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“Water is critical to our nation’s security,” Sherri Goodman, Wilson Center Senior Fellow

“As vulnerable countries face prolonged drought and crisis, the US military will become the 9-1-1 of disaster relief.” Sherri Goodman

Any party which takes credit for the rain must not be surprised if its opponents blame it for the drought.” —Dwight Morrow

There are flood and drought over the eyes and in the mouth, dead water and dead sand contending for the upper hand. The parched eviscerate soil gapes at the vanity of toil, laughs without mirth. This is the death of the earth. T.S. Eliot

This week I want to look at an issue that will catch most of us off guard. It is a matter that is tossed around like a political football and is taken seriously by some and not so seriously by others. It is a situation that could be of such significant magnitude that it will serve us better to take a sober look at it driven by data and not simply by conjecture. The question we will address this week concerns the status of water on the planet we all share. Are the recent and current droughts that many nations are enduring simply aberrations, or could they be a harbinger of what is yet to come?

Droughts are commonly described as a severe lack of water compared to normal conditions and can have devastating impacts on communities, ecosystems, and economies. In addition to leading to shortages of drinking water, droughts negatively affect crops and harvests, which can have further effects on food security and agricultural livelihoods. It could be as a result of either cyclical climate change or man-made climate disasters. It is likely that droughts will become more frequent and more extreme over the next decades, posing a potential threat to sustainable development and security in many parts of the world. 

Water scarcity is often divided into two measurable categories: physical scarcity–when there is a shortage of water because of local ecological conditions–and economic scarcity–when there is inadequate water infrastructure. 

Water risks are an urgent global challenge. Most public health crises are already driven by water, including floods, droughts, and water-borne diseases. In this two-part series, we will address not only the global physical strain on water resources but also its implications on the critical security conditions of nations that are plagued by acute water shortages. What we will discover is that many of the politico-military conflicts in the world are the direct or indirect result of water issues globally. Nations can live without a lot of things…water is not one of them. What will become ever evident is that there is more than meets the eye in this matter of global water scarcity.


State of Water – in this section I will attempt to paint an accurate picture of global water scarcity problems. It will be my intent to collaborate each point with at least three different sources that are not simply just regurgitating one another.

Economic scarcity-

One in nine people around the world does not have access to clean water close to home. 60% of the world’s population lives in areas of water stress, where the water supply cannot or will not continue to meet demand. Statisticians now record both what source people obtain their water from and how far they travel for it. Anything longer than a 30-minute round trip no longer counts as access.

Billions of people around the world are continuing to suffer from poor access to water, sanitation, and hygiene, according to a new report by UNICEF and the World Health Organization. Some 2.2 billion people around the world do not have safely managed* drinking water services, 4.2 billion people do not have safely managed sanitation services, and 3 billion lack basic hand-washing facilities.

Time spent gathering water or seeking safe sanitation accounts for billions in lost economic opportunities. $260 billion is lost globally each year due to a lack of basic water and sanitation. Access to safe water and sanitation at home turns time spent into time saved, giving families more time to pursue education and work opportunities that will help them break the cycle of poverty.

A woman collecting the UN-recommended amount of 50 liters per person for her family of four from a water source 30 minutes away would spend two and a half months a year on this task.

Good News! Amazing progress has been made in making clean water accessible, with people lacking access to clean water decreasing from 1.1 billion in 2000 to 785 million in 2017. But there are still many opportunities to multiply the benefits of clean water through improved sanitation and hygiene behavior change.

Roughly 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is used for agriculture, while the rest is divided between industrial (19 percent) and domestic uses (11 percent), including for drinking. On the supply side, sources include surface waters, such as rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, as well as groundwater, accessed through aquifers.

What causes water scarcity?

So far we have focused primarily on the economic scarcity side of the water equation. Unfortunately, the problems that are described above could be relatively easily fixed by a political and social will.  Growing in complexity is another side of the equation. That is physical scarcity. I want to address the matter of drought and physical water conditions in the global landscape. It will become clearer that the economic scarcity problems of water will become much more complex as the plentiful supply of water begins to reach depletion states in many parts of the world.

Physical Scarcity –

There are a number of ways altering global climate patterns may contribute to drought. Warmer temperatures can enhance evaporation from the soil, making periods with low precipitation drier than they would be in cooler conditions. Droughts can persist through a “positive feedback,” where very dry soils and diminished plant cover can further suppress rainfall in an already dry area. An evolving climate can also alter atmospheric rivers (narrow streams of moisture transported in the atmosphere), which can especially disrupt precipitation patterns globally.

