to air, water is the most fundamental requirement for life. During their training at the United States Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Training, students are taught they can live up to weeks without food, but only days without water.[10] Although water covers about seventy-one percent of the planet, only about three percent is fresh.[11] And its mismanagement and contamination is intensifying: “[B]y 2025, global freshwater stress owing to increasing population on water use will increase significantly, especially in northern Africa, Eurasia, the Middle East, and even the United States, and by 2050, nearly 5 billion people will be affected by freshwater scarcity.”[12] Astonishingly, even those involved in water management are often unaware of the true, global extent to which a water crisis has developed and continues to deepen.

In 2016, the American Water Works Association (“AWWA”), a trade association for the U.S. water industry, admonished industry lethargy in North America: “It is difficult to specifically account for the relatively stagnant perceptions of the industry’s soundness as identified in this report, but water leaders should take these trends as a call to action.”[13] AWWA issued this warning on the heels of a survey that demonstrated that the U.S. water industry believes itself sound.[14] In fact, for more than a decade, the perception of more than 1,400 water utilities and companies in the U.S. has been virtually unchanged.[15] Ironically, the same advancements that made water availability an afterthought in most modern societies have come full circle.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “[a]t local to National levels, difficulties in securing potable water sources increase with growing populations and economies. Available water improves living standards and drives urbanization, which increases average water consumption per capita.”[16] According to the UN, “water scarcity affects more than 40 per cent of the global population and is projected to rise.”[17] Projections forecast unsustainable depletion of many standing freshwater sources, including reservoirs, lakes, and underground aquifers.[18] In some cases, aquifers may take up to 19,000 years to re-charge.[19] In many cases, the rates of use and re-charge for standing sources of water is untenable. For instance, the drawdown will cause North America’s largest source of freshwater, the Ogallala Aquifer, to reduce the Arikaree, a 70-mile long river in Colorado, to about one-half mile by 2045.[20]

Even forecasting has failed to predict the severity of water scarcity in some places. In early 2018, the South African city of Cape Town declared that it would have to implement emergency water rationing within months due to ongoing water scarcity and mismanagement coupled with an unanticipated drought.[21] In a drastic move to curb water use, the city reduced pressure and even shut off water to customers.[22] Cape Town will remain in a state of crisis until the water issues can be managed successfully. In the meantime, the crisis has cascaded into every segment of life and economy in South Africa.[23]

Globally, water scarcity is driving economic, social, political, and security concerns, as “disruptions in sustainable supplies and distribution of potable water and conflicts over water resources become major security issues for Government officials.”[24] More than mere disruption, however, in some cases, water scarcity can lead to results commensurate with the most destructive weapons of our age.

III. The Economic Risks of Water Scarcity

In 2012, the World Economic Forum elevated water scarcity to a Top 5 global economic risk.[25] According to World Bank Group (“WBG”), “[w]ater is a vital factor of production, so diminishing water supplies can translate into slower growth . . . . Some regions could see their growth rates decline by as much as 6 percent of GDP by 2050 as a result of water-related losses in agriculture, health, income, and property—sending them into sustained negative growth.”[26] Impacts from water scarcity slice through all economic dimensions. The shocks from water cannot be isolated to any one economic sector. This potential requires a new look at water, not as a peripheral contributor to a region’s economic health, but rather a primary enabler.

One way of measuring the size of water’s economic importance is comparing it to the amount that nations spend on defense, a statistic that receives much more attention. The twelve nations with the largest defense budgets relative to their GDP spent between 1.0 and 10.4 percent of their nation’s GDP on defense in 2015, for an average of 3.23% of GDP.[27] In comparison, a WBG Climate Action Plan projects that by 2050 water scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa (“MENA”) could negatively impact that region’s GDP by up to four times this average.[28]

Where economic segments are concerned, all supply chains and all sectors are increasingly being impacted negatively by water scarcity. In 2016, the Carbon Data Protocol, a survey of more than 1,200 of the world’s largest companies, noted:

Water risks are rapidly materializing for business: Disclosing companies reported US$14 billion in water-related impacts this year, a five-fold increase from last year. Over a quarter of companies have experienced detrimental impacts from water this year, and companies expect over half (54%) of the 4,416 water risks they identified to materialize within the next six years.[29]

As these risks to water security increase, businesses will need to divert more and more resources to managing water access.

Bodies once thought to be an infinite source of water to Gulf Cooperation Council States, such as the Persian Gulf, are also under pressure. Increasing desalination plants along the Gulf Coast increases the gulf’s salinity.[30] Today the gulf has a salinity of 1.5 times higher than twenty years ago.[31] Increased salinity has the effect of raising the energy requirements for purification and thus increases the cost of desalinization. In some cases, the economic benefits of building desalinization plants in areas of better seawater quality offset the cost of building major pipelines to deliver the water to population centers.[32] Notwithstanding these costs, “the water demand is projected to increase as the [region’s] population swells.”[33]

In addition to the many direct economic impacts arising from water scarcity, water-related legal challenges are causing indirect financial losses to both the public and private sector. In early 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in Florida v. Georgia,[34] where Florida sought relief from Georgia’s alleged overuse of upstream waters.[35] In many places, rising costs associated with water-related legal issues and the cumbersome statutory obligations arising as a result have created a global land rush—for water. Purchasers such as BHP Billiton, Ted Turner, Michael Burry, Unitech, and Cargill are leading the charge in buying up water rights through land purchases.[36]

In 2011, Citigroup’s chief economist, Willem Buiter said that “[w]ater as an asset class will, in my view, become the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.”[37] Global economists and analysts agree—an absence of water equates to the lack of a viable economy.[38] Therefore, it is safe to conclude that access to fresh water may equal wealth in the twenty-first century.

