When I worked in Washington D.C., from 2005 to 2007, I made repeated efforts to organize a conference, even just a small seminar, to discuss the serious security threats resulting from the shortage of water and the degradation of the environment. I remember vividly the complete lack of interest of certain individuals in the policy world when I brought up the topic of “non-traditional threats.” Somehow the greatest problem we face just didn’t seem that important. Better to have another seminar on North Korea’s nuclear program or the Chiang Mai Initiative.
I had a long discussion with a well-known think tank figure back in 2006 during which I pleaded for support. The seminar, which would have been rather small, was entitled, “Water: Worth more than Gold and Oil Combined.” The individual in question responded that the topic was “amusing” and maybe could be considered at “some future date.” I was appalled.
With the help of Professor David Steinberg of Georgetown University and Col. Larry Wilkerson of the College of William and Mary (former Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell) I put together a proposal for a conference at Georgetown University on “non-traditional threats.”
The rough proposal is available below.
Non-Traditional Security ,Threats Conference Proposal 2005
We did not get any funding whatsoever. I told David Steinberg that, “This is simply wrong. Do these people think that we will be able to respond to climate change or water shortages with aircraft carriers?”
David offered me some words of wisdom about the way things really work. But I was learning that a lot of people in national security are not interested in national security.
Later the New America Foundation put together a Smart Strategy Initiative under the leadership of Patrick Doherty. Larry Wilkerson has joined that initiative and tells me there are some very meaningful discussions taking place. Doherty, whom I do not know personally, writes:
“Twenty years have passed since the Cold War grand strategy of containment accomplished its objective. After four presidents and ten Congresses, Washington has yet to articulate a formula capable of promoting the general welfare and providing for the common defense–for either ourselves or our posterity. Today our economy is hollowed out, our military is over-extended and the global ecosystem is fast approaching depletion.”
The publication of Alex Prud-Homme’s study The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century this month has historic significance. Here is a book that systematically argues that this small detail of mundane life, drinkable water, is shaping up to be the security issue of the century. And the problems we will face at home and abroad cannot be easily addressed by military action.
“By 2000 some 1.2 billion people around the world lacked safe drinking water, and that by 2025 as many as 3.4 billion people will face water scarcity, accord- ing to the UN. What’s more, as the global population rises from 6.8 billion in 2010 to nearly 9 billion by 2050, and climate change disrupts familiar weather patterns, reliable supplies of freshwater will become increasingly threatened. In Australia and Spain, record droughts have led to critical water shortages; in China rampant pollution has led to health problems and environmental degradation; in Africa tensions over water supplies have led to conflict; and in Central America the privatization of water has led to suffering and violence.”
His argument is unrelenting:
“In the meantime, human thirst began to outstrip the ecosystem’s ability to supply clean water in a sustainable way. By 2008, the world’s con- sumption of water was doubling every twenty years, which is more than twice the rate of population growth. By 2000, people had used or altered virtually every accessible supply of freshwater. Some of the world’s mighti- est rivers—including the Rio Grande and the Colorado—had grown so depleted that they reached the sea only in exceptionally wet years. Springs have been pumped dry. Half the world’s wetlands (the “kidneys” of the environment, which absorb rainfall, filter pollutants, and dampen the effects of storm surges) were drained or damaged, which harmed ecosystems and allowed salt water to pollute freshwater aquifers. In arid, rapidly growing Western states, such as Colorado, Texas, and California, droughts were causing havoc.”