(Reuters) – Fresh water supplies are unlikely to keep up with global demand by 2040, increasing political instability, hobbling economic growth and endangering world food markets, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment released on Thursday.
The report by the office of the Director of National Intelligence said that areas including South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa will face major challenges in coping with water problems that could hinder the ability to produce food and generate energy.
The Bottom Line: During the next 10 years, many regions will experience water challenges – shortages, poor water quality, or floods – that will increase the risk of instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important U.S. policy objectives. Between now and 2040, fresh water availability will not keep up with demand absent more effective management of water resources. Water problems will hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth. As a result of demographic and economic development pressures, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia will face major challenges coping with water problems.
The report said that a “water war” was unlikely in the next 10 years, but that the risk of conflict would grow with global water demand likely to outstrip current sustainable supplies by 40 percent by 2030.
“Beyond 10 years we did see the risk increasing,” a senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters. “It depends upon what individual states do and what actions are taken right now to work water management issues between states.”
The official declined to discuss the risks for specific countries, but in the past water disputes have contributed to tensions between rivals including nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, Israel and the Palestinians, and Syria and Iraq.
The report, drafted principally by the Defense Intelligence Agency and based on a classified national intelligence estimate, said that water in shared basins would increasingly be used by states to pressure their neighbors.
“The use of water as a weapon or to further terrorist objectives also will become more likely,” it said, noting that vulnerable water infrastructure was a tempting target.
The U.S. State Department requested the report, which is part of an effort by the Obama administration to assess how long-term issues such as climate change may affect U.S. national security.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to hold an event on Thursday to announce a new public-private initiative to grapple with water issues.
The report said that during the next 10 years, the over-pumping of ground water supplies in some agricultural areas will pose a risk to food markets and cause social disruption if mitigating steps such as drip irrigation and improved agricultural technology are not implemented.
It also said that through 2040 water shortages and pollution would likely harm the economic performance of important U.S. trading partners by limiting the use and development of hydro power, an important source of electricity for developing countries.
The report rated the management of several key water basins, and said the risks were greatest for the Brahmaputra which flows through India and Bangladesh and the Amu Darya in central Asia.
It said the chief drivers of increased water demand over the next 10 years would be population growth and economic development, although the impacts of climate change will play a growing role, particularly after 2040.
While the intelligence community believes there is no technological “silver bullet” on the horizon to improve water management, the report said the most important step to address the problem would be more efficient use for agriculture, which accounts for 70 percent of global fresh water use.
It also said the United States, which has expertise in water management in both the public and private sectors, could help lead in developing policies for improved global water use and international cooperation.
“The United States has opportunities for leadership, but we also saw it being a risk that if the United States wasn’t engaged in exercising that leadership, other states would step up to do that,” the intelligence official said.
Key Judgment A: We assess that during the next 10 years, water problems will contribute to instability in states important to U.S. national security interests. 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.
Key Judgment B: We assess that a water-related state-on-state conflict is unlikely during the next 10 years. Historically, water tensions have led to more water-sharing agreements than violent conflicts. However, we judge that as water shortages become more acute beyond the next 10 years, water in shared basins will increasingly be used as leverage; the use of water as a weapon or to further terrorist objectives also will become more likely beyond 10 years.
Key Judgment C: We judge that during the next 10 years the depletion of groundwater supplies in some agricultural areas – owing to poor management – will pose a risk to national and global food markets.
Key Judgment D: We assess that from now through 2040 water shortages and pollution probably will harm the economic performance of important trading partners.
Key Judgment E: We judge that, from now through 2040, improved water management (e.g., pricing, allocations, and “virtual water” trade) and investments in water-related sectors (e.g., agriculture, power, and water treatment) will afford the best solutions for water problems. Because agriculture uses approximately 70 percent of the global fresh water supply, the greatest potential for relief from water scarcity will be through technology that reduces the amount of water needed for agriculture.