IV. The Social Impacts of Water Scarcity

Water is necessary for social stability. Without water, society stops because the imperative turns to survival. Extended drought contributed to the collapse of the Old and New Kingdoms of Egypt, the Maya, the Ming Dynasty, and the Anasazi civilizations.[39] According to the WBG, “[t]he future will be thirsty.”[40] Growing populations, rising incomes, and a changing climate will converge to create unprecedented strains on the world’s water resources. The world will experience a surge in demand for water, but due to the effects of global climate change, it will suffer a less reliable supply.

The U.S. Geological Survey notes that “[i]f people are deprived of water, it is likely that water needed for food production is limited, if not absent, leading to increased water-resource conflicts and negative effects on security.”[41] The forecast on water scarcity is staggering. According to the UN, “[g]lobal water demand in terms of water withdrawals is projected to increase by 55% towards 2050, mainly due to a growing demand from manufacturing (400%).”[42]

Beyond insecurity and instability, the impacts of water scarcity cascade into every aspect of life and livelihood. In Mexico City, more than twenty percent of the city’s nearly nine million residents cannot receive fresh potable water from their taps.[43] Because most areas not served by running water are impoverished, their economically challenged residents often rely on water deliveries from trucks: “In some cases . . . [d]eliveries may be promised in three to 30 days, forcing residents to stay home the whole time, because orders are canceled if there’s no one in the house when the trucks arrive.”[44]

Not surprisingly, the WBG believes that:

[W]ater scarcity will proliferate to regions where it currently does not exist, and greatly worsen in regions where water is already scarce. . . . Changes in water availability and variability can induce migration and ignite civil conflict. Food price spikes caused by droughts can inflame latent conflicts and drive migration. . . . In a globalized and connected world, such problems are impossible to quarantine. And where large inequities prevail, people move from zones of poverty to regions of prosperity which can lead to increased social tensions.[45]

The inability to isolate shocks from water scarcity suggests that states and sovereigns must increasingly think not only in terms of their own conservation and needs, but also consider the potential needs of their allies and neighbors, which could translate into a requirement to support displaced and transient populations. A wholistic and cooperative approach to mitigating regional water scarcity provides many rich opportunities to not only enhance the socioeconomic strength of a region, but also as an opportunity to fortify goodwill, increase resilience, and enhance security. The risk of non-action will become too great. States that fail to seek cooperation and take proactive measures are likely to experience significant social friction and a decline in international goodwill, especially where the risk of water shocks was foreseeable and mitigable. Consequently, the social aspects of water will become increasingly important as water scarcity intensifies.

V. The Political and Legal Implications of Water Scarcity

In a world where “[w]ater-related climate risks cascade through food, energy, urban, and environmental systems,” the political upheavals resulting from water scarcity and pricing changes can be severe and far-reaching.[46] For instance, throughout MENA, the long-standing public expectation is for government to provide food and water subsidies. WBG notes that:

[T]he state takes a paternalistic role with a mix of socialist and Islamic ideology that sees subsidies as a form of social protection. Populations start to see subsidies as a human right or natural entitlements; governments are happy to use subsidies as a tool to gain consensus and are unprepared to take the risks associated with removing them.[47]

In most cases, these subsidies are considered toxic as they are geared toward the wealthy and upper classes, leaving the economically challenged at a considerable disadvantage.[48]

Furthermore, where subsidies are provided, reform is unlikely: “[b]ecause 70 percent of the region’s poor people live in rural areas, and current unemployment rates in many MENA countries are around 15 percent, removing price supports or increasing the price of agricultural inputs, including water, becomes politically difficult.”[49] Over time, cost disparities and subsidies can exacerbate the mismanagement of water resources. For example, agricultural growers who receive substantial cost breaks on diesel tend to use more water, promoting even greater water mismanagement and waste. [50] In America, subsidizing irrigation equipment led to increased water use even when the subsidies were meant to reduce usage by catalyzing efficient irrigation.[51] Ironically, the most water scarce states on the globe—Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—have a daily per capita water usage of almost twice that of Australia and the United States, which are not as water scarce.[52]

Eventually, the political stability of the MENA region will be impacted by the prolonged failure to implement adequate and sustainable water-management practices. Over time, many states could be forced to make substantial infrastructure upgrades and even purchase water at costs that they cannot afford nor sustain. Where water subsidies are cut and water supplies are ultimately exhausted due to mismanagement, political turmoil will result. According to WBG:

For more than a decade, water experts have been urging the countries of the [MENA] to change the way they manage water. The experts are increasingly aware of just how little water the region has available, how much money governments spend on water infrastructure, and how inefficiently the water is used. Studies on the topic paint a dire picture . . . . Water problems ripple through the social and economic spheres—as people fight over water allocations, as farmers see their incomes shrink because irrigation water does not arrive in their fields, as households spend time and money coping with unreliable water supplies or with none at all, and as children get sick because of poor sanitation. And if the present is grim, the future will be bleaker. Problems are predicted to worsen as competition for limited or degraded resources intensifies.[53]

Such divergent dynamics are not unique to MENA. Conservation debates throughout Australia, India, Pakistan, United States, and the rest of the international community have led to political tension demonstrating that such issues are unbounded by geography or borders.[54] In 2016 and 2017, there were twenty-five known water conflicts spanning the globe.[55]

