Don’t Waste the New US Water-Security Strategy

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018.

President Trump should order the inclusion of water issues — a major driver of security problems — in the national defense and security strategies.

In his State of the Union address, the President once again called for stronger responses to global security crises and significant new investments in security along our southern border. And yet, one of the drivers behind both of these issues – namely, water security – has received little attention to date.

While there are highly polarized views on immigration policies and border security needs, there is one clear step his administration could take that might have broad appeal. It could issue an executive order that bolsters U.S. efforts to address the many growing water security threats around the world. In doing so, the administration can improve conditions for millions of people who lack sufficient access to water and advance U.S. national security interests at the same time.

The link between migration from Central America and water security has been evident for years. The three countries of the Northern Triangle – Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – were hammered by destructive storms for the first ten years of this new century. And immediately after those hurricanes and cyclones came a five-year drought that shocked agricultural economies throughout the region and sparked an outward migration of vulnerable families across Central America. 

That migratory surge had implications for the U.S. as well, with nearly 70,000 unaccompanied children detained at our southern border in 2014 alone. More recently, those numbers have begun to again increase, surpassing an estimated 40,000 monthly border crossings during the last month of 2017.

No region of the world is immune to the effects of water security. In Iran, the government’s infrastructure schemes to divert waters from local communities and rural villages to major cities have stoked growing conflicts with the central government as lakes and farms dry up. Elsewhere, water crises have helped to further destabilize already volatile regions. In Central Africa, protracted drought and the shrinking of Lake Chad contributed to already impoverished conditions and exacerbated pre-existing tensions, thus paving the way for the rise of the insurgent Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon, and other neighboring countries. Likewise, water shortages in Afghanistan have encouraged the expansion of drought-resilient poppy production (while also making it more difficult to grow other crops), fueling the Taliban insurgency and the international narcotics trade. An elite advisory group of retired admirals and generals from across the military services wrote in their recent publication, “Not only can water be used as a tool of coercion across the spectrum of conflict…water stress can empower violent extremist organizations and place stable governments at risk.”

Fortunately, years of international initiatives have produced a broadening set of solutions to water issues – and repeatedly demonstrated the value of American leadership in forging those solutions. American diplomacy has been instrumental in building transboundary water accords in the Indus, the Jordan River, and the Nile, and along both the U.S. southern and northern borders. Our technical and engineering capacity in building the world’s most sophisticated water infrastructure remain unparalleled.  

The recent release of the U.S. Global Water Strategy, the product of a multi-year effort driven by the State Department and involving 15 U.S. agencies, represents an important step in elevating U.S. global leadership on water security issues. The strategy continues U.S. efforts to expand water access to millions of people and aims to ensure water security in high-risk countries through a greater focus on longer-term water management and sustainability. 

But we can, and should, do more.

The President should issue an executive order that requires the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy to include water security and extreme weather in their threat assessments. This will help align the work of executive branch agencies while bolstering Congressional support for financial resources needed to address rising threats to national security. 

The executive order should also mandate that all combatant commanders conduct theatre-wide water/extreme weather risk assessments and develop potential responses to these threats in their strategies. This will help ensure that military leaders and government agencies will be prepared to respond swiftly, be it through humanitarian assistance or military engagement, to water-driven threats.

And finally, it should direct the U.S. diplomatic corps to intensify efforts to promote trans-boundary water management agreements as a means of preventing highly destructive state-on-state conflicts.

By taking this action, the administration would contribute to social, political and economic stability in volatile regions that are of strategic importance to the U.S. These simple measures would protect global supply chains necessary for America’s prosperity, and help to mitigate future security threats.

All nations have a stake in addressing this global challenge; when it comes to water security, we sink or swim together.

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