Small Wars Journal

Water Security Conflicts: A Regional Perspective

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 5:30am

On the 1st of April 2014, the world was caught off guard when the Syrian Air Force attacked the power plant facilities at Karkamis Dam in the upstream of the Euphrates River 4.5 kilometers north of the Turkey-Syrian border. Two people were reportedly killed and six more injured.

After taking office as the new Syrian President in June 2013, Adib Al-Atassi declared Turkey’s construction of the dam was depleting downstream water from the Euphrates. He claimed Turkey was withdrawing too much water from the river basin and preventing it from reaching downstream Syria and Iraq.

According to Syrian officials, a dozen Russian Su-22 Fitter jets launched more than 250 rockets at the power plant, aiming for trucks, power lines, transformers, and main towers. Gen Hafez Al-Quwatli, Chief of the Syrian Armed Forces, told the press that the dam itself was not being targeted because of the obvious danger to the people living downstream. “We are only targeting equipment and materiel for now; we want to show Turkey that we are serious in defending our right to a vital resource that should flow unrestricted and does not belong to any country but to all humans.”

In response, twenty Turkish F-16C jets launched a similar strike on Syria’s Tichrin and Tabqa dams, located on the Syrian side of the Euphrates. Twelve people were reported killed and another twenty injured.

The same day, Turkish troops clashed with Syrian border troops, advancing and expanding the disputed Hatay Province some fifty miles to the south into Syrian territory. Hatay Province, formerly known as Alexandretta, a semi-autonomous part of French-mandated Syria, became independent from France in 1937 and was annexed to Turkey in 1939. Syria claims that Hatay was illegally ceded to Turkey by France and still considers it an integral part of Syrian territory.

President Alib Al-Atassi took power after Bashar Al-Assad was forced to resign by domestic and international (Russian and Iranian) pressure in June 2013. Al-Atassi had been unable to bring stability to the country and the Turkish government held the view that Al-Atassi was trying to direct attention to the Hatay Province and water issues in order to rally domestic support and turn away attention from its own internal problems.

Pressured by uprisings in several main cities and by a severe drought that had struck northern Syria, the government denounced Turkish water flow reduction of the Euphrates. By extracting vast quantities of water for irrigation purposes, Syria claimed the results were severe droughts in its downstream northwestern provinces.

Several efforts were made to appease an unsatisfied, thirsty Syria but the International Community had not been able to reach an agreement. Diplomatic attempts were overrun by mutual accusations of border violations and alleged support to terrorist groups.

Although the scenario portrayed above is fictional, the conditions described are plausible if international leaders neglect this water-related issue that, combined with other national security aspects, can escalate to become an igniter for interstate armed conflict.


Water scarcity has received a lot of attention over the last three decades. It has been predicted to be the source of future wars and many experts have publicly warned about the dangers of water scarcity as the main factor for armed conflict in the Middle East and Africa.  Despite the predictions by experts in this field, there is still no evidence that water or even food scarcity has been the single or most important cause for an interstate war.

It could be that the attention given to the issue at national, regional, and global levels produced initiatives to reduce this possibility. Another reason may be that the high costs of war in human lives and resources has made it less attractive while regional and bilateral cooperation proved more effective and less costly in addressing the issue.

Whatever the reasons behind water scarcity’s relatively low correlation with armed conflict, the combination of a water-related dispute with other conditions may fuel radicalization of national security objectives or interstate armed conflict.  Furthermore, a U.S. intelligence report on Global Water Security stated that water scarcity will become a source for failed states by 2023.[1]

Water scarcity is one of the major problems in the Area of Responsibility (AOR) of U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), especially in the Middle East.  Water availability in these countries is among the lowest in the world.  As most water in the region is used for agricultural purposes,[2] its scarcity not only affects human consumption and domestic use but also brings the ensuing possibility of food scarcity and the potential for internal or regional conflict that comes with it.

Food shortages are closely interrelated with water scarcity. Water sources, like rivers and lakes, not only quench human thirst but also irrigate soils to produce food at a scale that greatly impacts human consumption and national economies. This article will explain how dangerous water scarcity may become in the region, how it can affect the countries involved, and how military leaders, especially in USCENTCOM, may best prepare for such this kind of contingencies.


To better understand water scarcity, it will be discussed in terms of demand and supply. There are trends throughout the region that evidence an increase in water demand and a concurrent decrease in governments’ capability to keep up.


The most important trend that affects the demand for water is Population Growth, which directly increases the pressure over available resources and production capabilities in a country. The world’s population grew to seven billion people in October 2011. Concurrently, the population in the Middle East has doubled in the last three decades[3] and it keeps growing at a rate of approximately 6.8 million people per year. This means that every day in the Middle East, the demand for water (and food) supplies increases by almost 19,000.