In addition to driving political unrest, water scarcity raises fundamental legal questions. At the heart of the legal debate is the question of whether access to fresh water is a universal human right or a privilege that may be owned, controlled, or allocated (like property).[56] The overarching area of law surrounding the issue is known as riparian law.[57]

Given that water scarcity concerns are growing, riparian disputes are becoming more common. For example, Ethiopia currently controls eighty-five percent of the Nile’s source waters and has plans to use its natural geography for economic benefit.[58] “Ethiopia for the first time is combining both the physical power of being an upstream country that can . . . control the River Nile’s flow and the economic power of being able to construct a dam depending on its own domestic resources.”[59]

Today, the Nile supplies water to around 300 million people.[60] While Sudan may indirectly benefit from the new infrastructure due to its proximity to waters backed up by the dam, Egypt has warned that any impact to Nile waters will be considered a threat to its sovereignty.[61] In early 2018, Sudan moved troops to its Eritrea border citing security risks from Egypt.[62] Tensions concerning the Nile continue to escalate in this region.[63]

Another area where the political and legal questions have converged involves the tributaries that feed the Indus River. The Indus serves as a common border between India and Pakistan and runs the length of both states. At the source of the river are five tributaries resting primarily within India’s border in the Punjab (meaning “five rivers”) plain.[64] Unlike recent tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt, tensions concerning the Indus have been a flashpoint for decades. Consequently, in 1960, the WBG brokered the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) between India and Pakistan:[65]

The Treaty sets out a mechanism for cooperation and information exchange between the two countries regarding their use of the rivers, known as the Permanent Indus Commission, which has a commissioner from each country. The Treaty also sets forth distinct procedures to handle issues which may arise: “questions” are handled by the Commission; “differences” are to be resolved by a neutral, and “disputes” are to be referred to a seven-member arbitral tribunal called the “Court of Arbitration.”[66]

While the IWT established an equitable structure for fair mutual usage of the Indus, the treaty’s framers fortuitously recognized issues between India and Pakistan could evolve. Thus, where issues might have become mired by changes in legal theory, the IWT endeavored to set aside questions of law noting that, “[a]part, therefore, from the question of law involved, the Governments are anxious to approach the problem in a practical spirit.”[67] However, there is little doubt as to the tacit legal foundation of the treaty, as it states, “nothing in this Treaty shall be construed as affecting existing territorial rights over the waters of any of the Rivers or the beds or banks thereof, or as affecting existing property rights under municipal law over such waters or beds or banks.”[68] This language is in keeping with riparian legal doctrine which holds that “‘[f]lowing water is common property by ‘natural right[,]’ . . . that all rivers and ports are public, and that the right of fishing in these waters is common to all persons.”[69]

In spite of long-standing arrangements, water and electricity demands have put the IWT in peril.[70] India’s recent hydroelectric and irrigation construction is believed to be upsetting IWT usage limits which were established to ensure a fair and equal use between neighbors.[71] As a result, Pakistan called for and received a Court of Arbitration injunction to stop India’s construction on the Kishenganga hydroelectric dam.[72] Irrespective of the injunction, tensions remain.[73] Movements relating to water rights have continued to escalate political rhetoric, strained relations, and led to violent protests and attacks between these neighboring nations.[74] Moreover, in other diplomatic disputes where water is not at issue, India has brought water to the forefront by threatening to withdraw from the IWT if issues are not resolved in its favor.[75]

To preserve the integrity of the IWT, the WBG recently froze arbitration, announcing that the World Bank “would pause before taking further steps . . . . This was done to safeguard the treaty, since referring the matter simultaneously to the processes sought by each of the countries risked contradictory outcomes.”[76]

Political tension and water rights disputes are not limited to Eurasia. While the Great Lakes are a large source of freshwater in North America, their resources are not available to everyone. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, signed into law in 2008 by the states and provinces bordering the lakes, protects the lakes from most withdrawals or diversions that will not return water to the system.[77] Until recently, permits for water use were generally restricted to applicants within the Great Lakes basin.[78] In 2016, a permit was approved for Waukesha, Wisconsin, which sits partly outside of the basin,[79] to switch from using radium-polluted deep wells to diverted lake water.[80] This diversion will convert the city to lake water supply in 2023, with wastewater returning to the lake via the Root River.[81] However, this new precedent has led to additional water use applications and increased fears that waters from the Great Lakes might be diverted to regions even farther away.[82]

VI. The Security Implications Arising from Water Scarcity

Today, the populations of cities and states alike are maintained by technology that is both unsustainable and impractical from a resources standpoint. Still, the unsustainable use of water continues to be taken for granted. As populations increasingly encounter realities of water scarcity, there will be a resurgence of pre-industrial age uncertainty. At the same time, societies will revert to an ability to affect, hold at risk, and even control populations through water and critical resources. While this reversion seems primitive, it will become increasingly likely under this new security context.

Regardless of the degree of technology possessed, and irrespective of who owns it, control over water can be a decisive factor in security or defense scenarios, whether by a military knockout (hard power) or a diplomatic campaign (soft power). A knockout blow to an adversary is the most desirable outcome of a well-organized military campaign. Professor Lawrence Freedman, King’s College London, notes that aggressors have always gambled on knockouts: “A first battle catching the enemy by surprise and inflicting a blow from which there could be no recovery could help avoid a long war. This was the ‘allure of battle’ that led to states gambling on aggression. Few states knowingly entered into an attritional long war.”[83] For example: by poisoning a well before a siege, in the absence of other military advantages, an aggressor could feasibly secure critical objectives, or even victory, within days as humans can only go without water for a few days.

