Insights

Water Scarcity: A National Security Challenge

March 29, 2021

Climate change is responsible for an unprecedented rise in tropical cyclones and other extreme-weather events, but related threats are also manifesting. According to a February 2021 study, rising temperatures may be responsible for a six-month summer in the Northern Hemisphere by 2100. A longer summer means greater water consumption. (Remember running through the sprinkler as a kid? Those days may be numbered.) Higher temperatures may also fuel longer, more frequent droughts and alter rainfall patterns that further degrade the environment and disrupt the water cycle.

Combined with a burgeoning global population and increased water demand for agricultural and urban purposes, the United States must brace for dwindling supplies of fresh water domestically and worldwide. In an unclassified memo released last year, the National Intelligence Council projected global water usage to increase by as much as 50 percent by 2050 as the world’s population grows by 1.5 billion. Already, there are 2 billion people with limited or unreliable access to sufficient supplies of clean water, according to the memo.   

More from Villiger on FNN (Audio)

Villiger discussed the intersection of national security and climate change with Tom Temin, host of "The Federal Drive" on Federal News Network. He said that large organizations like the Defense Department can employ an analytically-driven strategy for anticipating climate-related risks, responding to them, and making smarter investment decisions now to mitigate the risks in the future.

“There’s no reason to be unprepared," he said. "We have data tools and models where we can predict a wide range of scenarios related to climate risk, based on data that’s been collected by our government for decades.”

The Intelligence Community’s attention to global water security is understandable. As the single most critical resource to public health, food supplies, and energy production, the scarcity of fresh water portends escalating international competition for its availability. A September 2020 study by the World Resources Institute recorded 2015 as the first year with more than 20 interstate conflicts over water resources; within three years, that number more than doubled.

Not surprisingly, nations that are more developed or geographically advantaged are leveraging this status over neighbors. China and Ethiopia, for example, are exerting control of upriver water supplies with massive dam projects that will heighten regional tensions. China is also taking advantage of its economic might to take “virtual water” from other nations by expanding Chinese-owned agricultural entities in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. This expansion uses the water of these countries to nourish crops that are then shipped to China for domestic consumption.

The stakes are high for nations facing real or potential water shortages, with greater likelihood of disease spread and stunted economic prospects. We can expect control of water resources to exacerbate geopolitical instability, territorial disputes, and, as water and food supplies dry up, massive population migrations. These developments are fraught with the potential to spark conflict and erode failing states, among other U.S. national security concerns.

Domestically, water vulnerabilities are becoming more pronounced. The February 2021 winter storm in Texas, resulting in frozen pipes and offline water treatment facilities, left millions of residents unable to access safe drinking water and indoor plumbing for several days, even weeks. The unprecedented temperature lows in Texas are an example of how extreme weather, hotter and colder, can have devastating effects on Americans’ water supply. Even under what we’d consider normal conditions, more than 2 million people in the U.S. struggle with reliable access to water for drinking, sanitation, and hygiene.

Climate risk modeling can improve our understanding of when and where water supply threats may emerge. This insight is essential to the development of resilient water infrastructure at home as well as anticipating water-related crises around the world. The challenge of global water security has been well documented, as the sources here illustrate. Tools like LMI’s ClimateIQ, which features the industry-leading Climanomics® platform, can help government leaders go beyond awareness of water supply threats to begin developing solutions.  

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