Associate Professor, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin; Senior Research Fellow, Center for Climate and Security (via videoconference)
Freelance Reporter and Editor, National Public Radio
Deputy Director and Cofounder, The Center for Water Security and Cooperation
Senior Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
In a recent joint report, the UN and World Bank warned that over two billion people could lack access to safe drinking water by 2030, and 700 million could be displaced by water scarcity. Several global cities, such as Cape Town, are facing severe water shortages, while transboundary sharing of main waterways breeds tensions in regions around the world. Panelists discuss the causes of water crises, the threat they pose to stability and security, and policy options to address them.
GOODMAN: OK. Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. And to our great program today, “Countdown to Day Zero: Water Scarcity and Security.” I am Sherri Goodman. And we have a great group here today. We have Josh Busby joining us by video teleconference. Can everyone see Josh? OK, great. And we have Daniella Cheslow and Luke Wilson right here with us. So I know that I have to give you the obligatory reminders. This meeting is on the record. And we’re going to do—I’m going to engage our speakers in discussion for half an hour, and then we will open it to the audience. Please limit yourself to one question, keep it concise, and then the meeting will end at 1:30.
Because you have the bios, I’ll keep my introductions brief. But let me tell you that Josh Busby is a deep and expert scholar on a range of water, climate, and other security issues. He is based at the University of Austin—University of Texas at Austin, which is why he is joining us remotely today. But he is no stranger to the Council on Foreign Relations, having done some of his original work on water, climate, and security here at the Council on Foreign Relations. And he’s also, importantly, been involved in several Department of Defense awards on climate change and African political stability, and also he’s been the principal investigator of another DOD-funded project: complex emergencies and political stability in Asia.
Daniella Cheslow has been reporting from ground zero in the water crisis. She’s been in South Africa, in Cape Town. She’s also reported for NPR on the hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico and on climate talks in Germany. So she’s going to have a lot of direct experience to share with us. And Luke Wilson is the deputy director at the Center for Water and Security Cooperation here in Washington, D.C., and a professorial lecturer in law at GW University. He’s worked at a number of international institutions, as well as the Manhattan DA’s office in the department of the state. So—and from that he’s gotten increasingly interested in international dispute resolution and water availability and human rights. So he’s got a broad range of experience.
So with that, let me start with asking each of you, as you know, in a recent joint report the U.N. and the World Bank warned that over 2 billion of people could lack access to safe drinking water by 2030, and 700 million could be displaced by water scarcity. We all probably followed at least some of Daniella’s stories recently about the water crisis in Cape Town, which we want to hear more about today. And we know from reports from a variety of sources—the U.N., the World Bank, the CNA Military Advisory Board, some of whose members are here today—that water stress and scarcity are becoming increasingly of greater security concern and increasing—providing increasing stress and principal cause of civil unrest and localized violence globally.
So, Josh, let’s ask you to lead off from the deep research you’ve done with the Department of Defense and others. Why should Americans care about these water shortages and growing global water scarcity?
BUSBY: Great. Thanks, Sherri. Delighted to be with you all. Can you hear me OK?
GOODMAN: Yeah. We can even see you.
BUSBY: (Laughs.) Fantastic. Well, this is still a wealthy country, but even we are vulnerable to water-related threats. Too much water, 50 inches in a handful of days, and 13 million in Houston were affected. Caused—Hurricane Harvey caused $125 billion in damages, more than 200,000 people had their homes damaged. And we had to mobilize upwards on 16,000 members of the National Guard for a humanitarian response here at home, diverting attention from other duties in terms of preparing the country from external threats. And we’ve seen that with too little water as well. So too little water, and in 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. And, again, elements of our national security assets had to be mobilized and turn their attention from other duties for humanitarian rescue and response.
Other countries are even less well equipped to handle droughts, floods, volatile rainfall. And so we see these challenges testing us to our limits here at home. And it’s going to test other places that are even less well equipped even more. The history of water between states is largely been one of cooperation, but I think with rising water scarcity and volatility of rainfall with climate change, it’s going to get even more challenging in the future to prevent disputes over water both between and within states from escalating into conflict. And this point has been underscored by the National Intelligence Council in 2012, when it issued its report on water insecurity.
They concluded that, quote, “Many countries important to the United States will experience water problems, shortages, poor water quality, or floods that will risk instability and state failure and increased regional tensions and distract them from working with the United States on important U.S. policy objectives.” So for all these reasons, the risks here at home and the risks of places we care about overseas, this is a problem that all of us in the foreign policy community need to pay more attention to.
GOODMAN: OK. Thank you very much, Josh.
Daniella, you’ve spent a lot of time in Cape Town in the last six months. Tell us the story from the front lines. How did—how did Cape Town get into this crisis in the first place, and what are they doing now to manage their way out of it? I gather that we haven’t—you know, day zero has come and gone. So there are some at least temporary solutions in place.
CHESLOW: Yeah. So the water crisis in South Africa was borne out of three years of drought. And so that really emptied out the dams that supplied Cape Town. And the city was sort of vulnerable to this kind of problem, because they rely almost exclusively on rainwater. When I got there, what I was really surprised to hear was that under our feet was a massive aquifer system that if people had thought to drill into a few years earlier they could have averted the issue. Some water engineers said that there’s enough underground to supply something like a fifth of Cape Town’s water supply. But because there are so many other issues that are always on fire there—education, health, infrastructure—it just had kind of been put to the bottom of the priority list. 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.
