OPINION: As Terrorists Weaponize Water, Here’s A Strategy For A Safer America


John Oldfield Contributor
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Water terrorism is a growing threat that won’t be defeated on the battlefield. Access to safe and secure water across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America is important in its own right, of course, but water security across the globe is also key to U.S. national security interests.

Consider that in the next decade, some 2.9 billion people in 48 countries will face water shortages. No one can grow enough food, prevent disease, contain pandemics or safeguard peace without access to water. Water scarcity accelerates conflicts, such as those in Syria and Yemen, leading to catastrophic consequences.

Terrorist groups also know this and are increasingly weaponizing water to exert control over populations and governments. The non-partisan Wilson Center issued a compelling May report that found water-related terrorism is on the rise, increasing 263 percent between 1970 and 2016. Two-thirds of the incidents occurred post 9/11. Infrastructure is the most common target for water-related terrorism. Pipes, dams, weirs, levees, and treatment plants come under attack “to inconvenience government authorities, influence populations, and cripple corporations.”

Security thinkers at CNA’s Military Advisory Board, retired three- and four-star officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, study pressing issues to assess their impact on America’s national security.They have detailed security threats posed by global water scarcity, concluding: “Water stress should be considered an intensifying factor in instability, conflict, and crises that will impact U.S. national interests abroad and likely lead to future U.S. military responses.”

Destabilization due to water — too little, too much, too dirty — wreaks havoc beyond terrorism. It helps turn droughts into preventable famines; is the source of dozens of preventable infectious diseases that impede economic growth; and forces hospitals and healthcare facilities, our frontline against pandemics, to function without access to water, soap, and sanitation, making infection prevention and containment a daily and costly battle.

There is good news: our ability to project when and where water threats will arise has never been stronger, thanks in part to the U.S. intelligence community. Because solutions to global water problems far exceed the work of any single government agency, the Water for the World Act — passed with unanimous bipartisan support from Congress in 2014 — mandated passage of a U.S. Global Water Strategy. President Trump launched the long-anticipated plan one year ago today, bringing together the coordinated strength of 17 U.S. government agencies that all deal with global water.

The strategy’s overall objective is to improve our nation’s security by protecting water resources, promoting water cooperation, strengthening governance and financing, and prioritizing poverty-focused and cost-effective safe drinking water and sanitation solutions. Its overall approach is to provide better-coordinated, more cost-effective, whole-of-government approaches to global water issues. The Global Water Strategy offers the U.S. government and its many partners ways to be more catalytic, leverage and bring other donors to the global water sector, and give U.S. taxpayers a bigger foreign policy bang for their limited buck.

The 2014 Ebola outbreak that left the world in fear is just one of many examples that illustrate why increasing U.S. interagency cooperation is valuable. Ebola’s rapid spread was due in large part to the inability of family and healthcare workers to adequately wash their hands with soap and safe water. The U.S. Department of Defense was brought in to support of the work of USAID and others to help contain the growing pandemic. Through Operation United Assistance, DoD deployed some 4000 personnel who offered humanitarian assistance and disaster response using unique skills to assist with training frontline responders, constructing secure treatment centers and mobile labs, and procuring protective equipment, at a cost of $400 million. Containment doesn’t come cheap.

Encouragingly, congressional authorizers and appropriators increasingly understand the need for greater agency cooperation around the many water security issues. The FY19 Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations report, for example, specifically included the Global Water Strategy, calling for “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to work with other federal partners to initiate an effort to assess and support water sanitation and hygiene [WASH] improvements in healthcare facilities, aligned with the 2017 U.S. Global Water Strategy. Further, the committee urges CDC to increase its WASH efforts to contribute to the elimination of cholera as a public health threat.”

Water security should be included in the National Military Strategy and National Defense Strategy, Combatant Command planning and operations, theater campaign plans, and conflict assessments. DoD should integrate water security into strategic policy planning and budgeting, incorporate local and regional water stressors into strategy and tactics to counter violent extremism, and “designate an office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense to be responsible for global water stress and to coordinate across the interagency on water-stress issues,” per CNA’s Military Advisory Board.

The U.S. Global Water Strategy’s deliberate and coordinated approach will be meaningful if relevant government agencies prioritize its full implementation and if it is properly funded and guided by Congress, with overarching support from the White House. That includes numerous House and Senate committees and subcommittees that oversee water security, global health, and national security.

If given the attention and support it deserves, the U.S. Global Water Strategy presents a road map for strategic, cost-effective foreign policy well into the future — a safer future.

John Oldfield (@JohnForWater) is a principal at Global Water 2020, an advocacy initiative in Washington, D.C. dedicated to accelerating progress toward global water security. He previously led Water 2017 and WASH Advocates.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.