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‘Countdown to Day Zero’: Experts Discuss Link Between Water Scarcity and Security

By Philip Gunn

In a recent joint report, the U.N. and the World Bank warned that over 2 billion people could lack access to safe drinking water by 2030, and up to 700 million could be displaced by water scarcity. The issue was brought into sharp relief when the South African city of Cape Town became the first major city that was on the verge of running out of water in late last year and in early 2018.

In June, experts at the Council on Foreign Relations debated the issue of “Countdown to Day Zero,” when a city or country could run out of clean drinking water, and the connection between water scarcity and security.

They pointed out that water scarcity is not only an issue for developing countries, but also for wealthy ones — including the U.S., which has been affected by both too much water and too little water due to the forces of climate change.

John Busby of the University of Texas at Austin pointed out that Hurricane Harvey dumped 50 inches of rain on Houston in several days, causing $125 billion in damages and over 200,000 homes to be damaged.

“And we’ve seen that with too little water as well,” he added. “California was parched. It was subject to wildfires. And, again, we saw 230,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes. It caused $13 billion in damage." 

In both cases, Busby said, the National Guard had to be mobilized to aid in the humanitarian efforts, diverting resources from other national security priorities.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s administration has taken aim at the bitterly contested rule known as Waters of the United States, a major Obama-era clean water regulation. President Trump called it “one of the worst examples of federal regulation.” Among Trump’s first actions as president was an executive order directing Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to rescind the regulation, replacing it with a more industry-friendly alternative.

That is not to say that his administration will not have opportunities to do more for the protection of clean water in the future. For example, there is a bipartisan piece of legislation that was passed by the House of Representatives titled the Water Resources Development Act of 2018. The bill authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to maintain and improve the nation’s water infrastructure, such as ports, waterways and flood protection systems.

“Other countries are even less well equipped to handle droughts, floods, volatile rainfall,” he said.

A Sudanese woman carries water home in a plastic container in 2006. Sudanese Red Crescent volunteers hand out chlorine tablets supplied by UNICEF at water gathering points along the Nile River, whose resources have been stretched thin by competition for water. (Photo: U.N. / Tim McKulka)

A prime example is Cape Town, which endured three years of drought and serves as a warning for other cities who may face water scarcity. Daniella Cheslow, a reporter from NPR who was in Cape Town during the crisis, said that because the city was plagued by so many other problems — education, heath care, infrastructure — taking action to prevent a water shortage, such as drilling into a massive aquifer system, was not a priority, even though the city almost entirely depends on rainfall for its water supply. “Every year the water forecasters would say, OK, we’re going to have rain. It’s going to bail us out. The dams are going to fill up. And it didn’t happen,” she said.

Luke Wilson, deputy director and cofounder of the Center for Water Security and Cooperation, agreed that preparedness is key.

Wilson said countries of all stripes have failed to prepare for the worst, citing the lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, and droughts in California. In developing countries, however, the competition for water often leads to conflict, as water scarcity reinforces economic inequalities, exacerbates tensions and causes massive flows of migration that spark further instability.

“We’ve had the drying up of Lake Chad, which at least in some ways led to the rise of Boko Haram. We’ve had the misuse of the Tigris and Euphrates River in Syria, which at least was a component of the development of the conflict there,” he said. “We keep getting these wake-up calls and we’re not taking advantage of them.”

Although legal infrastructures and regulations are in place, “they are not implemented or enforced in a meaningful way,” nor do they help the most vulnerable, said Wilson. He added that the Cape Town crisis shows that it’s usually the poor who are left behind, while the wealthy communities have an abundance of water. He noted that local authorities sometimes have to divert water resources to wine-growing regions, for example, that are popular tourist attractions and bring in much-needed revenue.

Cheslow saw these inequities in Israel and the Palestinian territories. “In summer 2016, there were both Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements that had seen reductions in their water supply, but it looked like the Palestinians were much worse affected. The supplies were cut by two-thirds. And the Israelis were like, ‘Well, that’s what the water agreements that we signed stipulate.”

At the same time, there has been cooperation among Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians to share resources, and Busby said transnational agreements over water, and resources in general, in Africa, the Middle East and Asia are not well-written for today’s environmental crises and need to be strengthened and updated to prevent an outbreak of violence.

For example, he cited India’s construction of upstream dams that puts at risk Pakistan’s downstream dependence. “And it’s unclear if the institutional arrangements will hold in coming years.”

“We can think about other trans-boundary situations that are quite familiar to us — like the Nile, where Ethiopia’s construction of the new dam is seen as a threat to Egypt, in particular. And they’re still struggling to try and figure out strategies for resolution of that,” he said.

Busby suggests that the United States and other international partners can survey those water basins at risk to forge new cooperative agreements and regulate water flow between countries.

Clothes are washed with water obtained from a well dug in the dry riverbed in Niger. (Photo: U.N. / Jeffrey Fox)

Another solution to the water scarcity issue that all three experts touched on was desalinization. Desalinization is the process of extracting salts and other minerals from water to make the water suitable for human consumption or irrigation. Cheslow said she saw desalinization attempts on the ground in South Africa, which occurred on a relatively small scale. She observed that when it rained, a small parking lot would often flood, and the local people there, with the assistance of the hospital, desalinized this water to make it drinkable. She said these sorts of “mini-desalinization plants” were about the size of a few parked cars, and that they are showing up more frequently around South Africa.

But Wilson warned that desalinization is not a long-term solution, noting the sheer amount of energy needed for the process, which in turn is reliant on water. “So you need water to make water through desal. So there are significant impacts from desalinization. It is a good quick fix, but I don’t think of it as a long-term solution.”

Other technologies may be an option, such as waterless toilets, an initiative spearheaded by the Gates Foundation. “When I was in Senegal, I saw something called an omniprocessor, which essentially burns sewage to create fresh water and then ash, which is used as a fertilizer,” he said. “But a lot of it is local. You have to look at the local level. And I think that’s where you see these ideas of how do we implement these technologies.”

Both Busby and Wilson said another simple solution is decreasing the amount of water being used, and even implementing technologies that decrease waste through leakage. “There’s so much leakage in existing systems — both in agriculture and, you know, wider municipal services, that if we can make do with the existing amounts of water and not lose as much through leakage, that’s going to be tremendously important. Obviously, things like drip irrigation that countries like Israel have pioneered are going to be very important in the agricultural space” Busby said.

These water scarcity issues can easily morph into security issues for the United States and countries around the world, whether it’s mass displacement or the rise of extremism. “[T]here is this sense that if water isn’t managed, that people will go and search for the water…. And if they can’t find it, they will turn to someone who promises them something. And I think that’s where you see that extremist ideology being able to take greater hold. And, again, a lot of it comes down to governments being aware of that,” Wilson said.

Busby argues that the United States has hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to taps and toilets, but there is still not enough financial support for or attention to the issue of water scarcity, especially in developing countries that need it most. The goal is to tackle the problem before it spirals even further, rather than waiting for day zero when water scarcity comes to a head.



Philip Gunn is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.



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