However, when a knockout was unsuccessful, and campaigns lingered, an expectation remained that decisive battles could still be achieved. If decisive battles did not lead to cessation of conflict directly, they could then lead to the inevitable end of conflict or capitulation: “If the enemy proved to be resilient, then over time non-military factors would become progressively more important.”[84] These longer campaigns, for example, could be swiftly ended by removing water resources. Such tactics were used during the Albigensian Crusade, resulting in the fall of Carcassonne less than two weeks after the water supply was cut-off.[85] An inability to find clean water lengthened the duration of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt.[86] Napoleon’s men did not know how to find water in the desert of North Africa which forced reliance on well water from native settlements.[87] Such conditions led to a rise in plague and typhus among the troops and significantly affected the French strategy in Syria.[88] Later during Napoleon’s Russian campaign, it is estimated that his soldiers suffered “[b]ecause of poor supplies of water . . . . [T]he putrid water from holes filled with dead people and cattle brought everyone close to death; and eye pains, fatigue, and thirst, and hunger tormented everybody.”[89] The spread of disease represents an unintentional effect of water availability on a military campaign.

The actions by the South Africa Union Defense Forces in the German conflict in South West Africa during World War I illustrate the intentional manipulation of water resources to dictate the movements and strategies of opposing forces, as well as a successful preparation to counter these tactics.[90] Union Defense Forces (“UDF”) knew that German forces would use control or destruction of limited water resources to direct their invasion;[91] the UDF thus created supply lines and started transporting water long before 1914.[92] When the Germans arrived, they did as expected and moved to control or poison water sources.[93] Thanks to early planning, the UDF was able to continue their campaign beyond German expectations.[94] While their reliance on a limited water supply did limit the mobility and response of UDF troops, planning to maintain access to water resources and stockpiling water enabled the UDF to prepare for a successful response to German offensives.[95]

As states aggregate and couple power distribution networks with water and food, the specter of deliberate interference has materialized. For example, in the United States an impact to the power grid can cause a cascade of failures in other areas of infrastructure including water, food, and sanitation.[96] Indeed, the capacity to create intense pressure with minimal application of effort (such as precision physical, cyber, or electromagnetic attacks from a small state or non-state sponsored cells) could make intentional targeting of crucial water production and resources the focus of military or terrorist action. While such efforts might be considered high-shock strategies tantamount to total war (waged on both a nation’s government and society), the possibility of such actions cannot be ruled out.

In the first Gulf War, military planners demonstrated the novel and unique utility of precision targeting of civil and military nodes.[97] In just a matter of days, the U.S. military subdued the Iraqi military, which at that time was the fifth largest in the world.[98] Today, in city-states where the majority of the fresh water is dependent on central production centers, planners must consider the opportunities that such an attack could offer an adversary. “The confluence of risks around water scarcity, climate change, extreme weather events and involuntary migration remains a potent cocktail and a ‘risk multiplier’, especially in the world economy’s more fragile environmental and political contexts.”[99]

In desert states that rely on technology for their survival, the threat of precision targeting is particularly salient. Yet many states today fail to consider the fact that a few select, intentionally applied pressures directed at the right nodes could cause collapse. For example, Qatar has prospered due to both its abundant oil and gas reserves and access to desalinated water (referred to by the government as “structurally-induced water abundance”) from the Persian Gulf.[100] Today, Qatar’s last aquifers are drying up.[101] As these sources deplete, the state will become entirely reliant on three primary desalinization plants to support its population of 2.3 million.[102]

While Qatar’s chief exports are oil and gas, it is the potential interruption of its water that could trigger a cascade of effects that would be felt around the globe.[103] For example, an adversary desiring a political or military knockout would need only to target Qatar’s water desalination facilities to achieve its strategic objectives. Disruption of these water plants would cut off the population from water and enable the adversary to achieve its political goals.

Because Qatar stores less than two days of water at a given time, mass emigration would cause exhaustion of water reserves.[104] In addition to mass migration, Qatar would likely be unable to continue oil and gas exports, thereby disrupting nearly a third of the UK’s gas imports.[105] Finally, the inability to support the indigenous population could also translate into a failure to support NATO’s operations at Al Udeid Air Base.[106] The lack of water might force the evacuation of an estimated 11,000 American troops, or at least severely impede operations for a considerable duration.[107] Such disruption could lead to widespread strategic impacts as Russia, China, and other peer and near-peer states move to take advantage of NATO’s inability to maintain MENA’s stability.

Today, forty-three percent of the world’s desalinization plants are held by Gulf Cooperation Council Countries.[108] For most of them, the gulf is the primary source of desalinization feed water.[109] This centralized and critical dependence on the gulf points to the potential magnitude of any issues arising from the contamination of this body of water. The effects would be nearly immediate and global.

