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Why Availability of Freshwater Is a Huge Factor in the 'War on Terror'

Water and national security may not seem at first to be interconnected. But they are-increasingly so as the global freshwater scarcity crisis deepens.

While leaders in Washington have been war-gaming the national security risks of climate change, they’ve only started to connect the dots to the closely related threats emanating from the growing crisis of global freshwater scarcity. At first blush, water and national security may not seem to be interlinked. But the reality, as narrated in my new book WATER: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, is that the unfolding global water crisis increasingly influences the outcome of America’s two wars, homeland defense against international terrorism, and other key U.S. national-security interests, including the transforming planetary environment and world geopolitical order.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali famously predicted 25 years ago that the “next war in the Middle East will be fought over water.” While that has yet to come to pass, the greatest present danger stems from failing nation-states—and not just in the bone-dry Middle East. With world water use growing at twice the rate of human population over the last century, many of the Earth’s vital freshwater ecosystems are already critically depleted and being used unsustainably to support our global population of 6.5 billion, according the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and the situation can only be expected to get worse as the population pushes toward 9 billion by 2050. As great rivers run dry before reaching the sea, groundwater is mined deeper and deeper beyond replenishment levels, and water quality erodes with growing pollution, an explosive fault line is cleaving between freshwater Haves and Have-Nots across the political, economic, and social landscapes of the 21st century.

Among the water Have-Nots are the 3.6 billion who will live in countries that won’t be able to feed themselves within 15 years due largely to scarcity of water—likely to include giant India. Throughout history, states that have been unable to feed themselves with homegrown or reliably imported cheap food have stagnated, declined, and often collapsed, with grievous adjustments in living standards, population levels, and regional turmoil.

Health and humanitarian crises are likely to emanate from the dark side of the Have-Not divide where 1 billion abject poor lack regular access to clean, fresh water for minimal needs and 2.6 billion don’t have basic sanitation. Upriver water Have states increasingly exert control over the precious water flows to their dependent neighbors downstream, while within nations the wealthy and those with greatest political clout commonly enjoy the formidable competitive advantage of better, and often subsidized, access to the best water resources. Global warming exacerbates the water crisis with extreme, unpredictable floods, droughts, glacier melts, storm swells, and other water cycle–related depredations that fall disproportionately on already water-insecure, Have-Not regions and overwhelm existing, fragile water infrastructures. Such dislocating events are expected to create 150 million environmental refugees within a decade.

A tumultuous adjustment to the freshwater scarcity crisis lies ahead, and in our global society the feedback effects will buffet even the security of distant nations. Two cases from the headlines—Yemen and Pakistan—illustrate some of the problems and challenges.


Arid Yemen is an impoverished, failing state, home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which helped to train and arm the would-be Detroit-bound, Christmas suicide bomber from Nigeria. The Yemeni government is not much better than a large, corrupt tribe competing for control of the nation’s diminishing resources through patronage payoffs and proxy alliances with other strong tribes. There is warfare in the north between Houthi tribesmen and Saudi-backed government forces, while politically and economically disaffected southerners are trying to secede. The government is also battling al-Qaida, which flourishes in ungoverned no-man’s-lands.

Terrorism—which claimed 17 U.S. sailor lives in the attack in Aden Harbor on the USS Cole in 2000, and was beaten back for a few years with the help of U.S. drones—is resurgent. The Yemeni government’s policy of routinely releasing captured or repatriated terrorists after little more than a promise not to do it again frustrates the Obama administration’s efforts to shut the Guantanamo Bay prison, where about half of the remaining 200 prisoners are Yemeni.

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