A combination of shifting atmospheric rivers and warmer temperatures can also affect snowpack and melt, potentially decimating the water supply. Droughts have plagued humankind throughout much of our history, and until recently they were often natural phenomena triggered by cyclical weather patterns, such as the amount of moisture and heat in the air, land, and sea.

Natural disasters usually announce their arrival: Hurricanes uproot trees, tornadoes roar, and wildfires wipe out entire landscapes. These large, sudden events generate destruction on impact—and then they’re gone. Drought is different. It doesn’t make a big entrance—the start of a drought might even be mistaken for a bit of a dry spell—and its impact builds over time. But while often described as a “creeping disaster,” drought leaves a trail of destruction as dangerous and deadly as any other extreme weather event. In fact, drought has affected more people around the world in the past four decades than any other type of natural disaster.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 55 million people globally are affected by droughts every year, and they are the most serious hazard to livestock and crops in nearly every part of the world. Drought threatens people’s livelihoods, increases the risk of disease and death, and fuels mass migration. Water scarcity impacts 40% of the world’s population, and as many as 700 million people are at risk of being displaced as a result of drought by 2030.

Just as a note of reference, there has been a lot of confusion within the international community of scientists over the cause of global climate change and its role as a precursor for drought.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did not see a global trend toward increasing dryness or drought across the world in 2013 when it released its most recent assessment. But global temperatures have unequivocally become hotter, and hotter conditions precipitate extreme weather—including severe drought. Hotter conditions also reduce snowpack, which provides a key source of water supply and natural water storage in many regions.

Regionally, the driest parts of the earth are getting drier, while the wettest parts are getting wetter. That’s why some areas of the world, such as southern Europe and West Africa, have endured longer and more intense droughts since the 1950s while other regions, such as central North America, have seen droughts become less frequent or less intense. Looking forward, as temperatures continue to rise, the IPCC and other researchers anticipate intensification of those regional trends.

This week the same IPCC issued a new report, pretty much reversing its previous position and has documented a direct link between drought and climate change. Their report also points the finger for global warming not at cyclical global weather patterns, but at human industrialization as the culprit. This report will certainly affect the participation of non-participating members of the Paris accords. For a review of the most recent IPCC report click here. 

What are the areas most affected by drought, and how is drought impacting the people who live in these areas?

Areas that are most impacted by drought include Southwest North America including Mexico, the Mediterranean region, the Middle East, India, China, Australia, the drier parts of sub-Saharan Africa extending down into southern Africa, and (believe it or not) the Amazon.

With this, I will conclude the presentation of the most recent thoughts on how climate change has impacted global drought conditions. Next week we will evaluate how the implications of economic and physical drought will greatly impact global security in the coming years.

If we believe that the implications of drought itself are significant, wait until we look at how people respond to the lack of water. It will not necessarily be a pretty picture. I will attempt, however, to paint a picture of what could be done as well to mitigate the worst consequences of water scarcity in drought conditions.


Water scarcity has the potential to affect all of us. I think it important to consider our own responsibility to care for our State, Nation, and the World. What should I as an individual do? Frankly, it is not something I consider very often. I think that by looking at the issues and understanding them we will be much better positioned to do something that allows you and me to be a part of the solution and not simply a part of the problem. 


I think that if we would commit ourselves to hear rather than just being heard, we could really see great progress in coming to solutions that work for everybody. It seems like many are starting the conversation with the understanding that there is only one solution and it is based on how I understand the problem. Beginning from a position of humility will move the conversation forward and will lead us to solutions that affect the common good of all of us.

Here are some questions I am asking myself to help me become a relevant part of the solution and not just another loud voice contributing to the problem.

  1. Do my actions contribute to possible negative climate issues or am I living in a reasonably responsible manner concerning my actions toward water?
  2. Am I gracious enough to listen to others who are anxiously concerned about these issues? I think that it is easy to just chalk people’s opinions up to misinformation or disinformation without listening to them earnestly. Nobody seems to be actively listening anymore. Everybody is just talking. Not a great discourse tactic for mutual understanding.
  3. How am I preparing myself to understand the issues better? Am I reading broadly enough so that I can understand the multiplicity of sides?

The follow-up.

U.S. Central Command Statement on the Investigation into the Attack on the Motor Tanker Mercer Street …

Amhara official says offensive against Tigray forces imminent…

The feed-back.

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


© 2019 • More Than Meets