US Intelligence says water shortages will threaten stability in South Asia and the Middle East

Alan Bjerga | Bloomberg News

Competition for increasingly scarce water in the next decade will fuel instability in regions such as South Asia and the Middle East that are important to U.S. national security, according to a U.S. intelligence report.

An all-out water war is unlikely in the next 10 years, as nations will be more likely to use water as a bargaining chip with each other, according to the report from the Director of National Intelligence that is to be released today.

As shortages become more acute, “water in shared basins will increasingly be used as leverage; the use of water as a weapon or to further terrorist objectives also will become more likely beyond 10 years,” according to a copy obtained by Bloomberg News. The report was requested by the State Department and drawn from a classified national intelligence estimate.

The report, drafted principally by the Defense Intelligence Agency, reflects a growing emphasis in the U.S. intelligence community on how environmental issues such as water shortages, natural disasters and climate change may affect U.S. security interests.

For example, said a U.S. official familiar with the study, as water and hydroelectric power become more valuable, dams, irrigation projects and reservoirs could become more attractive targets for terrorists or military strikes. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the national intelligence estimate on which the report is based is classified.

Depleted groundwater for agriculture, which is responsible for 70 percent of water use, could destabilize food markets and contribute to price swings such as those last year that sent nutrition costs to a record and created unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.

Risking Instability

“Many countries important to the United States will experience water problems — shortages, poor water quality, or floods — that will risk instability,” the study said. “North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia will face major challenges coping with water problems.”

Population growth, economic development and climate change are combining to make water less plentiful worldwide, according to the study. Meanwhile, annual global water requirements will be 40 percent above current sustainable water supplies by 2030, according to a 2009 report by the 2030 Water Resources Group, a World Bank-sponsored collaboration that included Coca-Coca Co. (KO) and Nestle SA (NESN) among its members.

“Water shortages, poor water quality, and floods by themselves are unlikely to result in state failure,” said the U.S. intelligence report. “However, water problems — when combined with poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions — contribute to social disruptions that can result in state failure.”

Water-Sharing Issues

In addition, the report said, “some states are further stressed by a heavy dependency on river water controlled by upstream nations with unresolved water-sharing issues.”

Better water use will be necessary to reduce the strains on supplies and international tensions, according to the report, with the biggest potential gains through improved farming practices.

The report also examines seven river basins that may present risks to U.S. security interests, grading the management capacity of the Amu Darya in Central Asia and Afghanistan, and the Brahmaputra, which flows from Tibet through India to Bangladesh, as “inadequate.” The study defines management capacity as the ability of nations, treaties and organizations in an area to manage political grievances over water.

The intelligence report found the political stability of the Mekong River watershed in Southeast Asia; the Tigris and Euphrates in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran; and the Nile Basin in northern Africa as “limited.” The report rates the Indus in south Asia and the Jordan in the Middle East as “moderate.”

The United Nations designates each March 22 as World Water Day, and the State Department yesterday announced that today Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will unveil a new public- private U.S. Water Partnership.


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