So they found themselves last year in our winter kind of facing down the barrel of having to turn off the city taps. And that’s where really strict emergency measures went into place. That’s where people were told, OK, we have to avoid day zero when nothing will come out of the faucet. So everybody’s got to use 13 gallons of water a day or face deep fines. And just to put that into perspective, we in the States—we use like 80 to 100 gallons. So, you know, that means showers that don’t last more than 90 seconds. I have family there. I was staying in one of their houses. And I felt very—you know, like, very nervous to waste a drop, because they would face high water taxes. So you shower with a bucket. You take the bucket and you take the bucket and you pour it into the toilet. If you forget and you flush the toilet on its own it’s like, oh, that was such a waste of water.
And what I saw there—I was there in February—and it was sort the turning point where the city had been going from panic to saying, well, maybe if everybody does their part and everybody cuts down aggressively their water consumption, maybe we can bridge the gap until the next rain. It was kind of iffy. What wound up happening is this year there were some—there was some rainfall. And now South Africa—their seasons are opposite from us—so they’ve now gotten through the first part of their rainy season. And it looks like day zero, at least this year, isn’t happening. But the crisis is still very much on—you know, it’s a possibility for the future. And those drastic water restrictions that were put into place six months ago remain in effect. So it’s something where it’s gone from an acute crisis to just a chronic semi-misery. (Laughs.) So it seems like, you know, the hospitals aren’t going to be waterless, homes aren’t going to be waterless for now. But it’s a threat that people continue to have to prepare for.
GOODMAN: OK. So, Luke, if, as Daniella alludes to, they’ve gotten over the most immediate crisis, and maybe it’s no longer the wolf closest to the sled—(laughter)—as we sometimes say, how are we going to make this a higher priority among policymakers? And what are you trying to do in your own work to address that?
WILSON: Sure. Well, and I think that this is actually—the situation in Cape Town, as well as a variety of others—we have had Flint, we’ve had the drought in California, 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. You know, and all of these things—we keep getting these wake-up calls and we’re not taking advantage of them. We’re not taking advantage to say: We need to put something in place. We need to put some sort of limits in place. We need to put some sort of plan in place. There are plans in some places. I think Cape Town is one of the examples where you did have a plan, where there was some action ready and waiting for when they did reach some sort of crisis point. But in a lot of places the plans are coming after the crisis. It’s a reaction, instead of forethought and foresight. And we’re getting the opportunity now to take that action, but we’re not doing that.
So I think one of the things that my organization is doing is really focusing on what plans should be put into place, what laws are necessary, what legal infrastructure exists that provides that backbone for people when these sorts of crises come about. You know, I think the Cape Town example and the aquifer example is actually a very interesting one, because you have people—the wealthier in the Cape Town community, who are able to drill wells, who are able to tap into that aquifer. But the informal settlements, the poor in the city, were still left behind. They couldn’t take that action. And even in the context of South Africa, where you have a National Water Act that has rules and guidelines, even when you have a right to water that is built into the South African constitution, those legal infrastructures were not being implemented and enforced in a meaningful way, in a way that could allow for those people—the most vulnerable in Cape Town—to still get access to water.
So that’s one of the things that I think is the biggest—is the biggest fix that we need to look at, is taking advantage of the fact that we are still ahead of this. We shouldn’t wait for a situation like what’s happening in Puerto Rico and wait for the hurricane before we—or Houston. Take—you know, we should be taking advantage of the space that we have now to try to address these issues before they become crisis points, before they become conflicts.
GOODMAN: So, Josh, can you address whether this is a case of water scarcity or simply water mismanagement?
BUSBY: Well, I think the Cape Town case—my understanding is that the local water authorities are generally pretty good, despite the fact that you have vast inequalities within Cape Town in terms of access to water. We’ve known that, and that’s a legacy of the apartheid era. But the local water authorities I think have done a reasonably good job. And there are very real scarcities and tradeoffs that they have to contend with. You have a, you know, heavily populated city that’s grown considerably since the end of apartheid. But it’s also nestled in an area that is both attractive to tourists and has a rich agricultural region outside, with the wine-growing reason—or, grape growing and wine production right outside of Cape Town.
And they had to make some very difficult tradeoffs to divert some of the water that would have gone to agriculture for human consumption. And that’s, you know, given them a bit of a breather, but that could mean that that important economic activity, unless they figure out a way to manage the water better in the future, might be diminished as a source of foreign exchange. And so, you know, I think this, unlike some other situations, is more of a scarcity-driven issue. But we’ve seen, you know, water mismanagement coupled with acute droughts in places like Syria that, together, those things can be very deadly combination.
GOODMAN: Right. So, Luke, the administration released a global water strategy late last year, required by the Water for the Poor Act—or, Water for the World Act, Paul Simon act. And it raises a number of priorities for addressing global water issues. Can you talk about how it—about what value that’s bringing to this discussion? And do you see the U.S. entering further into some leadership roles addressing water strategy and global water needs?
WILSON: Sure. Yeah, I think the global water strategy that was put out was a culmination of a very—it was a very well-developed effort by the State Department and USAID, who took the lead on it, to define what the U.S. should be thinking about in terms of marshalling the resources of the U.S. government and providing assistance around the world to countries that are dealing with water scarcity issues. And so there is a really coherent strategy that is—that was developed in the strategy, a real—a very strong plan for the U.S. to follow. And there were a number of countries that we’re focused on as the countries that should be the first line for this assistance. You know, there’s countries in Africa, countries in Asia. These were strategic interests of the United States.
