Friday, January 17, 2014

First Glance At Global Water Risk For 2014

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" pondered "Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink."  That's one of the coolest lines I've ever seen in literature.  It's also a cool segue to discussing risks to global stability from a lack of access to potable water.  Three fourths of the earth's surface is covered in water but only a small amount is fit for human consumption.  That small amount will be subject to competition in the years ahead.

The World Resources Institute studies water risk through its Aqueduct global mapping tool.  I mentioned last year that a China-India resource conflict within 15 years (thus, by 2028) is my pet theory.  The Aqueduct map shows India more stressed for water than China in each scenario.  Perusing the Aqueduct's supporting publications reveals those river basins under the most stress from water extraction.  A large number of the highest-risk basins are in China, Central Asia, and the Middle East.  

Water supply risk gets a special mention in the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report for 2014.  This report cites food and water crises as major risks but does not link them to a water-energy-food nexus that implies tradeoffs and prioritization of efforts.  A couple of paragraphs in Box 1.3 on page 15 do not do the topic justice.  I find it odd that the report places both water and food in the upper-right quadrant of its global risk matrix but an oil price shock is in the lower left quadrant.  It seems to me that an energy price shock in the water-energy-food nexus will almost immediately drive secondary effects in water and food.  The vulnerability of water production industrial control systems to cyberattack is another risk the WEF identified separately, even though that can also impact the water-energy-food nexus.

The UN's World Water Development Report (WWDR) will be an annual guide for policymakers once the next edition comes out this year.  While we wait for that publication, the UN-Water Analytical Brief from October 2013 expands upon the water-energy-food nexus as a basis for security.  The most positive observation in that brief is the recognition of transboundary water management (TWM) commissions where neighboring countries can discuss water management.  I am unclear at present whether these commissions can adjudicate disputes as binding arbitrators; I'm guessing that they cannot unless they point to signed UN conventions or other sources of international law.  I like that the brief assigns a dollar figure to watershed management in some regions.  

My first glance impression, based on the above studies and what I learned at the WorldAffairs 2013 conference last March, is that Pakistan will come under water pressure first and most severely of all the potential crisis regions.  Pakistan's water from the Indus River originates in India.  Pakistan will face a tradeoff between agriculture and hydropower if it doesn't get enough water for both functions.  This will force it to play an increasingly destabilizing game provoking India via Kashmir.  India will be tempted to retaliate by extending its influence into Afghanistan as a back-door way to destabilize Pakistan.  New Delhi is already preparing this strategic option by extending diplomatic and military overtures to Kabul.  India can win a conventional conflict with Pakistan over water access, provided the conflict does not go nuclear and China does not intervene with military force.

The Middle East is a different story.  Every major Middle East river is shared by two or more nations and national borders do not coincide with watershed boundaries.  Water is more important than oil because it has no substitutes, but the Middle East's vast oil and gas resources enable it to adapt water infrastructure to the region's needs.  Water systems present attractive terrorist targets but shared management among regional rivals can be a basis for cooperation that deters state-sponsored groups from attacking infrastructure.  The Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC) offers a way forward that is neutral toward infrastructure for delivery, as almost every Middle East nation borders the open sea and most are wealthy enough to afford desalination technology.

Water shortages are relevant to Syria's instability, possibly more so than the Arab Spring.  The country's population growth stressed its environment and a multi-year drought from 2006-11 drove millions of rural dwellers into food insecurity and urban migration.  The Assad regime subsidized water-intensive crops, favoring inefficient techniques (i.e., flooding over precision irrigation) that overdrew groundwater.

There's no shortage of knowledge about water resources.  I believe TWM entities will find it useful.  Trade in food and other commodities represents the transfer of virtual water, or embedded water, between regions.  The Global Water Partnership (GWP)  has a useful toolbox for applying integrated water resources management (IWRM) that impacts the virtual water trade.  The Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) awarded its most prestigious prize to the CGIAR International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and helps implement the UNDP Water Governance Facility (WGF).  These are all transnational sources of best practices.  Applying their lessons in Asia and the Middle East requires TWM bodies ready to go to work.

The lack of reputable TWM organizations in the Middle East and Asia will be a detriment to regional stability.  Arab recalcitrance over the US-sponsored Jordan Valley Unified Water Plan was a partial cause of the 1967 Six-Day War.  The only TWM organization covering Israel and its Arab neighbors I have found is the Arava Institute's Center for Trans-boundary Water Management.  The Carnegie Endowment presented its "Blue Peace" comprehensive IWRM plan in 2011, but I do not know whether any Middle Eastern nations signed on for implementation.  The Indian-based Strategic Foresight Group published "Water Cooperation for a Secure World," regarding the potential for water resource cooperation to reduce the risk of war.  My Web search for evidence of water cooperation between India and China indicates the two countries have been willing to share data, but long-term cooperation is hampered by their border disputes.

The world's water problems present an opportunity for the United States to emerge as an honest broker in regions key to its strategic interests.  The US can use a DIME-based outreach via USAID water and sanitation development programs focusing on efficiency and demand reduction.  The DIME approach's success metric should be a reduction in the target region's water footprint, using the Water Footprint Network's data.  Leveraging the World Bank's work on water development will give the DIME effort credibility.

Asia and the Middle East will have to manage their water resources in different ways, with or without US assistance.  The UN FAO Natural Resources and Environment Department has data and programs useful in resolving water disputes, most of which are now sub-national.  If regional rivals cannot peacefully adjudicate water disputes through TWM commissions, they will come into conflict.  There is no substitute for water.  The Pacific Institute maintains a Water Conflict Chronology.  The list of conflicts is likely to grow in the future.