VII. Conclusion

Outside of the possibility of water security being used for military advantage or to serve as a target for extremist groups, water resources are under attack on a daily basis. Desertification and drought take twelve million hectares per year,[110] decreasing the amount of available, arable land. In the South Pacific, encroaching seas threaten to disrupt each island’s water lens, which is their pocket of fresh groundwater.[111] The armed conflict in Syria was arguably caused in part by the extended drought and collapse of agriculture.[112] Egyptian forces are mobilizing to protect the downstream waters of the Nile from upstream development.[113] Cape Town, a city of over 3.7 million people, is facing “Day Zero”—a day when water is no longer available to citizens.[114]

Cape Town will not be the last city to face this terrifying prospect. The causes of this crisis are legion, and they have all stripped freshwater availability in major metropolises. These reasons include decreasing lake and reservoir levels, tapping aquifers beyond recharge rates, mismanagement of water and sewage systems, ancient plumbing systems, pollution of bodies of water and aquifers, and many more. Recent efforts in Cape Town have shown that immediate conservation can extend available water resources, but continuous initiatives, new legislation, and new technology will be required to reverse the crisis in South Africa and around the globe. The current methods of wastewater treatment, water reclamation, and desalination have limitations. Desalination is not the magic bullet it was once hoped to be, owing to newly discovered adverse environmental impacts such as byproducts, gross energy consumption, and hypersalinity, an economically devastating elevation in salt concentration caused by evaporation and desalinization.[115] While some states, like Israel, have modernized their water infrastructure to meet national needs, other nations, such as the United States and Mexico, remain reliant on dated and inadequate technology.[116]

New technologies will have to be expanded for municipal use and installed in every major city as a component of a plan for water security and greater water control policies. Such progress will require a combination of conservation, policy, innovative technologies, and public support to increase water security. However, it all begins with governments and individuals realizing that fresh water is not an infinite resource. Water reserves must be protected like any natural and exhaustible resource, and the security of this resource must be approached with the determination of a military campaign. The survival of our global community depends on it.


* The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or the United States of America.


Major David J. Stuckenberg is a Ph.D. student in defence studies at King’s College London and a policy and defense strategist at the United States Air Force. He is also a veteran special operations pilot with more than 150 combat missions in both propeller and jet aircraft. As an academic, he serves as chairman of the non-profit American Leadership and Policy Foundation. Meanwhile, in his capacity as a strategist, he serves on the Tanker Nuclear Action Counsel for HQ Air Mobility Command. Major Stuckenberg holds a Master’s in politics from the George Washington University and a Bachelor of Science in aviation technology from the University of Central Missouri.


Anthony L. Contento, Ph.D. is Program Manager for Leadership, Education and Human Services at Colorado State University-Global Campus. He has worked on various water and agricultural conservation projects in Australia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. He is also the Director of Research at the American Leadership and Policy Foundation, as well as the Technical Editor for the American Journal of Undergraduate Research. Dr. Contento earned his Doctorate in Molecular Biology at the University of Wyoming.


[1] See Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What It Means and How to Respond, World Econ. Forum (Jan. 14, 2016), https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/.

[2] Water Scarcity, UN Water, http://www.unwater.org/water-facts/scarcity/ (last visited Apr. 1, 2018).

[3] In this Article, a “water distribution system” means a system that provides community-wide water access.

[4] Rob Grunewald, Fed. Res. Bank of Minn., The Connection between Poverty and the Economy, FedGazette (Nov. 1, 2006), https://www.minneapolisfed.org/publications/fedgazette/the-connection-between-poverty-and-the-economy.

[5] See generally Carolyn Dimitri et al., Econ. Res. Serv., U.S. Dep’t of Agric., The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy (2005), https://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/59390/2/eib3.pdf.

[6] See id. at 2.

[7] See id. at 3.

[8] R. Inglehart, Sociological Theories of Modernization, in International Encyclopedia of the Social. & Behavioral Sciences 9965, 9965–71 (Neil J. Smelser & Paul B. Baltes eds., 2001).

[9] Daniel R. Coats, Dir. of Nat’l Intel., Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community 16 (2018), https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/Final-2018-ATA—Unclassified—SASC.pdf.

[10] Thomas W. Young, Hide-and-Seek Becomes Death-Defying Game in Survival School, L.A. Times (Nov. 17, 1996), http://articles.latimes.com/1996-11-17/local/me-100_1_survival-school.

[11] How much water is there On, In, and Above the Earth?, USGS Water Sci. Sch., https://water.usgs.gov/edu/earthhowmuch.html (last visited May 13, 2018).

[12] James A. Tindall & Andrew A. Campbell, U.S. Geological Surv., Water Security: National & Global Issues (2010), https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2010/3106/pdf/FS10-3106.pdf.

[13] Am. Water Works Ass’n, 2016 State of the Water Industry (2016), https://www.awwa.org/Portals/0/files/resources/water%20utility%20management/sotwi/2016%20SOTWI%20Report.pdf.

[14] Id. at 2.

[15] Id. at 13.

[16] Tindall & Campbell, supra note 12.

[17] Goal 6: Ensure Access to Water and Sanitation for All, United Nations, http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/water-and-sanitation/ (last visited Dec. 16, 2017).

[18] Yasmin Siddiqi, Empty Reservoirs, Dry Rivers, Thirsty Cities – and Our Water Reserves are Running out, Guardian (Mar. 27, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/mar/27/aquifers-worlds-reserve-water-tank-asia.

[19] P.B. McMahon et al., A Comparison of Recharge Rates in Aquifers of the United States Based on Groundwater-Age Data, 11 Hydro-geology J. 779, 782 (2011), https://water.usgs.gov/nrp/proj.bib/Publications/2011/mcmahon_plummer_etal_2011.pdf.

[20] Col. St. Univ., Groundwater Pumping Drying up Great Plains Streams, Driving Fish Extinctions, ScienceDaily (July 12, 2017), https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170712084944.htm.

[21] Why Cape Town is Running Out of Water, Economist (Feb. 15, 2018), https://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21737048-politics-drought-why-cape-town-running-out-water.

[22] Id.

[23] Cape Town Crisis: Preparing for Life without Running Water, Week (Jan. 29, 2018), http://www.theweek.co.uk/in-depth/91229/cape-town-crisis-preparing-for-life-without-running-water.