And I think it’s very important, because I think the Water for the World Act, in many ways it recognized something that has long been a reality of the water—of the water situation, which is that every aspect of human life is connected in one way or another to water. Economics, every product that is made relies on water. Every watt of energy relies on water. Every human being, every human life relies on water. Every health installation relies on water. Every piece of food relies on water. And the mushrooms that you—that you ate for lunch, or the beef, that was built on water that came from somewhere, you know, whether it was fed to cows or put into the ground.
So every aspect of our lives is dependent on water. And I think the global water strategy does take view, take that holistic view, and really think very critically about how the U.S. government can bring all of its efforts across all of the different agencies to fix some of the—a lot of the water scarcity and water security problems around the world. So it’s a good first step. I think the biggest issue is defining the metrics. Defining the metrics—how are you going to determine whether or not the strategy is effective? We’re going to be pumping money, we’re going to be pumping technical assistance into a number of countries. How do we determine if that investment is valuable? And I think that’s something that is still being worked on, still being defined. But it's a very important part of the strategy overall.
GOODMAN: Daniella, from your on-the-ground experience, what most surprised you in Cape Town?
CHESLOW: I had this one day where I got to ride along with a private water driller. And he had bought, like, another six drill rigs during the water crisis because it was just boom time. And he said that there was more competition because all these kind of wildcats were coming in from Johannesburg to Cape Town, but there was enough business for everybody. So I watched as these guys took this drill rig, it kind of looks like an oil rig. They used a crane, they maneuvered it up and over a carefully manicured green hedge, and into the front yard of a wealthy couple. And then they started drilling. And they hit water. And that was going to be used both for drinking water and also to fill the pool and keep the roses red. (Laughs.) And it cost about $15,000. And meanwhile, the guys working on it were making maybe 100 bucks a week.
And I found out that there were, like, 22,000 people doing this. It’s so much money. And one of the obstacles for the city of Cape Town in developing their water resources was lack of money. And it was so astonishing to say, you know, gosh, if all of that money—you know, 15,000 (dollars) here and 15,000 (dollars) there—if that could all be pooled toward one centralized water development scheme, wouldn’t that be great? What about even on this block? Like, I asked the couple. I said: Have you thought about—you know, here you invested all this money. Have you thought about sharing the water with your neighbors? And they were like, it crossed our mind, but then you have to figure out access, you have to work out the percentage. And it just seems like too much trouble. And that sounded like, on the one hand, absurd, and on the other something I could completely imagine myself saying. And so it was just—you know, without a plan, everybody’s really for themselves.
GOODMAN: So it’s a story of have and have-nots, and how that plays out in particular places. So share with us what other water hotspots you’d like report on?
CHESLOW: Oh, gosh. Well, I spent a number of years reporting for the Associated Press in Jerusalem. And over there, there were definitely issues of when it’s dry outside in the West Bank, who gets water? And 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. You know, the supplies were cut by two-thirds. And the Israelis were like, well, that’s what the water agreements that we signed stipulate. That’s how much water you get. But meanwhile, they were seeing that, you know, the settlements seemed to still be green. And so that struck me because, you know, the Middle East, that’s something where the U.S. definitely is interested in watching that. And also, there’s a lot of outside pressures on that water system. Jordan wants a piece of that water. The Jordan River starts up in, you know, Syria and Lebanon. So it’s, like, even the fragile water arrangements that people have are up for grabs, in a way, you know, if there’s less water in the system going forward.
GOODMAN: OK, so that points out—you know, underscores some very good points. Israel, from its inception, has seen water as an element of its own national power and has built a water system to provide for that. In recent years Israel, Jordan, and Palestine have forged some levels of cooperation on common water issues across Gaza, the West Bank, and Jordan through organizations like EcoPeace and others. Which points to sort of a growing movement of water security cooperation. Josh and Luke, I think both of you have worked on these issues to some extent, on transboundary water conflicts. Share with us kind of the top lines of where there are opportunities further to take the emergence of water as an issue and forge cooperation that addresses both water and other security considerations.
BUSBY: Well, one of the findings that comes from a variety of studies that look at river basins at risks suggest that there are many river basins, particularly in Africa, that are under-institutionalized, that lack those sorts of cooperative guardrails that can ensure that when there are inevitable sort of conflicts over water between countries, that they don’t escalate to violence. And even in countries and regions where there—those transboundary institutions exist, they can—the Indus River, for example, that India and Pakistan share—that those institutions are increasingly creaky, under strain due to water scarcity and also increased ambition in human needs. So India’s construction of upstream dams puts at risk Pakistan’s downstream dependence. And it’s unclear if the institutional arrangements will hold in coming years.
Other regions—you think about the Mekong, for example. One of the primary upstream countries, China, isn’t a member of the Mekong River Commission, and so has started to create its own parallel structures. We can think about other transboundary 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. But I think the noteworthy thing for us to consider is under institutionalization is a critical barrier to maintenance of peace and peaceful resolution of conflicts in regions where institutions exist, and it poses a real threat in places where they haven’t even been attempted in the first place.
And so I think one of the first things the U.S. government and other international partners could do is to survey those basins at risk that are creaky or lack institutions entirely, and try to help them forge cooperative agreements to manage and regulate water flows between countries.
GOODMAN: Right, or don’t have climate-smart water agreements that reflect the current realities of either too little or too much water today.
GOODMAN: Yeah. Luke, will you add to that? Also, let’s address the question of migration and growing—how water scarcity and water stress is affecting global migration patterns.
