U.S. intelligence: Future shortages will lead to ‘water as a weapon’

By Stephen C. Webster

The world may see the failure of key states and even regional wars dotting the globe, all over one thing that’s seemingly ubiquitous today in most industrialized societies: water.

A report (PDF) by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, released Thursday but originally prepared for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in early February, paints a grim picture of the potential for chaos as demand for clean water begins to outstrip supply. It adds that there is hope for poorer nations that will be hit the hardest by growing water scarcity, but only if technology and rapid efficiency gains rise to meet the challenge.

While the report’s most ominous predictions are not likely to happen any time in the next 10 years, by 2040 the U.S. intelligence director foresees “problems” that will “hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth.”

The intelligence estimate points to several key regions that will face these challenges first: “North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.” Even today, over 884 million people, mainly situated in these regions, struggle for or simply go without access to clean water, and it will get worse.

“Historically, water tensions have led to more water-sharing agreements than violent conflicts,” the report continues. “However, we judge that as water shortages become more acute beyond the next 10 years, water in shared basins will increasingly be used as leverage; the use of water as a weapon or to further terrorist objectives also will become more likely beyond 10 years.”

Some states with greater economic capacity than their neighbors could even begin to see waterways as leverage against other regional powers, they warn, and could start damming rivers to prevent rivals downstream from accessing them. “Water will also be used within states to pressure populations and suppress separatist elements,” the report adds.

But it’s not entirely bleak for the human race: although the great potential for water wars exists, water is such a crucial element to all human life that the intelligence estimate also sees it as a potential tool for waging peace.

They cite two wars between India and Pakistan, both of which could not manage to destroy the cooperatively operated Indus River Commission; the Mekong Committee that united Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam in the late 50s and continued its waterway management efforts even through the Vietnam War; and secret talks about the Jordan River between Israel and Jordan in the early 50s, at the outset of the two nations’ long war that ended in 1994.

“In some cases, joint water governance has created cooperation on broader issues,” the report notes. “Water can serve as a potential entry point for peace and support sustainable cooperation among nations.”

It goes on to say that because agriculture takes up approximately 70 percent of humanity’s clean water supply, technologies that increase water efficiency without negatively impacting food production will play a key role in mitigating the potential for crisis. Better water management strategies in general, they add, are in the interest of all nations.