[24] Tindall & Campbell, supra note 12.

[25] World Econ. Forum, The Global Risks Report 2018 (2018), http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GRR18_Report.pdf.

[26] World Bank Group, High and Dry: Climate Change, Water, and the Economy 1 (2016), https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/23665/K8517%20Executive%20Summary.pdf

[27] Niall, McCarthy, The Biggest Military Budgets as a Percentage of GDP, Forbes (2015), https://blogs-images.forbes.com/niallmccarthy/files/2015/06/20150625_Defense_GDP_Fo1.jpg.

[28] The average of these 12 nations’ defense spending as part of GDP is 3.23%. Id. MENA nations are projected to suffer a 6.2% to 14% GDP loss due to water scarcity. World Bank, MENA Climate Action Plan 2016-2020 (2016), http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/136861479174892204/MENA-CAP-Nov-14-Long-FINAL-8-countries.pdf.

[29] CDP, 2016 Annual Report of Corporate Water Disclosure 6 (2016), http://b8f65cb373b1b7b15feb-c70d8ead6ced550b4d987d7c03fcdd1d.r81.cf3.rackcdn.com/cms/reports/documents/000/001/306/original/CDP-Global-Water-Report-2016.pdf?1484156313.

[30] Ronald Smith & et al., Sensitivity of Hypersaline Arabian Gulf to Seawater Desalination Plants, 31 Applied Math. Mod. 2347, 2347 (2007), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0307904X06002241?via=ihub.

[31] Dispute Over Cause of Persian Gulf Salinity, Fin. Tribune (June 14, 2016), https://financialtribune.com/articles/people-environment/43493/dispute-over-cause-of-persian-gulf-salinity.

[32] Thomas M. Missimer & Robert G. Maliva, Environmental Issues in Seawater Reverse Osmosis Desalination: Intakes and Outfalls, 434 Desalination 198–215, 199 (2018).

[33] R. Al Hashemi et al., A Review of Desalination Trends in the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries, 1 Int’l Interdisc. J. of Sci. Res. 72, 84 (2014).

[34] Florida v. Georgia, No. 22O142 (U.S. argued Jan. 8, 2018), https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2017/142,%20orig_e2p3.pdf.

[35] Lara Fowler, Argument Analysis: Can Florida’s Needs for More Water be “Redressed” by a Consumption Cap in Georgia?, SCOTUS Blog (Jan. 9, 2018), http://www.scotusblog.com/2018/01/argument-analysis-can-floridas-needs-water-redressed-consumption-cap-georgia/.

[36] Brian Bienkowski, Environmental Health News, Corporations Grabbing Land and Water Overseas, Sci. Am. (Feb. 12, 2013), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/corporations-grabbing-land-and-water-overseas/.

[37] Privatizing Water: “Taxing Through the Tap,” World Bus. Acad., https://worldbusiness.org/privatizing-water-taxing-through-the-tap/ (last visited Apr. 1, 2018).

[38] See Astrid Zweynert, No Water, No Jobs: How Water Shortages Threaten Jobs and Growth, PreventionWeb (Mar. 22, 2016), https://www.preventionweb.net/news/view/48330.

[39] Justin Sheffield & Eric F. Wood, Drought: Past Problems and Future Scenarios 78, 82, 84, 95 (2011).

[40] World Bank Group, supra note 26, at 4.

[41] Tindall & Campbell, supra note 12 (internal citation omitted).

[42] Michela Miletto, Water and Energy Nexus: Findings of the World Water Development Report 2014, in Hydrological Sciences and Water Security: Past, Present and Future 93, 94 (C. Cudennec et al. eds., 2014), https://www.proc-iahs.net/366/93/2015/piahs-366-93-2015.pdf (citation omitted).

[43] Michael Kimmelman, Mexico City, Parched and Sinking, Faces a Water Crisis, N.Y. Times (Feb. 17, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/02/17/world/americas/mexico-city-sinking.html.

[44] Id.

[45] World Bank Group, supra note 26, at vi.

[46] Id.

[47] Paolo Veme & Abdelkrim Arar, The Quest for Subsidies Reforms in the Middle East and North Africa Region: A Microsimulation Approach to Policy Making 36 (2017).

[48] Id.

[49] World Bank, Making the Most of Scarcity: Accountability for Better Water Management Results in the Middle East and North Africa 27 (2007).

[50] Shanta Devarajan, Corrosive Subsidies in MENA Future Development, World Bank (Nov. 12, 2014), http://blogs.worldbank.org/futuredevelopment/corrosive-subsidies-mena.

[51] Ron Nixon, Irrigation Subsidies Leading to More Water Use,  N.Y. Times (Jun. 6, 2013), https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/07/us/irrigation-subsidies-leading-to-more-water-use.html.