Although the basic natural use of water is human consumption, the real challenge lies in the availability of water for large scale irrigation and food production to feed the people or to obtain revenue from agricultural exports. Therefore, Population Growth in a country not only increases demand for domestic water consumption but also for large quantities of food (which requires considerable amounts of water). In the region, only 12 percent of the water is used for domestic consumption purposes, whereas 84 percent is used in Agriculture (See Table 1).


Despite the growing demand for water, there is no evidence that supply in the region is able to keep pace. On the contrary, evidence points to a decrease in availability.  Due to the growth of the population and other geographic trends, including climate change and depletion of aquifers, the availability of water for the people in the Middle East has fallen more than one half in the last thirty years (from 3,645 cubic meters of annual renewable fresh water per capita in 1970, to an average of 1,640 cubic meters in 2001), and it keeps shrinking.[4]

Experts measure water availability in terms of annual renewable freshwater per person. In quantifiable terms, a “water-scarce” country is one with total renewable freshwater resources below 1,000 cubic meters per person per year.[5] According to this definition, eleven of the world’s fifteen water-scarce countries are located in the USCENTCOM AOR (highlighted in red in Table 1).



Besides the natural geographic inclination to water scarcity in the region, there are three other major factors that have a direct impact on the supply side: poor planning in the use of water for irrigation purposes; inadequate agriculture strategies that rely on massive production of water-intensive crops; and the large-scale reduction in the export of harvested food crops in some countries out of the region, either for domestic biofuel production or simply to balance their own economy.

First, many countries extract massive amounts of water for irrigation purposes by overpumping underground water (pumping beyond capability to recharge) and by diverting water from rivers and lakes. Although it has economic benefits in the agricultural sector, this practice decreases the availability of water at a dangerous rate in a region that annually experiences increasingly severe droughts.

For example, the disproportionate use of the water of the Jordan River basin, coupled with drastic climate changes in the region, has shrunk the Dead Sea by one third in the last four decades; its water level continues sinking one meter every year.

 Another example of poor water management is the shrinking of the Aral Sea. Irrigation projects along its main tributaries - the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers - since the 1960s have shrunk the Aral Sea to less than 30 percent its original size, and it has lost its title as the world’s fourth largest lake;[6] it is now the world’s 31st largest lake.

Second, agriculture, in some countries in the region, relies too much on water-intensive crops that consume vast amounts of water at a rate higher than geographic and environmental conditions are able to support.

An example of poorly planned, water-intensive agriculture is found in Yemen. Strategic economic changes led the country to greatly expand its cultivated and irrigated land, thereby increasing demand for water for agricultural purposes.  In order to boost agriculture output and to meet social demands, Yemen switched from traditionally grown drought-resistant crops in the 1970s to more water-intensive crops such as citrus and banana. This was followed by a dramatic increase in the cultivation of Khat (or Qat), another water-intensive plant with a leaf that is chewed as a stimulant in Yemeni culture. Another unmanageable factor was Yemen’s population surge.  The Yemeni population has more than doubled since 1975, and it has grown approximately 35 percent since 1994, and continues growing,[7] even though Yemen is the third driest country in the Middle East (Table 1), and the availability of water is very unlikely to increase.

Water activist, Lakis Polycarpou, suggests that measures at the national level changed Yemen’s agriculture to the point of unsustainability.  Rising food prices and water scarcity were important factors in the social uprisings in this Middle Eastern country in the late 1990s and at the beginning of the last decade.

Despite the ousting of the Yemeni president and reforms in the Government, water scarcity and high food prices are most likely to remain a source of continued political unrest and possible armed struggle in the future.

Third, major shifts in food crop exports have a disrupting effect on the global food market. On one side, many food-crop exporting countries outside the USCENTCOM AOR are shifting their agriculture production to alternative fuel. This shifts massive amounts of water to produce fuel-crops, thereby reducing production and export of food crops. This large-scale shift reduces the available water for food production and increases food prices in the world market. On the other side, some countries have made major shifts in their strategic planning in order to balance their own water supply deficits, causing a similar effect.

For example in 2009, the U.S. shifted production of 119 million tons of grain (about one quarter of its 416 million-ton harvest) to produce ethanol. This crop production could be used to feed 350 million people for one year. As another example, the world’s second largest rice provider, India, banned the export of rice, wheat flour and other agricultural products.

This change caused a decline in India’s rice export by 4.8 million tons to the international market in 2008 and solved its dependence on exports, but it simultaneously caused a rise in food prices that directly affected Middle Eastern buyers.


Water scarcity alone may not be a threat to national and regional peace and security, but if combined with other factors, it may become one of the main causes for state failure or even interstate war. These conditions may include poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions.[8]

Water, like all natural resources, has three major characteristics. First, it is embedded in a transnational, social, and economic space, and it may generate conflicts among peoples and within and among countries. Second, it is subject to increasing scarcity, and its consumption and use may be complicated by unequal distribution or environmental problems creating unrest within a country’s boundaries and/or with its neighbors. Third, water is often used symbolically to promote national identity or for ideological, social, and political purposes.[9]

History is full of examples in which water has been used as a symbol to boost national identity, and it has been politicized to rally popular support, many times for rather unrelated causes.  Ironically, history also shows examples in which water conflicts have produced water-sharing agreements.[10]

A natural consequence of a country building a dam upstream a river is the shortage of water for the downstream countries when it is used for irrigation before it reaches the outlet. Climate change, global warming, and poor water management are trends that make water increasingly scarce.


