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Harbinger: Global Security Part 3

“Water doesn’t know political boundaries. People have to get together and work,” Jay Famiglietti

“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” —Benjamin Franklin

“The wars of the twenty-first century will be fought over water.” Ismail Serageldin

“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.” Thomas Sowell

At its heart, Global Security is about threats and how to mitigate them. It is about how we as humans deal with those things which threaten our existence and value systems. They are everywhere. We as humans are consumed by the threats that somehow compromise our lives and livelihood. Humans as a species are afraid and we go to great lengths to mitigate our fears through an expansive system of security. 

We live under the illusion that if we can just build a wall high enough and thick enough we will be secure. If we build an army big enough and strong enough we will be able to overcome that which threatens us. If I eat right and exercise, I will live longer and fewer things in the world will threaten my existence. 

Many people are driven by their fears today. When they realize that their fears may be over-warranted, they turn them into virtues, which shuts down all conversation about them. When we shut down the conversation, we stop learning. When we stop learning, we stop growing. When we stop growing, we start dying. 

Global Security and the trillions of dollars that are spent on it annually are the consequences of these over-obsessed fears. If these monies were spent instead on feeding the poor, educating youth, and providing shelter rather than building bigger walls, more efficient and devastating weapon systems, and more comprehensive power monopolies, the world would be a better place, and our lives would be richer without fear in the driver’s seat.

This week I want to speak about the increasing global water scarcity phenomenon as a global security matter, how it is impacting the world, and how it is shaping the development of nations and regional economies. In week one, I wrote on the state of water and how people try to frame their understanding as to why there is a water problem. In part two I discussed the reality of the scarcity of water, and how there is a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to water scarcity globally.

In this final installment I want to examine the global state of freshwater scarcity and the oft-neglected linkages of water scarcity to economic, social, political, legal, and security consequences arising from disruptions, failures, or attacks on water access and distribution systems. It is not my intent to frighten people about the realities of water scarcity. In my mind, however, if there was an issue that all of us should be concerned about, it would be this one. We can live without many things. Water is not one of them.


A direct line can be drawn between a nation’s economic strength and the degree to which it meets the basic needs of its population. According to the Federal Reserve Bank, “lower poverty rates coincide with decreases in unemployment or increases in income.” This premise is both logical and intuitive, because as people shift concern from procuring basic sustenance, they may shift effort toward social advancement. Therefore, the predictable availability of food and water has created competitive advantages in the societies that have successfully cultivated these resources, allowing workforces to develop in sophistication and propelling both economic expansion and societal transformation.

Next to air, water is the most fundamental requirement for life. In 2011, Citigroup’s chief economist, Willem Buiter, said that “water as an asset class will, in my view, become the single most important physical commodity-based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities, and precious metals.” Global economists and analysts agree—an absence of water equates to the lack of a viable economy.

Therefore, it is safe to conclude that access to freshwater may equal wealth in the twenty-first century. Where there is wealth there exists the possibility that others will assume that the wealth was acquired through ruse or deception. It gives birth to conflict. I am not saying that there is no deception in the acquisition of wealth, certainly, it happens too often. It is here where parties can choose to engage through diplomacy or violence. It seems throughout history, unfortunately, that humans have hastily opted to solve their problems with a sword rather than with a pen.

What are some contributing factors to these conflicts?

Approximately two-thirds of the world’s population, or 4 billion people, currently live without sufficient access to freshwater for at least one month of the year. That figure is projected to increase to 5 billion in the next 20 years.

Overuse, population growth, and water resource mismanagement are contributing to desperate conditions, and violent extremist organizations (VEOs) are turning scarce water into a weapon. Nowhere is this trend more visible than in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a region of critical importance to U.S. national security interests. VEO’s are leveraging water scarcity to frighten local populations into submission to their violent ideologies. This is happening at both the non-governmental and governmental levels.

