US sees water scarcity as a ‘security issue’

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Water scarcity has become a key global issue for the United States because of its potential to fuel armed conflicts in regions such as the Middle East or between nuclear rivals such as India and Pakistan.

"Worldwide, water is not only a problem for billions of people who lack access to safe drinking water and sanitation," said Maria Otero, US under secretary for democracy and global affairs.

"It is also an issue of security as we see scarcity emerging more and water becoming potentially a source of conflict," she told journalists during a visit to Brussels last week (4 November).

"And that raises a security issue for everyone," she warned.

Potential areas where water scarcity could degenerate into armed conflict include the Middle East, the Nile or the Mekong River delta, Otero said.

Another hotspot is the Indus River, which is shared by Pakistan and India – both countries that have stockpiled arsenals of nuclear weapons. In total, Otero said there were more than 260 river basins around the world that are shared between countries.

"We believe it is very important to help those countries develop agreements and develop ways to address the water that they share."

Pakistani infighting over water

Otero cited Pakistan as a case in point, saying water management there was "terrible", leading to infighting between provinces on who gets more of the vital liquid.

According to Otero, simple measures like drip irrigation can help use water more smartly. The government could also benefit from better water policy and planning, she said.

"About 66% of water in Pakistan is wasted through the canals that are not well kept – the water just seeps in. They use almost all of their water – maybe 92 to 95% – to irrigate because they do flood irrigation."

"So the focus is on helping them develop a regulatory authority that focuses on helping them develop a water policy and plan."

Another key aspect is the so-called cost recovery of water infrastructure, such as pipes, irrigation systems and canals. "Because water is free, nobody conserves it," Otero explains. "In other words, people should really pay for water," she stressed.

The Pakistanis "have to do something about this and they have to do it soon".

Trade and human rights aspects

Otero said the United States had backed a UN resolution, adopted in July this year, to make access to water a basic human right, saying that "every human being [should] have access to water and sanitation".

But she said the US would not sign up to a legal agreement as this was not part of the country's constitution.

Otero also expressed interest in suggestions to link trade agreements with sound water management in partner countries. "One has to create some incentives so that, when you're in a water-thirsty area you don't plant crops that require a great deal of water," she said, adding: "I've been to countries in the Middle East that have plantations of bananas."

"But I don't know that we have made that connection at this point […] in the trade area. I think it becomes way too complicated."

Greater efforts on pricing and efficiency are needed to reverse the over-exploitation of Europe's limited water resources, argues a European Commission report on the EU's strategy to tackle water scarcity and drought.

Following an initial assessment, the Commission presented a set of policy options to increase water savings in July 2007, including pricing policies that are to be adopted under the EU's Water Framework Directive.

A second follow-up report was published in May 2010, which warned about "permanent scarcity" in some southern countries such as Cyprus.

According to the progress paper, the problem is not limited to Mediterranean countries. The Czech Republic has reported areas with frequent water scarcity, and France and Belgium have reported over-exploited aquifers, it notes.

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