WILSON: Sure. Well, and I want to echo what Josh pointed out, the different areas that he focused on. The Mekong, the river is now essentially, in some areas, just a series of puddles. There’s no real flow anymore. I think there are a growing—I mean, it’s not necessarily a conflict over water itself, but the water aspects are definitely a component of conflicts between India and China, and India and Pakistan. I think there are some water issues along the U.S. and Mexico border as well that are—that could very easily reach a—not necessarily a conflict point, but certainly a flashpoint where, you know, better cooperation across the board could help to prevent that.
I think Josh is absolutely right that institutionalization is critical. But we have seen institutions, like the Mekong River Commission and even the Indus Water Treaty, that have created some sort of institutionalization, but because the laws were not—the treaties were not written as effectively as they could have been, there wasn’t necessarily a strong enough institution, a strong enough rule of law that could be used to address some of the conflicts and some of the scarcity issues that arose. Sort of like the story about the Colorado River. A lot of treaties and the Colorado River—the Colorado River apportionment was done in very much the same way—were written, were thought about when the water is highest. Which is good, that’s foresight and that’s what I’ve been advocating for. But you’re still not looking at what the reality—the hydrological reality is going to be over time. And so you have these apportionments that are based on figures which are rosy. And so when there is stress, when there is strain, that gives way to this sort of cracking that Josh was referencing, the sort of weakening of these institutions.
So the laws need—they can’t be static. These treaties can’t be static. They have to have some way of being flexible, of having some sort of cooperation, cooperative mechanism built into them so that when these stresses and strains come about, there is a way to deal with that. And that is something that hasn’t—I think can look at Egypt and Ethiopia and say: Well, that is something that hasn’t happened, because those treaties are very, very old. They go back to colonial times. And they don’t have any flexibility built in. And the negotiation strategy of some of the parties has actually to rely on that inflexibility. So the law is—and the law that is going to be built from this scarcity is absolutely critical. And it has to be flexible. It has to be intelligent. And it has to be something that will last more than just until the water table goes down.
And in terms of migration, sorry, the other part, I think there is a significant aspect of migration that we are seeing that is related to water. Again, whether or not it is because of water or whether or not it is because of conflict that results because of water scarcity, a lot of migration is—can be tied to water. Even going back to the Arab Spring, going to Syria I mentioned a lot of the misuse of the Tigris and Euphrates led rural farmers to move to the cities. And then when they got to the cities, there wasn’t much more opportunity there. And it’s not a far step from there to extremism, when you feel like you’ve been left behind. So a lot of these practices that we need are absolutely critical in order to make sure that those migratory patterns are not—are not enhanced or are not made even worse. But there are significant issues in Africa and Asia, where we’re seeing a lot of movement because of water scarcity, so.
CHESLOW: Yeah, talking about creaky institutions, one thing going on right now in South Africa is that they buy water from Lesotho, a little landlocked country in the middle. But that treaty was negotiated, I believe, with South Africa had installed a government in Lesotho which was like we’ve love to sell you water at a great price. And now that things have changed, the institution hasn’t evolved along with it. And so going forward there will probably be less water to be talking about in South Africa. And they’re going to have to be making water decisions based on some a smaller pie.
GOODMAN: So strengthening and reforming institutions is clearly one piece of the solution set here. My last question before we open it up is going to be what technological solutions should be more widely available? We’ve touched a little bit about—on desalinization. What—speak to that, plus other new technologies and water services you see as being more widely available now, or in the—in the next five to 10 years?
CHESLOW: I can start.
GOODMAN: Go ahead.
CHESLOW: South Africa was really a flowering place for this kind of innovation. I got to watch as a hospital installed a desalinization plant in its parking lot. It was built on landfill, and so the parking lot would often flood. And they had sump pumped it. And then they thought, well, why don’t we just treat the water and make it usable? So I think we might be seeing sort of mini-desalinization plants, the size of a few parked cars. And then there was also talk there about drought insurance—like, for businesses, figuring out water insurance insurances. Because, you know, if you don’t have running water in your building, you can’t trade out of that building for the day. That’s a lost day of work. So I think we’re seeing innovation as well in just the instruments of finance to capture this sort of risk that we’re seeing.
WILSON: I mean, I think desal is a very interesting place to start. I think there are some environmental impacts that are not fully understood from desal, as well as just the sheer amount of energy that is needed for desalinization that—and as I mentioned before, every watt of energy 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, I think, but it can’t—I don’t think as a long-term solution, if everyone started doing it, it would—(laughs)—if every country in the world started doing it, I think we’d have a lot of issues with ocean acidification and then, you know, greater effects of climate change.
I think some of the greater technologies that are really coming about are coming about in the sanitation space, where water is also necessary. You see a push to have waterless toilets, something that has been spearheaded by the Gates Foundation. You’ve seen also pushes to treat sewage in different ways. When I was in Senegal, I saw something called an omniprocessor which essentially uses—it burns sewage to create fresh water and then ash, which is used as a fertilizer. So between those two processes, it was—it was really a—I think there is a lot that is being done to try to save water in the sanitation space. And I think that’s where the focus should be. 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. And having a clear plan as to how you’re going to implement is absolutely important, because it can’t just be—it can’t just be, you know, point-by-point. You have to really have a sense as to what you’re trying to do.
GOODMAN: So we need wash technologies. But Josh, can you—and then we’ll open it up for questions—how about the point about agricultural technologies and solutions too, because we know that the agricultural second is the most water-intensive in almost every country, and also the most wasteful.
BUSBY: Sure. Well, just one the wider issue, I wanted to echo what Luke said in the water and sanitation space. That, like, City of Austin’s undergoing a purple pipes system to separate graywater. And there are ways in which we can cut down on use of water tremendously through these kinds of practices. 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.