[52] Aquastat, Food and Agric. Org. of United Nations, http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/data/query/index.html (last visited Dec. 16, 2017). The highest water users in MENA are Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Id. As compared to the United States and Australia, daily water use per capita in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates averaged 150 gallons per day versus 90 gallons in the United States and Australia. Id.; see also Sultan Al-Sughair, KSA’s Water Consumption Surpasses Global Average, Saudi Gazette (Feb. 13, 2016), http://saudigazette.com.sa/article/13815/Saudi-per-capita-water-consumption-91-higher-than-international-average; Daily Avg Water Use Hits 130 Gallons in Bahrain, Daily Tribune (May 2, 2015), http://www.newsofbahrain.com/bahrain/349.html; Habib Toumi, Kuwait Has World’s Highest Water Consumption, Gulf News (Apr. 25, 2011), https://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/kuwait/kuwait-has-world-s-highest-water-consumption-1.798870; Joseph Varghese, Daily Per Capita Water Usage in Qatar: 500 Litres, Gulf Times (Nov. 26, 2013), http://www.gulf-times.com/story/372827/Daily-per-capita-water-usage-in-Qatar-500-litres; How Much Water Does the Average Person Use at Home Per Day?, USGS Water Sci. Sch., https://water.usgs.gov/edu/qa-home-percapita.html (last visited May 14, 2018); Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics, Water Statistics in the state of Qatar 2013 (Apr. 2016), https://www.mdps.gov.qa/en/knowledge/ReportsandStudies/WaterStats2016En.pdf; Riverina Water County Council, Average Water Use (2016), https://www.rwcc.nsw.gov.au/save-water/average-water-use; Ariel Rejwan, Plan. Dep’t of Israeli Water Authority, The State of Israel: National Water Efficiency Report (2011), http://www.water.gov.il/Hebrew/ProfessionalInfoAndData/2012/24-The-State-of-Israel-National-Water-Efficiency-Report.pdf; United Arab Emirates – Water, Export.gov, https://www.export.gov/article?id=United-Arab-Emirates-Water (last visited Aug. 15, 2016).

[53] World Bank, supra note 49, at 1.

[54] See Peter Jean, Political Tensions over the Murray-Darling Explode as Senators Call for Water Buybacks to be Suspended, Advertiser (Oct. 4, 2015), http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/political-tensions-over-the-murraydarling-explode-as-senators-call-for-water-buybacks-to-be-suspended/news-story/46d11738283cc1fa51a67d160e9d181a; see generally Water Conflict Chronology List, Pac. Inst., http://www2.worldwater.org/conflict/list/ (last visited May 13, 2018).

[55] Pac. Inst., supra note 54.

[56] See K. K. Lahiri, The Genesis and Evolution of the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956, 1 India L.J., no. 2, (2008), http://www.indialawjournal.org/archives/volume1/issue_2/article_by_lahiri.html.

[57] Riparian meaning “relating to or living or located on the bank of a natural watercourse (such as a river) or sometimes of a lake or a tidewater.” Riparian, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/riparian (last visited Mar. 3, 2018).

[58] The ‘Water War’ Brewing Over the New River Nile Dam, BBC News (Feb. 24, 2018), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-43170408.

[59] Id.

[60] Richard Kyle Paisley, Why the 11 Countries That Rely on the Nile Need to Reach a River Deal Soon, Conversation (Aug. 27, 2017), http://theconversation.com/why-the-11-countries-that-rely-on-the-nile-need-to-reach-a-river-deal-soon-75868.

[61] Samy Magdy, Egypt warns Ethiopia Nile Dispute is ‘Life or Death’, Times Isr. (Nov. 18, 2017), https://www.timesofisrael.com/egypt-warns-ethiopia-nile-dam-dispute-life-or-death/.

[62] Mohamed Amin, Sudan Deploys Troops to Eritrea Border, East African (Jan. 16, 2018), http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/Sudan-troops-Eritrea-border-Egypt-tension/2558-4265782-pqa48i/index.html.

[63] Id.

[64] Nafis Ahmad, Deryck O. Lodrick, Indus River, Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/place/Indus-River (last visited May 13, 2018).

[65] Fact Sheet: the Indus Waters Treaty 1960 and the Role of the World Bank, World Bank (Apr. 20, 2018), http://www.worldbank.org/en/region/sar/brief/fact-sheet-the-indus-waters-treaty-1960-and-the-world-bank.

[66] Id.

[67] Indus Waters Treaty, India-Pak., Sept. 19, 1960, 419 U.N.T.S. 126, https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTs/Volume%20419/volume-419-I-6032-English.pdf.

[68] Id.

[69] T.E. Lauer, The Common Law Background of the Riparian Doctrine, 28 Mo. L. Rev. 60, 66 (1963).

[70] Archana Chaudhary and Iain Marlow, Modi Lays Groundwork For Water War in Battle With Rival Pakistan, Bloomberg Mkts (Oct. 18, 2016), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-10-18/modi-lays-groundwork-for-water-war-in-battle-with-rival-pakistan.

[71] Justin Rowlatt, Why India’s Water Dispute with Pakistan Matters, BBC News (Sept. 28, 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-37483359.

[72] Farooq Tirmizi, Rare victory: Pakistan wins stay order against Indian dam, Express Tribune (Sept. 25, 2011), https://tribune.com.pk/story/259650/court-of-arbitration-halts-construction-of-kishanganga-dam/.

[73] Id.

[74] Rowlatt, supra note 71.

[75] Michael Kugelman, Why the India-Pakistan War Over Water Is So Dangerous, Foreign Pol’y (Sept. 30, 2016), http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/09/30/why-the-india-pakistan-war-over-water-is-so-dangerous-indus-waters-treaty/.

[76] Amin Yusufzai, Pak-India Disputes Over Kishenganga, Ratle Plants Still Not Resolved, propakistani (Sept. 19, 2017), https://propakistani.pk/2017/09/19/pak-india-disputes-kishenganga-ratle-plants-still-not-resolved/.

[77] Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, Pub. L. No. 110-342, 122 Stat. 3739 (2008).

[78] Great Lakes Compact Council, Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Council (Feb. 2010), http://www.glslcompactcouncil.org/Docs/Misc/Compact Council One Pager 2-10.pdf.

