Water wars won’t be won on a battlefield

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Water shortage Cape Town

It’s an astonishing finding: “Two countries engaged in active water cooperation” will “not go to war, for any reason.” According to an extensive analysis by global issues think tank Strategic Foresight Group, it was found in examining 146 countries that share rivers, lakes and other freshwater resources, that “countries enjoying peaceful co-existence have active water cooperation and countries facing risk of war have low or no water cooperation.”

In fact, water is a popular target for terrorists. According to a U.S. Homeland Security report, between 2013 and 2015, ISIS alone launched nearly 20 major attacks against Syrian and Iraqi water infrastructure. When ISIS seized the Fallujah Dam, it gained dangerous leverage over local governments and populations by cutting off water to Christian, Kurdish, and Muslim minorities.

{mosads}Bashar Assad reportedly bombed water sources around Damascus to cut off water to 5.5 million people and the Taliban has attacked dams in Afghanistan multiple times and attempted to assassinate Afghanistan’s minister for energy and water in 2009. When the Somali government retook cities and ports, Al-Shabab cut off liberated cities from water sources and destroyed water supplies. Colombia’s FARC bombed an oil pipeline, polluting a major river that resulted in 150,000 people losing water in the country’s worst environmental disaster. In conflict-ridden eastern Ukraine, water treatment workers in Donetsk were regularly targeted as they struggled to keep clean water flowing to its 345,000 residents.

And just to drive the point home: A group of retired three- and four-star officers from across the U.S. military issued this report, The Role of Water Stress in Instability and Conflict, detailing the security threats that global water scarcity could pose for the U.S. and allies in coming years. In the next decade, some 2.9 billion people in 48 countries will face water shortages. Currently, 2.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water at home, and six in 10 lack safe sanitation globally.

On the anniversary of the launch of the first-ever U.S. Global Water Strategy, we must actively engage water security as a strategic path for U.S. foreign policy.

In November 2017, led by the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Trump administration launched the U.S. Global Water Strategy to bring together 17 federal agencies that overlap with various water policies and issues, in order to elevate and better coordinate this work across the government. Since then, new projects focused on improving water, sanitation, and hygiene (known collectively as WASH in the global health world) have begun and ongoing efforts have been aligned. In some nations, these efforts will create good jobs developing and managing a sustainable water supply, while in others it will reduce the spread of disease and lower the morbidity and mortality rates of young children. In all countries it will provide a stabilizing force for good.

I know from my 12 years in Congress that water is a place where conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats in both houses, can and do come together. In fact, bipartisan congressional efforts are the root of the U.S. Global Water Strategy.

When I served as Senate Majority Leader, I drafted in 2005 legislation to address the overall lack of safe water and sanitation in developing nations, which laid the groundwork for the progress we have made today. Called the Safe Water: A Currency for Peace Act, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid joined me in introducing this bill that made access to safe drinking water, basic sanitation, and hygiene a stated objective of U.S. foreign assistance. Having just returned from East Asia surveying the devastation of the tsunami on the coast of Sri Lanka, I stood on the Senate floor and shared with my colleagues the urgency of the matter: “Globally, in many ways, waterborne disease is a silent tsunami,” I explained, “every 15 seconds, a child dies because of a disease contracted from unclean water. … Fully 90 percent of infant deaths, of deaths of children less than 5 years of age, relate to waterborne illnesses, a product of lack of access to clean water or inadequate sanitation. In total, water-related illnesses kill 14,000 people a day, and most of them are children. … It is preventable.”

Our message struck a chord, and together in 2005 we passed the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act, renamed for our colleague and longtime water champion. Reauthorized as the Water for the World Act nine years later, the 2014 legislation built on our 2005 law’s mandate to develop a comprehensive national strategy to deliver “equitable access to safe water and sanitation in developing countries” by requiring the formation of first ever “single government-wide Global Water Strategy” by 2017.

The collaborative efforts of 2005 have brought us to the Global Water Strategy of today. Now it’s time to build on years of commitment and smart strategy with continued action.  

As federal agencies align, Congress should step up to the plate. Our elected officials would be wise to prioritize and integrate water into legislation that encompasses everything from global health and food security to pandemic readiness and prevention to improving HIV/AIDS work under PEPFAR. Congressional intelligence committees should urge the intelligence community to closely monitor regions where water imbalances could accelerate or magnify humanitarian disasters and security threats to the U.S. and our allies. And congressional appropriators must prioritize global water.

{mossecondads}We have had bipartisan champions of water on both sides of the aisle, but with the retirement of Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), we are in need of more conservative voices to take up this cause. Improving access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene is more than just a charitable thing to do. Studies have shown how this small sliver of our annual budget can stabilize nations, create allies, and improve U.S. global standing. As a doctor, I think of it as preventive treatment to avoid the costlier, more devastating outcome.

Our government can provide important strategic leadership and cost-effective funding to get ahead of water-accelerated conflicts; to get ahead of droughts so they don’t become famines; to get ahead of infectious diseases so they don’t become pandemics; to dramatically improve basic disease prevention by helping ministers of health create plans to equip the tens of thousands of healthcare facilities that currently operate without water and sanitation throughout the developing world.

This work is in America’s best interest. Global health and security improve economic outcomes and increase viable trade partners for American goods and services. There remains clear urgency and opportunity in increasing access to clean water. The U.S. Global Water Strategy must be increasingly included as a vital tool for U.S. defense, development, and diplomacy efforts across the globe. Water can be currency for global peace.

Bill Frist is a heart and lung transplant surgeon, former U.S. Senate majority leader, and founder and chairman of global health organization Hope Through Healing Hands. Follow him on Twitter at @bfrist.

Tags Bill Frist Harry Reid Jeff Flake water policy water security

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