But one of the most important developments, I think, is going to be better information. You know, the software revolution that helped us so much in other fields can allow for much more precision irrigation that will ensure that there is less leakage and, you know, the appropriate amounts of water to plants are given when they’re needed. And I think those kinds of measures, both technological and management-oriented, will help us detect leaks early and use water appropriately with more care. And that ought to be incentivized by municipal areas. You know, if traditionally there was excessive use of water downstream by farmers who didn’t have to care about scarcity, well, now upstream, you know, urban consumers should pay them to implement better water management practices. And I think that can at least make a more limited amount of water go further.
GOODMAN: OK. Now we’ll open the conversation to questions from our members. Please raise your hand, and I will recognize you. And please state your name and affiliation.
Sunny. And wait for the microphone, please.
Q: Sunny (sp) with the RAND Corporation.
Luke, could you elaborate on the connection that you stated with Lake Chad drying up and the rise of Boko Haram? And could you give us your view, as an analyst, on the strength of the evidence because, as with the Arab Spring and others, there’s the national security being raised, and never really, you know, analytically answered, insofar to my mind, in a satisfactory way. Thank you.
WILSON: Sure. Well, Lake Chad—a lot of what happened there—again, it all starts in some ways from scarcity and mismanagement combined. So there was a—Lake Chad started to dry up. The uses of the water were being diverted to cities, as well as to some agricultural areas as well in different states. So the amount of water that was available in the lake started to—started to decrease and started to decrease precipitously after a certain point. There had been a history of ebb and flow, but at a certain point it really started to just ebb. And that meant that a lot of the people who lived in that area, who relied on water—farmers in particular, subsistence farmers—didn’t have water for their families, didn’t have water for their crops. They had no food. They had no water. Then they had nothing. They had nothing to turn to—no one to turn to. And there wasn’t really a sense that there were other opportunities in cities or in other areas. There was no real place for them to go.
And as a result, that sense of hopelessness—and, actually, I will say there was a New Yorker article that actually captured some of these anecdotal—these anecdotal experiences—were so gripping that I think people turned to extremism because it was the only way they felt that they could fight and get the water that they needed. And I think that was—that was a big part of it. And so, you know, in Syria, they’re—you know, the Pacific Institute has done, and Peter Gleick has written an article about how a use of flood irrigation led to not enough water for farmers up and down the river. And a result, a lot of those farmers, again, moved to the cities, found no opportunity there, again, had no food, no water, nothing with which to support their families. And I think that it’s very—it makes them very prime targets for extremists to turn them against their own government, who’s not providing for them.
And I think that’s where you—I guess, as an analyst—that’s where I see the real threat, that there is this sense that if water isn’t managed, that people will go and search for the water. They will look 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. You know, and, again, a lot of it comes down to governments being aware of that.
Another story that I heard was in Kenya. There were—there was a number of conflict breaking out in the south of the country and the government had no idea why, at first. And when they took a deeper look, they realized that nomadic farmers were running out of water in the northern part of the country, and they were just taking their cattle south. There was no real plan for them, so they were just moving south and starting to graze on other people’s lands, use other people’s water. And that created conflict. Those farmers would come out and they would start—you know, there would be conflict between those groups. And that would be a touchpoint for a lot of people. So I think you have smaller stories like that. You have a more systemic issues like with Lake Chad and the Tigris and Euphrates below Turkey. And I think all of those things—it leads to that extremist growth.
BUSBY: Can I weigh in here? Just I have a slightly different perspective on this. And my concern is that analytically we haven’t really nailed this in the academic community—either Lake Chad or the Syrian cases—to my liking. And I think there’s a tendency for those of us who care about environment and security, to try to fix cases around particular narratives. I mean, there’s been some recovery of Lake Chad in recent years under—compared to its historic lows, which may be more a result of natural processes. And it’s a little unclear that specific—(audio break)—in Lake Chad and specific support for insurgent groups. And so—(audio break)—a bit about efforts to fix particular narratives around the environment story. And so I’m sympathetic to critics like Alex de Waal, who have disputed this in other cases, say like Darfur.
That said, you know, for me, there’s—there are real clear water links to some of the major humanitarian crises that we see today. And it may not be because water is driving the original genesis of the problem, but water is intimately related to how people will fare in their current situation. So I’m thinking of the Rohingya, the 700,000 who’ve been displaced from Myanmar to Bangladesh because of ethnic cleansing. And, you know, they’re—(audio break)—on these hillsides that are denuded of trees and the monsoon season’s about to be upon them. There’s a—(audio break)—in The New York Times I think today that demonstrates that. Or if we think about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the cholera epidemic—(audio break)—war. Water is bound up with whether or not people will survive in times of conflict.
And so I don’t want us, if we care about water and security, to get too hung up on trying to fix particular cases and narratives around did drought drive the Syrian civil war or did Lake Chad drive support for Boko Haram. We have ample resources from a security perspective to care about water and security, to care about environment and security, whether or not we can nail down the specific link between, say, drought and support for insurgency in particular places.
Q: Thanks so much. And congratulations on your honorary degree, Sherri, from Amherst.
GOODMAN: Oh, thank you.
Q: I wanted to ask about—particularly with regard to South Africa or Cape Town, what about the private sector in terms of the solution set, either on individual activity or collective action in the policy realm? We know from Coca-Cola doing lots of social investment to Newlands Brewery opening up their standpipe for who may come, and then some bodies of conversation and collective action. But I wonder if you think there’s more that could be done, and a bigger role for the private sector in this solution set.