[79] Elizabeth Miller, Great Lakes States Uphold Waukesha Water Diversion, Great Lakes Today (Apr. 20, 2017), http://greatlakestoday.org/post/great-lakes-states-uphold-waukesha-water-diversion.

[80] Id.

[81] Don Behm, Waukesha Checks Root River Health Before Lake Michigan Water Diversion, Milwaukee J. Sentinel (Feb. 19, 2017), https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/local/milwaukee/2017/02/19/waukesha-checks-root-river-health-before-lake-michigan-water-diversion/97939854/.

[82] Kurt Chandler, Who Gets to Drink From the Great Lakes?, Atlantic (May 10, 2016), https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/05/who-gets-to-drink-the-great-lakes/481887/.

[83] Lawrence Freedman, The Future of War: A History 10 (2017); see also id. at 56, 66.

[84] Id. at 10.

[85] See Joseph R. Strayer, The Albigensian Crusades 64–65 (1992); W. A. Sibly & M. D. Sibly, The Chronicle of William of Puylaurens: the Albigensian Crusade and its aftermath 33–35 (2003).

[86] See Robert K. Peterson, The Napoleonic Campaigns and Historical Perception, 41 Am. Entomologist 147 (1995).

[87] Id.

[88] Id.

[89] Id. (citation omitted).

[90] See Evert Kleynhans, A Critical Analysis of the Impact of Water on the South African Campaign in German South West Africa, 1914-1915, Historia, Nov. 2016, at 29, 29.

[91] Id. at 39.

[92] Id. at 29.

[93] Id. at 38.

[94] Id. at 39.

[95] Id. at 29.

[96] EMP Commission, Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack (2004), http://www.empcommission.org/docs/empc_exec_rpt.pdf.

[97] David Deptula, Effects Based Operations: Change in the Nature of Warfare (2001), https://secure.afa.org/Mitchell/reports/0901ebo.pdf.

[98] John Broder & Douglas Jehl, Iraqi Army: World’s 5th largest but full of vital weaknesses, L.A. Times (Aug. 13, 1990), http://articles.latimes.com/1990-08-13/news/mn-465_1_iraqi-army.

[99] World Econ. Forum, Global Risks 2017, http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2017/part-1-global-risks-2017/ (last visited May 14, 2018).

[100] Harrison Jacobs, How Qatar Got So Rich So Fast, Bus. Insider (June 18, 2014), http://www.businessinsider.com/how-qatar-got-so-rich-so-fast-photos-2014-6; Haweya Ismail, Food and Water Security in Qatar: Part 2 – Water Resources, Future Directions Int’l (July 23, 2015), http://www.futuredirections.org.au/publication/food-and-water-security-in-qatar-part-2-water-resources/.

[101] Water and Desalination, Hukoomi, http://www.hukoomi.qa/wps/portal/topics/Environment and Agriculture/wateranddesalination (last visited Apr. 2, 2018)

[102] Qatar, Cent. Intelligence Agency: The World Factbook (May 3, 2018), https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/qa.html.

[103] Id.

[104] Shabina Khatri, World’s Largest Water Reservoirs Nearing Completion in Qatar, Doha News (Sept. 16, 2017), https://medium.com/dohanews/worlds-largest-water-reservoirs-nearing-completion-in-qatar-b1a1ee775361.

[105] Qatar Crisis Highlights Rising UK Energy Reliance on Imports, Oilandgaspeople.com (June. 12, 2017), https://www.oilandgaspeople.com/news/14409/qatar-crisis-highlights-rising-uk-energy-reliance-on-imports/.

[106] Brad Lendon, Qatar Hosts Largest US Military Base in Mideast, CNN (June 6, 2017), https://www.cnn.com/2017/06/05/middleeast/qatar-us-largest-base-in-mideast/index.html.

[107] Id.

[108] See S.W. Hasan et al., A Review of Desalination Trends in the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries, 1 Int’l Interdisc. J. Sci. Res. 72, 75 (Jan. 2014).

[109] Id. at 89.

[110] The United Nations Decade for Deserts (2010-2020) and the fight against Desertification, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, http://www2.unccd.int/actions/united-nations-decade-deserts-2010-2020-and-fight-against-desertification (last visited May 13, 2018).

[111] See, e.g., World Bank Group, Vulnerability, Risk Reduction, and Adaptation to Climate Change: Vanuatu, Climate Risk and Adaptation Country Profiles 7 (2011), http://sdwebx.worldbank.org/climateportalb/doc/GFDRRCountryProfiles/wb_gfdrr_climate_change_country_profile_for_VUT.pdf.

[112] Peter Gleick, Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria, 6 Am. Meteorol. J. 331, 331–36 (2014), https://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/pdf/10.1175/WCAS-D-13-00059.1.

[113] UAE-backed Egyptian forces arrive in Eritrea, Mid. East Monitor (Jan. 4, 2018), https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180104-uae-backed-egyptian-forces-arrive-in-eritrea/.

[114] Adam Welz, Awaiting Day Zero: Cape Town Faces an Uncertain Water Future, Yale Env’t 360 (Mar. 1, 2018), https://e360.yale.edu/features/awaiting-day-zero-cape-town-faces-an-uncertain-water-future.

[115] Smith et al., supra note 30, at 2347–54.

[116] Jennifer Schwab, Israel Is the Unsung Hero in Water Management, HuffPost (Dec. 6, 2017), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-schwab/israel-is-the-unsung-hero_b_9212810.html.