Center for Strategic Communication

On Tuesday, September 10, the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), with the Association of the United States Army and the U.S. Water Partnership hosted the first event of a year-long focus on water security and conflict prevention. The event brought together a range of scientific, military, economic, diplomatic, and national security experts to discuss water security as an issue of growing visibility.

The first of two panels focused on defining objectives, trends, challenges, and opportunities of water security and scarcity. Moderated by Dr. John Kelly (Professor of National Security Studies at the National Defense University), it consisted of MG Richard Engel (National Intelligence Council), Dr. Aaron Salzberg (Special Coordinator for Water Resources in the Office of Environmental Sustainability at the Department of State), Dr. Manish Bapna (Executive VP of World Resources Institute), Ms. Laura Harnish (VP of CH2M Hill Water Business Group), and Dr. Jerome Delli Priscoli (Senior Advisor at the Institte for Water Resources USACE, Governor of the World Water Council, and Editor in Chief of Water Policy).  The overarching argument of this panel was that water will lead to cross-border cooperation rather than conflict.

The second panel discussed what the U.S. government and private sectors are doing to provide solutions to Africa’s water security problems.  Moderated by LTG Jeffrey Talley (Chief and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Reserve), it consisted of Dr. Julia Bucknall (Senior Manager of the Water Anchor at the World Bank), Mr. Christian Holmes (Global Water Coordinator for USAID), Mr. Jeff Seabright (VP of Environment and Water Resources for The Coca-Cola Company), Dr. Jun Bando (Special Advisor to the Commander of AFRICOM), MG Chris Leins (Deputy Director for Political-Military Affairs for Africa in the Joint Staff J5), and Prince Ermais Sahle Selassie (President of the Crown Council of Ethiopia).  This panel emphasized the positive role of the private sector and public-private-partnerships in the uphill battle access to pure water.

Keynote Speaker LTG Thomas Bostick (the U.S. Army Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) cited the Tennessee River Valley Authority (TVA) as a strong example of conflict mitigation through water infrastructure development.  Cooperation instead of conflict over water was the primary theme of the event, as expounded by Dr. Aaron Wolf’s research showing “shared interests along a waterway seem to consistently outweigh water’s conflict-inducing characteristics.”

Despite numerous comments in support of this theory, not many examples of such cooperation were offered. In fact, MG Leins said that there are far too few mechanisms in place for cross-border agreements on water.  MG Engel and Dr. Bando paraphrased the 2012 NIC Report on Global Water Security: water is unlikely to be the sole cause inter- or intra-state conflict within the next decade; but water stress could combine with other social or political factors to lead to state collapse in the near future and could be used as leverage between states in the further future, leading to violence. Additionally, Dr. Bapna said that the current levels of water are more drastic than any levels predicted in even the most pessimistic IPCC studies. These points do not seem to lend themselves to cooperation between states.

Despite these seemingly negative points, the summit had an overall hopeful feel.  Ms. Harnish, Mr. Seabright, and Mr. Holmes emphasized the growing role of the private sector and public-private-partnerships in leading the way.  An example of this is Coca-Cola’s Replenish Africa Initiative that aims to provide safe water for over 2 million Africans by 2015.  Points like this show that it is important not to fall into the “Malthusian trap” of water scarcity, Dr. Priscoli warned, as this could lead to conflict in and of itself.

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