CHESLOW: Yeah. I mean, you mentioned Newlands Brewery. So they have—they brew their beer from a natural spring. And there was a site where people could collect water. And there was another site in that area where people could collect water. Actually, both of those sites were just closed this week and the city has decided, no, there’s going to be an organized place where people can pull up with their cars, fill up their jerrycans, and go home, because it was kind of snarling traffic in these gorgeous, you know, lovely neighborhoods with—under the foot of Table Mountain.
It seems like in South Africa there was kind of—there was a vacuum in leadership, you know, because the answer was like, OK, just don’t use any water. And that’s not much of a solution. So there was—there was, like, private sector improvisation happening from the desalinization to the—to the drilling. And they were—I mean, people were complaining that Coca-Cola uses too much water, that they shouldn’t have a plant running in the city during a water crisis. I mean, I saw some initiatives from the private sector that then the city could kind of capitalize on. It seemed like everybody was trying to go forward and find solutions. And then, like, there were a lot of NGO works being done.
For example, I visited a school where while a class was in session, a drill rig was going in the school yard. And I thought that that would have been the government, but actually it was an NGO called Gift of the Givers based in Johannesburg. And they had been really at the forefront of bringing water to schools where the kids couldn’t carry their own water to school and the faucets had been shut off to prevent waste. Of drilling in, you know, poorer neighborhoods. So it sort of felt like it was not yet coordinated. There wasn’t yet one governing body assigning roles and making sure that everything would happen as efficiently as possible. It was a lot of improvisation and piecemeal solutions that I think the city is trying to figure out a way to knit together. And I think the example of the spring, which has now been sort of diverted to a more central and more organized spot, is a nice physical symbol of that, you know, of, like, we can’t have 10,000 people going through a neighborhood to just collect water at a spring. It should be organized. And it’s happening slowly.
GOODMAN: Yes, Doug and then Steve.
Q: Hi. Doug Ollivant with Mantid International.
We’ve mentioned, like, in different spots in the conversation a number of the downstream states—Laos and Thailand, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria, Egypt. Is there a possibility for collective action on the parts of these states? Are their problems similar enough that they could band together? Or is each of these problems just sui generis and they need to figure it out on a case-by-case basis?
WILSON: So when you say problems, you mean the—as downstream states with—
Q: (Off mic)—downstream states—(off mic).
WILSON: I mean, I think a lot of it comes down to, again, how you build—well, a lot of it comes down to the legal infrastructure. But I think there’s a real power differential between the downstream states and the upstream states. And I think there are—you know, south of China there are two downstream states that have been less than cooperative with the Mekong River Commission and two that have been more cooperative with the Mekong River Commission. And I think that’s partially because of the way the commission was built, the instrument and the power that it has, but also it really comes down to where—if there is a dispute, where do those cases go? Where do you—where do you take, where do you have the capacity to get some sort of arbitral result, or some sort of adjudication? And I think that’s something you have to build into those treaties, into their agreements, but it is also both politically and legally one of the more complicated aspects of these crises.
I mean, I think they’re—I think that’s one of the ways that the global water strategy can really help, again, by marshalling some of the governmental resources that we have. I mean, I know we have State Department personnel who are working in a lot of these areas to try to bring states together. They’re doing, you know, a lot of work, and they have been for many years. I think the private sector can also serve as a lead on that as well, by thinking about water and by helping to encourage these policies as well. To say, we’re taking these steps. We’re building our model around a world where we want to preserve water. And we would like to help you—you know, we’d like to work with you as a government to institute these same policies and plans as well.
GOODMAN: So you would say, look, there’s a role—in answer to Doug’s question—there’s a U.S. role to be had in increasing leadership in water conflict prevention bringing in public-private partnerships?
GOODMAN: Not to put words in your mouth.
WILSON: It’s a good summary.
GOODMAN: (Laughs.) Steve.
Q: Steve Brock (sp).
To make matters worse, I’d be interested in the panel’s view on salt water inundation in coastal aquifers, where the majority of the people on the planet live, due to sea level rise, especially threatening to places like the Nile River Delta, other deltas around the world, that provide a lot of the food to the folks that live in those regions, and also the islands that are being threatened and soon to be uninhabitable due to loss of their freshwater aquifers too from sea level rise.
GOODMAN: What’s the question?
Q: OK, how about a question. (Laughter.) On the solution side of it, so equality to reforestation, regenerative agriculture, increased water absorption into the soils and recharge aquifers, is that something that you see as being the larger, longer-term solution, versus some of these more technological-driven things like desalinization, that have other environmental problems?
BUSBY: Yeah, I think we see problems in places like Bangladesh, where the salt water intrusion into the aquifers and into agricultural lands is going to be a real problem. And it may be—(audio break)—other kinds of natural processes will help. But some of the changes, particularly for low-lying island nations in the Pacific—those may be inevitable and unavoidable, and there won’t be any solutions other than relocation of people to other countries. And so I think that raises some really interesting international legal and political issues about what happens for countries that become uninhabitable because of climate forces, that some of these little island nations will become uninhabitable well before they’re inundated, but just it will be impossible to grow food.
And, you know, we’ve seen some fledgling efforts—I want to say Vanuatu bought territory in Fiji—or, actually, I think it was Kiribati. And, you know, what happens when these countries and their inhabitants decide to relocate? Do they have sovereignty in the new territories where they ultimately settle? Or do they become citizens of the countries where they’re accepted, if they’re accepted at all. I think New Zealand has issued a new kind of visa process for a handful of climate migrants. But we haven’t really come to terms with that, and we’re going to need to because these migratory pressures—even small ones in the Pacific in particular—are going to cause major headaches for their neighbors. And we’re—we can focus some energies on thinking about restoration and protection. Maybe they are, you know, rice varieties that will be, you know, more tolerant of saline. Those kinds of things might help on the margins, but I’m not especially hopeful that either natural sorts of mangrove restoration or even technological developments will avoid some of those major challenges.
