Water security – a different perspective

Commentary, 12 April 2012

By Daniel Yeo

U.S. Intelligence Community published a global water security assessment addressing the question: “How will water problems impact U.S. national security interests over the next 30 years?”

Last month, the U.S. Intelligence Community, at the request of the U.S. State Department, published a global water security assessment addressing the question: “How will water problems (shortages, poor water quality, or floods) impact U.S. national security interests over the next 30 years?”

The report is a notable and solid contribution to understanding water security. It sets out a range of issues, based on evidence and cutting through many of the myths and alarmism around water scarcity. Importantly, the analysis engages defence, security and intelligence communities in water related challenges – making them part of a growing set of conversations on water security (including a plethora of initiatives within the business community).

The report includes a helpful characterisation of ‘water problems’ as water shortage (quantity), poor water quality and excessive water (water-related risk – although drought should be added as well). The report focuses on water resources and the role of resource efficiency and environmental management in reducing risks – essentially making the case for more efficient and more measured use of water. These transboundary issues are clearly important for national security - but, more significantly, the report also makes a clear link between household access to water and sanitation and national security.

Not having water and sanitation (or in other words, local water insecurity) can be destabilising for a country and is a key element in global water security.

A hidden humanitarian crisis

Water-related diarrhoea is the biggest killer of children in sub-Saharan Africa – killing more than AIDS, TB and malaria combined. Although the UN Millennium Development Goal for water has recently been met, there are still 2.5 billion people without sanitation and 783 million without safe water – mostly in poor and conflict prone countries; and mostly amongst the poorest in those countries.

This chronic yet silent humanitarian crisis creates two sets of risks for stability and therefore national security. The U.S. report highlights the physical risks posed by disease and public health crises, but it fails to acknowledge the social cohesion risks that inequitable access presents.

Lack of basic services undermines state legitimacy

Recent DFID-funded work highlights how delivery of basic services can contribute to perceptions of state legitimacy and therefore stability. But the converse is also true – failing to deliver on basic services undermines perceptions of state legitimacy and creates latent conflict.

This is particularly prescient when it reflects stark levels of inequality or local government failings – as demonstrated in the 2011 ‘toilet elections’ in South Africa where failure to deliver on basic services was the key issue, leading to ‘service delivery protests’ which fortunately did not escalate into widespread violence but still resulted in the controversial death of a protestor.

Why do people lack water?

Inequitable access to water and sanitation, and the underlying conflict this creates, won’t be resolved by using water more efficiently or by managing demand more effectively. Physical availability of water is not the root cause of such problems.

WaterAid’s experience with communities around the world has shown there are two systemic reasons why the infrastructure and systems needed to provide access are missing – a lack of political will (and therefore adequate finance); and weak government capacity (planning, delivery and maintenance). It is a scarcity of effective governance and inclusive politics that are the core problems, not a physical scarcity of water. WaterAid is working with others to address these gaps through the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) partnership, but we know that such initiatives are only part of the solution to achieving water security for all.

A ‘whole of society’ approach to water security

According to the U.S. Quadrennial Defense and Development Review, “Development, diplomacy, and defense, as the core pillars of American foreign policy, must mutually reinforce and complement one another in an integrated, comprehensive approach to national security”, yet this integration is missing from U.S. foreign policy on water.

The concept of the ‘strategic corporal’ is well known in military circles – where actions at a tactical level can have strategic implications. The same applies to water security – local, human-scale, water insecurity for poor communities can have strategic implications for national water security for a country like the U.S. Improving water security means recognising that these levels are connected – that national security is linked to local water security. Inequitable access to water is a potentially destabilising factor in societies around the world.

Fortunately, the Water for the World Act of 2012, recently introduced in the U.S. Congress, makes this link and, if passed, will make this ‘whole of government’ approach a reality by streamlining current USAID and State Department efforts – in particular by elevating and making permanent an existing position at the State Department on water security. The U.S. has an opportunity here to demonstrate an approach to reducing WASH poverty that benefits national security.

The human right to water matters for business – in multiple ways

What do these national security issues have to do with the business and human rights agenda? The fact is that the same silo mentality seen in government applies to the growing number of business water initiatives, where water security means focusing on the supply chain and securing water as a commercial input, or managing the social licence to operate. Even where businesses have begun to think about water as a human right (e.g. PespiCo’s recognition of the human right to water, or Nestle’s work on human rights and water), the tendency is to focus on the supply chain and the direct impact of corporate activity on the right to water.

Yet, water insecurity persists for poor communities around the world – largely perpetuated by the unwillingness or inability of states to fulfil this human right. It is not the responsibility of companies to fulfil the right to water for all, but the ongoing insecurity caused by lack of access to water and sanitation poses a serious and growing risk to social stability. This makes access to water and sanitation an indirect risk to businesses – and presents an opportunity for the private sector to contribute further to improving water security. Companies need to realise this and begin to grapple with the complexities involved in addressing water related challenges – beyond their supply chain.

Water is universal, but too often we treat water issues as different sectors – water for the environment; water for the economy; water for people. It’s time to move beyond siloed approaches and realise how different interests in water are linked. Only then can we work together to achieve water security for all.

For more information on WaterAid’s advocacy work in the USA, contact Lisa Schechtman: lschecht[email protected]

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