U.S. intelligence: Looming water woes will add to global instability

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 22, 2012 

WASHINGTON — Floods and water shortages in the next 30 years will make it hard for many countries to keep up with growing demand for fresh water, particularly in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, the U.S. intelligence community reported Thursday.

Water problems in the next decade will add to instability in countries that are important to U.S. national security, the report said. Floods and shortages also will make it hard for some countries to grow enough food or produce enough energy, creating risk for global food markets and slowing economic growth.

"I think it's fair to say the intelligence community's findings are sobering," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who requested the report last year. "These threats are real and they do raise serious security concerns."

Clinton, speaking at an event to mark World Water Day, announced a new U.S. Water Partnership, made up of private companies, philanthropy and advocacy groups, academics and government. The group will coordinate efforts to solve water problems and make U.S. expertise more accessible.

"We believe this will help map out our route to a more water-secure world," Clinton said.

The intelligence assessment, drafted by the Defense Intelligence Agency with contributions from the CIA and other agencies, was aimed at answering how water problems will affect U.S. national security interests. The classified version, finished in October, named specific countries expected to have water problems, but they weren't identified in the unclassified version. The public version said only that analysts focused on "strategically important countries" along major rivers in the Middle East, Central and South Asia and North Africa.

Some findings:

  • Agriculture, which takes 68 percent of the water used by humans, is one of the biggest areas where countries need to find solutions to water problems. Desalination may be economical for household and industrial use, but it isn't currently economical for agriculture.
  • Wars over water are unlikely in the next decade. Still, as water shortages worsen, countries that share water basins may struggle to protect their water rights. And terrorists "almost certainly" will target water infrastructure.
  • Industrial demand for water will remain high, because water is needed to generate power, run industry and extract oil, gas and other resources. This means that water shortages and pollution likely will harm the economies of "important trading partners" of the U.S.
The report covers the period to 2040. In that span, population growth and economic development will be the key reasons for growing water demand, while water supplies will decline in many places.

Climate change, meanwhile, will bring a higher risk of droughts and floods. Water stored in glaciers and snow will decline. Sea-level rise will mean that coastal storms will cause more damage.

"At times water flows will be severe enough to overwhelm the water-control infrastructures of even developed countries, including the United States," the report noted.

The least-prepared areas the intelligence analysts studied were the basins of the Amu Darya and Brahmaputra rivers. The Amu Darya basin in Central Asia (Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) is expected to have poorer food security throughout the next 30 years. The Brahmaputra basin (Tibet, India and Bangladesh) is expected to have tensions over water-development projects, reduced potential for hydropower after 2020 and reduced food security, especially for fisheries, the report said.

Clinton said that in northern India, too much use of ground water could leave millions of people without enough food and water.

ON THE WEB:

National Intelligence Council's "Global Water Security," press release and link to report

A guide for all ages by U.S. scientists: "Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science"

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