CHESLOW: I also think sometimes you have saltwater intrusion in an aquifer and it’s, like, the least bad of many problems. And I’m thinking of the Gaza Strip, where that’s been an issue for years. But they have another problem, which is that they have very little infrastructure for treating sewage. And the Israeli military doesn’t really enable them to solve that problem. We did that story for AP, where there was a World Bank-constructed sewage plant. They were waiting for electricity. The Israelis didn’t want to flip the switch. So then the salt water intrusion in the aquifer is just one of sort of many maladies. And I’m sure there are a lot of other places that are suffering from, you know, triple, quadruple threats, there it’s difficult to address one of them because there are such knotted challenges to the water infrastructure.
WILSON: And I think deforestation—or, you know, reforestation, and taking some of the more natural responses is a good—is a good step. Even thinking about how the technology could be deployed, but for brackish water, it really is desal that would be the solution, that is not necessarily as helpful. I think a lot of it—and maybe this is just coming at it from the perspective of the lawyer—and I think a lot of it you have to have better management in place. One of the stories that Daniella told me that scared me was that you had a lot of drilling into the aquifer in Cape Town. That kind of ad hoc drilling—even though it may be allowed under the National Water Act—it is in some ways—there’s already sort of—well, there’s already some salt water intrusion into the aquifers.
And not knowing exactly where those—where those bores are being drills—where those wells are being placed, and how many are being placed, and how much water they’re using, it really throws the whole—I mean, it’s impossible to plan based on that. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You can’t take steps to try to fight back against salt water intrusion. And salt water intrusion is a big problem, as Josh mentioned, in Bangladesh, but also in India, in northwest India. You know, areas along the coasts of India, a lot of groundwater is being used to essentially provide food for the entirety of India. So if you have salt water intrusion, there is a real potential that some of those bread baskets, for one of the most populous nations, could collapse. And, again, it comes down to management. How much water is coming out? What are you doing to try to make sure that the intrusion isn’t going to contaminate the entire resource for everybody?
CHESLOW: And I think also, going back to the South African example, that one couple that I met that had paid for the drill in their front yard, I went to the city of Cape Town and I said: What’s the plan for all these different—you know, it’s like 22,000 straws in the Earth. I said, what are the rules? What are the regulations? And they said, well, you know, you can only drill—you can only use that water on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the morning in these and these hours. So I went back to the couple. I said, did you know about these rules? They said, what? What rules? They’d never heard of them. And there were so few inspectors that there were no consequences for not following those rules. So I think in times of crisis all your best-laid plans kind of go out the window as everyone tries to improvise a solution for themselves.
GOODMAN: Yes? Gentleman here.
Q: I’m Vincent Abrama (sp). I’m over at the State Department.
Luke, you mentioned before tension flashpoints and so on. And one of the things that I’ve observed in my career is in Islam, for the faithful, there’s a requirement to pray five times a day, which requires ablution, known as wudu. And in these warzones, where I travel at times, the water taps have slowed to a trickle, and it’s created a lot of tension in the family behind the walls because when you can’t wash before prayers you’re unclean before God. And all of that tension in the family spills out into the—into the streets, if I could just use that term. So, you know, the issue is when we’re doing business in bad neighborhoods, should the water resources and the water treatment plants be protected targets?
You see what I’m—what I’m saying is that there was a—there was a workshop at the Wilson Center several weeks ago. Are you familiar with it?
WILSON: Mmm hmm.
Q: And there was an advisory board on the military, and they talked about everything concerning the potential for tension because of the lack of water. But no one mentioned that, you know, the last time F-14s/16s strafed the area it blew the hell out of the water system. So you have a—you have families—and, of course, this exacerbates the problem and people are looking and families saying, so, what are we going to do? We got to get out of here. So now we’ve got, you know, a million people crossing the water going over to Europe. Get to Europe, what are they going to need before prayers? Water.
GOODMAN: That’s a good point.
WILSON: Yeah. I mean, I will say that humanitarian law issues are issues that we’re starting to look at in more detail. And I know that the Geneva Water Hub is working on a big project right now that is trying to create a list of critical water infrastructure, essentially target that should not—(laughs)—things that cannot be targets, areas that must be avoided.
In the Syrian conflict there has been deliberate targeting of water resources for both Damascus as well as for Aleppo, both in terms of actual infrastructure as well as source waters. These are—these are targets that cannot be targets. As a matter of law, they are civilian infrastructure. Citizens rely on them. They cannot be targets.
And so the enforcement of those rules is really what is important. How do you hold people to account for that? And that is—that’s something that my organization is working on in terms of looking at—through a water war crimes research unit, but also, you know, thinking about how do we make sure that water infrastructure is always at the top of the list. It cannot be put into the balance because it’s not just—again, when you have infrastructure, it can be rebuilt, it’s true. I mean, citizens will suffer, and that is—that’s inexcusable and unacceptable. But source waters, if contaminated, they can be lost forever. And that is a—and that is a significant—both as a direction action, as well as an ancillary action—you attack an oilfield that causes contamination—that is something that needs to be considered as part of the targeting process.
CHESLOW: I also think that you raise a very good point for further reporting, which is what does Islam—and I know also observant Jews wash their hands before every meal. What does The Quran, what does The Bible say about substituting hand sanitizer for running water? This actually could be a very important thing to be looking at going forward?
