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Lack of Water Access Could Cause Increasing Conflict: Water Security Summit

WASHINGTON, DC, United States

If lack of access to safe drinking water becomes more prevalent, due primarily to population growth and climate change, conflict over the limited resource will likely also increase, according to a one-day summit held in Washington DC on September 10.

The event, “Water Security and Conflict Prevention Summit,” held at the US Institute of Peace, was co-hosted by the Association of the United States Army and the US Water Partnership (USWP).

“Water is already causing conflict,” warned US Institute of Peace President Jim Marshall, who gave the opening remarks. General Gordon R. Sullivan, president of the Association of the US Army, agreed, saying “lack of access to water is becoming a source of conflict.”

However, the summit’s keynote speaker, LTG Thomas Bostick, US Army Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the US Army Corp of Engineers, said that “water plays a powerful role in society” and so should not just be viewed as a source of conflict. It can also bring together adversaries and open dialogue, he said.

Bostick cited three recent major floods -- the Mississippi River flood of 2011, the Yangtze River flood of 2011 and the Indus River flood of 2012. Although the floods in the United States and China were record floods, decades of infrastructure planning and building reduced the cost in terms of damage and lives lost, while the flood in Pakistan was devastating, costing the country thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

Investment in water management is an effective tool for capturing water when available and providing it when it is not, he added.

L-R, MG Richard Engal, national Intelligence Council;Dr. Aaron Salzberg;Dr Manish Bapna, Executive Vice President, World Resources Institute;Dr John Kelly Professor of national Security Studies, National Defense University;Laura Harnish;Dr Jerome Delli Prisocli

Dr. Aaron Salzberg, special coordinator for Water Resources at the US State Department’s Office of Environmental Sustainability, who participated in the summit’s panel on “Water Security and Scarcity-defining objectives, trends, challenges and opportunities” urged participants not to get caught up in the “water wars rhetoric,” because such wars are extremely rare. What might look like a water dispute is often not, he said; the process of dialogue is what matters, so that institutions can be created to deal with any future conflicts.

Laura Harnish, vice president for CH2MHILL Water Business Group said the private sector has many roles to play in water security: It can provide technological and scientific expertise; help with transparent planning and decision-making; provide trusted advisors to government and civil society; facilitate stakeholder engagement; integrate interconnected issues like water and food, energy, ecosystems; provide local and cultural connectivity and sensitivity; and provide volunteers.

Dr. Jerome Delli Priscoli, senior advisor at the USACE’s Institute for Water Resources and governor of the World Water Council, said most water-related crises are not do to an absolute scarcity issue, but rather are an issue of poor distribution. The majority of the world’s people live in areas that receive all of their water during only certain times of the year, he said.

He said the relationship between good governance and water management is becoming more and more important, but it is also important not to “fall into the trap” of water versus population growth, because this could “help to cause the conflicts we are working to avoid.”

L-R, Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie, Jun Bando, MG Chris Leins,LTG Jeff Talley, Jeff Seabright, Christian Holmes, Dr. Julia Bucknall

Christian Holmes, Global Water Coordinator at the US Agency for International Development told a second panel, "Africa-What the US can and is willing to do to provide solutions to water security problems" that there is a fundamental need for more research and for sharing this research and management tools.

“Fifty years from now people will see today as a time when a large body of information was put together,” he said.

Prince Ermais Sahle Selassie, president of the Crown Council of Ethiopia, said access to water has been the easiest part of the equation for his country.

“Eighty percent of the diseases in Africa are waterborne,” he said. Plant life is also disappearing because people know they must boil water before use, and so are taking everything they can to constantly burn fires.

“Without health as foundation, development can not expand,” he said.


This story is brought to readers free in association with Singapore International Water Week.