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Water and U.S. National Security

A CFR Discussion Paper

Author: Joshua W. Busby, Associate Professor of Public Affairs, University of Texas-Austin

Water and U.S. National Security - joshua-busby-water-and-us-national-security  

Publisher Council on Foreign Relations Press

Release Date January 2017



Water and security concerns are inextricably linked in every region of the world. While shared interests have historically facilitated cooperation in managing water, the future could be different. Climate change, combined with increased and more diverse demands for water, makes disputes more likely. Moreover, many of the security problems associated with water will occur in areas where the United States has strategic interests, including the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific. Yet water as an issue for U.S. national security lacks sustained visibility and sufficient funding.

Water is essential for drinking, agriculture, and livestock, and it is also used for electricity generation and industry. But across the world, hundreds of millions of people live without access to sufficient water for part or all of the year. A number of the states affected by chronic water scarcity also have weak governance, and some are already experiencing conflict. Where watersheds are shared across borders, governments may dispute control of those water resources, particularly where upstream dam construction diverts water from downstream countries. While violence is not inevitable, and history shows extensive water sharing between countries, conflicts over water are likely to become more severe in a world of nearly eight billion people experiencing increased demand for water, growing urbanization, and climate change. Within states, the effects of water scarcity on lives and livelihoods can lead to economic downturns and migration, while flooding and intermittent rains can each bring their own governance challenges.

The U.S. government has not fully utilized the capabilities of U.S. civil society, universities, and the private sector to anticipate and address water-related problems around the world. Improved data sources and methods, including satellite data collected by U.S. government assets, now make it possible to identify fragile states and river basins where water problems are most likely. The failure to invest in water and security now could mean that the United States and other international actors will pay billions later to respond to crises, whether they be humanitarian emergencies, disease outbreaks, or conflicts within or between states.

Pragmatic policies are necessary to address global water issues, such as elevating the importance of water at the highest levels in the U.S. government; supporting enhanced data collection, analysis, and early warning efforts; investing in building institutions to manage trans-boundary rivers and domestic water supplies; and developing public-private partnerships to in-crease water supplies, water conservation, and to waterproof at-risk infrastructure. At the same time, policymakers should keep in mind the need to "do no harm." In some instances, direct U.S. involvement could be appropriate. In others, the United States will be better served by working with partners to shore up its interests.

Selected Figures From This Report

Water stress 2030

river basin high risk

busby water gdp

More About This Publication

Joshua Busby is an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas-Austin and a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law. He is the author of two books—Moral Movements and Foreign Policy and AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations—as well as numerous studies on climate change, national security, and energy policy.

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