A few weeks ago the State Department took advantage of World Water day to announce the release of an National Intelligence Council report entitled “Water Security,” which assessed the possible effects of water shortages on U.S. national security over the next several decades. The NIC report’s “bottom line” was that “during the next ten years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems . . . that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important U.S. policy objectives.” Although this conclusion may very well be correct, the relationship between water security and U.S. national security is more complicated than one might infer from the framing.
Describing the NIC report as “sobering,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was a “landmark document” that placed global water security in its “rightful place” as part of U.S. national security. After mentioning Yemen as a country of acute concern due to its water scarcity, she discussed some of the report’s findings on the role of water in conflict, terrorism, and state failure to drive the point home:
The assessment also highlights the potential threat that water resources could be targeted by terrorists or manipulated as a political tool. These difficulties will all increase the risk of instability within and between states. Within states, they could cause some states to fail outright. And between and among states, you could see regional conflicts among states that share water basins be exacerbated and even lead to violence. So these threats are real and they do raise serious security concerns.
Actually, the NIC report noted how meeting water scarcity challenges tended to drive states to cooperation more often than to conflict, and was more nuanced on how water scarcity can contribute to political disruptions and state failure than Clinton’s remarks implied. According to the NIC:
Water shortages, poor water quality, and floods by themselves are unlikely to result in state failure. 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. [emphasis added]
The NIC report went on to note that the most effective approaches to addressing water-related social tensions was, “improving water management, trade of products with high water content, and institutional capacities to treat water and encourage efficient water use.” This is particularly true in Yemen, which, perhaps more than any other state, sits at the nexus of water and national security. As Charles Schmitz pointed out in a recent paper, the water problems result more from a lack of institutional capability to manage water (e.g. by regulating well water extraction and making accessible new irrigation technologies) than from a lack of water per se. Building the legitimacy and institutional capacity of the Yemeni state is therefore crucial to ensuring effective oversight and operation of public utilities and to harmonizing water, energy, agricultural, and environmental policy.
However, from the perspective of U.S. policy, this raises difficult questions about the relationship between water security and other “important” objectives, namely military operations targeting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Ansar al-Sharia. Recently, drone strikes have triggered reprisal attacks on oil pipelines, thereby diminishing the Yemeni government’s access to what it needs most: cash. Although Yemen is trying to transition an economy more reliant on domestic labor than oil sales, the new government is facing enormous economic challenges and oil exports still account for ~25% of GDP and ~75% of government revenue. Friends of Yemen, a collection of international donors, can help stabilize the economy over the short-term, but sustainable growth will depend on Yemen’s ability to meet its own needs.
A related problem is that the broader military campaign against terrorist groups can undermine efforts to affirm the legitimacy of the fledgling Yemeni government and build its capacity to meet the needs of the people. According to Jeremy Scahill, military support to Yemen when former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was in power backfired by creating incentives for the security forces to halfheartedly pursue AQAP so that they could keep the revenue stream open, even as AQAP strengthened and gained control of large swaths of territory. Current president Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi does not have the same incentives to manipulate the system that Saleh did, and has, reportedly, been even more aggressive in confronting AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia. Even so, left unanswered are fundamental questions about the efficacy of the approach and, for the U.S., how efforts to build Yemeni institutional capacity to address water security will co-exist with military operations that jeopardize this capacity and tend to alienate people from the government.
It is tempting to say that the U.S. will simply have to walk and chew gum at the same time – diligently working to strengthen the Yemeni government while aggressively pursuing AQAP. Although this sounds perfectly reasonable in the abstract, experience so far suggests that the approach is fraught with risk of unintended consequences.
The point is that U.S. policy must navigate a two-way street: water insecurity may indeed adversely affect U.S. national security in the future, but certain U.S. national security operations can also contribute to water insecurity today. Ultimately, the rhetorical alignment of water and national “security” will not by itself harmonize disparate policies towards Yemen or other countries facing a similar confluence of political, economic, and natural resource challenges.
Mark Jansson is the Special Projects Director for the Federation of American Scientists and manager of the International Science Partnership, a pilot project that connects U.S. scientists with peers from developing countries to address issues of shared concern. He can be reached at email@example.com.