Ironically, the most water-scarce states on the globe—Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—have a daily per capita water usage of almost twice that of Australia and the United States, which are not as water-scarce. Where are some of these conflicts simmering today? Here are just a few.

The conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt

In addition to driving political unrest, water scarcity raises fundamental legal questions. At the heart of the legal debate is the question of whether access to freshwater is a universal human right or a privilege that may be owned, controlled, and allocated (like property). The overarching area of law surrounding the issue is known as riparian law.

Given that water scarcity concerns are growing, riparian legal disputes are becoming more common. For example, Ethiopia currently controls eighty-five percent of the Nile’s source waters and has plans to use its natural geography for economic benefit. “Ethiopia for the first time is combining both the physical power of being an upstream country that can . . . control the River Nile’s flow and the economic power of being able to construct a dam depending on its own domestic resources.”

Today, the Nile supplies water to around 300 million people. While Sudan may indirectly benefit from the new infrastructure due to its proximity to waters backed up by the dam, Egypt has warned that any impact to Nile waters will be considered a threat to its sovereignty. In early 2018, Sudan moved troops to its Eritrea border citing security risks from Egypt. Tensions concerning the Nile continue to escalate in this region. 

The conflict between India and Pakistan

Another area where the political and legal questions have converged involves the tributaries that feed the Indus River. The Indus serves as a common border between India and Pakistan and runs the length of both states. At the source of the river are five tributaries resting primarily within India’s border in the Punjab (meaning “five rivers”) plain. Unlike recent tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt, tensions concerning the Indus have been a flashpoint for decades. Consequently, in 1960, the WBG brokered the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) between India and Pakistan. 

Conflict in the Niger Delta

The history of radicalization in the region by extremist groups that have established themselves in northern Mali further illustrates the vulnerabilities facing the displaced and disenfranchised. People whose access to water is limited risk becoming increasingly marginalized, and a target for recruitment by radical groups. Water is critical to the region’s security.

Internal conflict in Syria

The world’s earliest documented water war happened 4,500 years ago, when the armies of Lagash and Umma, city-states near the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, battled with spears and chariots after Umma’s king drained an irrigation canal leading from the Tigris. “Enannatum, ruler of Lagash, went into battle,” reads an account carved into an ancient stone cylinder, and “left behind 60 soldiers [dead] on the bank of the canal.”

Today, there is no less of a struggle over water in the Syrian basin than there was several years ago. Many have supposed that the civil war over the past decade was first caused by a drought. Syrian farmers 


As I have stated several times in this series, water is one of the two fundamental requirements for life. The scarcity of it is a threat. Increasingly, people are sensing this ominous feeling of water scarcity beginning to corrode their confidence in the availability of water.

There is plenty of water in the world, even considering that only 3% of the world’s water is freshwater. Certainly, there are plenty of places where large cities are beginning to over-tax the availability of freshwater. It is here where mismanagement and poor governance are showing their incompetence. It is clearly a social matter. Wiser consumption of freshwater will allow the earth to provide all the water needs of creation. There are some fundamental ways that the global water problems can be not only addressed but reversed. 

Water scarcity will have profound humanitarian and economic consequences. What are some solutions? The language used to talk about strategic water availability needs to be reconsidered. According to the researchers at Wellington Management, “The dialogue about water needs to change from “aid” based language to investment-based language. One dollar invested in water can return thirty-five dollars in GDP.”


Use efficient water conservation methods both inside and outside personally. Here is a good website where you can get some ideas. We can implement all of these without changing much of our quality of life.

The follow-up.

New Kabul Scare: Terror Groups and Anti-Aircraft Missiles…

Firefight Erupts at Kabul Airport, While Taliban Affirm Pullout Deadline…

The feed-back.

For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at:


Rob Grunewald, Fed. Res. Bank of Minn., The Connection between Poverty and the Economy, FedGazette (Nov. 1, 2006),

Nafis Ahmad, Deryck O. Lodrick, Indus River, Encyclopedia Britannica, (last visited May 13, 2018).


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