Q: It affects millions of people around the world, from Indonesia all the way to—
CHESLOW: Sure. I mean, in Cape Town, that might have actually been something people had to deal with because there were many institutions from the airport to city hall to other places that just shut off their water in the taps, and there was just hand sanitizer dispensers. It was very disorienting. You know, you got out of the plane, you go to the bathroom in the airport, and you’re like, OK, no, there’s nothing; you just have to use hand sanitizer and trust that it’s killing whatever is on your hands. And so I’d imagine that other people would have to deal with that every day.
Q: (Off mic)—State Department construction. We have 16,000 workers every day that go to work on our projects. Seventy percent of them practice the Muslim faith. If we didn’t provide a place for them to pray, a place for them to wash during that work shift, we would have problems on those construction sites.
WILSON: Sure. And there are other—and there are other cultural aspects to water. It’s not just—you know, there are resources that are in the water that certain indigenous populations rely on as part of their heritage. I mean, but as you said, you know, water can—has a significant cultural component, and actually is something that we explored when—and our water security challenge is one of—is that as one of the nexuses, the way that that plays into and should play into the idea of water security as a whole. But it is absolutely significant. And again, it kind of goes to show a lot of times that, you know, for a lot of people and a lot of mentalities, water is invisible. But it’s invisible until it’s gone.
Q: That’s right.
GOODMAN: OK. John Oldfield. Probably our last question here.
Q: Thanks. No pressure. John Oldfield with Global Water 2020. Thanks for an interesting hour here.
I want to take a slightly different angle and make an overly confident statement, first of all. I think it’s pretty easy—that’s the wrong word—to identify where water imbalances are going to create security threats, kinetic security threats, up to and including interstate war. Last week GRACE-FO, the new satellite, launched to track water resources over the coming years, for example.
So I want to ask the panel the question about water as a confidence-building measure toward peace. We can identify those geographies, countries and otherwise, across the globe where we think with pretty high degrees of confidence that water is going to create security threats. What can we do from a U.S. government perspective? Global Water Strategy, Interagency Water Working Group, there’s a lot of this stuff going on at State and AID and elsewhere right now. So who moves? What’s missing? Is it SecDef, is it the secretary of state, is it the Interagency Water Working Group, this whole-of-government approach? Is it the NSC? Is it the White House? Is it Capitol Hill? We have every head in the room, every head across this city nodding in agreement that we can actually get ahead of these challenges. And what we’re doing, relatively speaking—with all due respect to everybody in the room and beyond who’s working on this—is a drop in the bucket. So what more can we do? Who’s the first mover? Sorry about that. (Laughter.)
BUSBY: That’s a—if I can weigh in first, that’s a great question. In the paper I did for the Council last year, I noted that while we have hundreds of millions of dollars largely dedicated to taps and toilets through the Water for the World Act, we don’t have nearly the level of support—both in terms of financial support, but also high-level attention—for the institution-building piece that we’ve talked about quite a lot. And it’s not just institutions for transboundary water management, but also within countries because disputes over water within countries—you think about the Cauvery River in India—those are really severe problems that have historically escalated into violence. And so—and there are going to be more day zeroes for other cities other than Cape Town that are less well-equipped to handle those problems.
And so water management institutions, I called for on the order of $100 million in new money for this space. But that requires high-level attention and prioritization. I’m not sure we’ll see it coming out of the executive branch during this administration, but Congress has actually done a lot to both restrain cuts to critical programs, but could be well-placed to put new money in to support the strategy that was developed last year.
CHESLOW: I was in Bonn for climate talks in November, and what was really surprising was to see how the State Department was doing its best to fade into the wallpaper. Whereas in previous years American delegates had been critical to getting support for the Paris Climate Accord, to securing buy-in from all sorts of reluctant partners, this time, after Trump had announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing from the deal, the State Department really was as quiet as possible, aside from one panel on fossil fuels and their role in averting climate change. And that really made me think about what is our leadership going forward, because it seemed like we were retreating in a very big way on the climate stage.
And I haven’t looked enough into what we’re doing as a country in world water issues, but I’m curious to hear from the two of you what you’re seeing because that didn’t bode very well for our leadership.
GOODMAN: OK. This will be the last wrap up since we’ve hit our time, but it’s a good—it’s a good final question. OK. Luke?
WILSON: Well, I think, obviously, John is—(laughs)—knows a lot about the struggles of making sure that there’s enough attention and money placed into the water space. I think Josh’s point is absolutely on point: You need to have strong institutions. And that’s not just about having strong policymaking institutions that have the capacity to make these decisions, but you need to have strong legal institutions as well. You need to have strong laws. You need to have that rule of law that gives people that guidance.
Going back to Daniella’s point earlier, you know, Cape Town had these restrictions on when you could use your well that were not necessarily known to the people who were using it, may not even—I mean, the way that those were built into the law is absolutely critical. And so if you have strong laws that institutions can create and can apply, you have a system that can work more effectively, that people can look to, and that can serve as a point for individuals who are not receiving what they’re supposed to, who are not being given the water that they’re entitled to. It can be—it can give them grounding to assert those rights in front of a tribunal, in front of a court. But you need to have both the institutions—the actual institutions, the brick-and-mortar institutions—(laughs)—but you also need to have that legal infrastructure in order for any of it to work that defines the authority and defines the rights and responsibilities.
GOODMAN: Please join me in thanking our panelists. And thank all of you for coming out today. (Applause.)