There are five major transnational river basins in the USCENTCOM AOR that have a disputed history: the Jordan River Basin, the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, the Amu Darya-Syr Darya Basin, the Indus River Basin, and the Nile River Basin. Most of these conflicts have not been resolved and remain sources of instability in the region.

Existing bilateral and multilateral agreements among riparian nations – countries sharing the river basin – help prevent disputes from turning into armed struggle, but conflicts still remain and governments must monitor and apply the appropriate diplomatic treatment to maintain peace in the region.

Jordan River Basin. Since the 1950s, the Jordan River Basin has been a source of conflict among Israel, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The main issue has been the extraction of water for irrigation purposes and the effect that it has on the downstream riparian nations. Israel uses the greatest amount of water available in the Basin, followed by Jordan and Syria. The Israeli-occupied West Bank uses the smallest amount. Disagreements among riparian parties are still the primary source of tensions. Escalating tensions in the 1960s between Israel and its neighbors over the exploitation of the Jordan River Basin contributed to the 1967 Six-Day War. In 1964, Israel bombed the headwaters of the Dan River on the Jordan River, at Tell el-Qadi, in a dispute with Syria about sovereignty over the source of the Dan. Later in 1965 and 1966, both countries exchanged fire over a Syrian plan to divert the Jordan River headwaters (Hasbani and Banias rivers) and presumably preempt Israel’s National Water Carrier, an Israeli project aimed at integrating all major water projects into a national grid. Syria halted construction of its diversion in July 1966. Finally, in 1967, Israel destroyed the Arab diversion works during the Six-day War; it occupied the West Bank and the Golan Heights.[11]

In this case, the water dispute was only a contributing factor and it combined with political, religious, economic and territorial disputes. Nonetheless, the patterns of water use have not changed significantly and there is still no formal agreement that addresses the issue to the full satisfaction of all parties. The water conflict in the Jordan River Basin continues to be a source of political instability in the region and demands attention from the international community and regional actors in order to prevent it from escalating to more dangerous levels.

Tigris/Euphrates Basin. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers originate in Turkey, and their waters are shared by Syria and Iraq. All three countries have built dams on the rivers for purposes of agriculture, hydroelectric power, and industrialization. Syria obtains approximately 85 percent of its renewable water supply from the Basin, while Iraq obtains 100 percent; Turkey is the least dependent on the rivers. The dams on the Turkish side however, prevent a portion of the water from flowing downstream to the warmer, drier countries. Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP in Turkish) is an ambitious multi-sector development project intended to build 22 dams, 19 power plants, and irrigation schemes. It also plans to divert water from these rivers into the Harran field to irrigate some 1.7 million hectares of land.

Controversy sparked over the consequences for downstream Syria and Iraq. Turkey proposes a solution with a needs-based approach that calculates the amount of water to be needed by each country, to assign the appropriate proportional quotas. Syria and Iraq, in turn, propose a mathematical formula that will calculate demand versus supply, in order to reach a further agreement over the remaining surplus (in the case that supply exceeds demand) in an equitable matter. However, external factors have complicated the prospects of a multilateral agreement. Turkey’s closing relations with Israel has prompted improved relations between Syria and Iraq to assume a united front.

Amu Darya/Syr Darya River Basin. Water provided by these two rivers is a vital factor for the economies in Central Asia and a possible source of conflict. These two rivers flow from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan into the Aral Sea, feeding the national economies of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union’s central government managed water from these rivers. In the summer, upstream republics Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan released water from their lakes to downstream republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan for irrigation and hydroelectric power generation. In return, during the winter – when it was not practical to release water –the downstream republics provided those upstream with gas and coal to generate electricity. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, national interests took hold as administrational boundaries became national boundaries in 1991. After several disputes over the previous arrangements, the five countries signed the Almaty Agreement in 1992, which basically kept the water quotas of the Soviet era in place. The issue appeared to be settled, but riparian Afghanistan, which was largely ignored by Soviet interests and left out of the Almaty Agreement, has now emerged.[12]

Water use still remains a source of contention in this region, and it raises concerns among the riparian countries over losing the water resources to meet the demands of their agricultural sectors and growing populations.

Indus River Basin. Water management in the Indus River Basin has been the source of conflict between India and Pakistan. Extending for about 1,800 miles, the river flows through China (2 percent), India (5 percent) and Pakistan (95 percent). The Indus and its tributaries together are considered to make up one of the largest irrigation canals in the world. The Basin provides water to millions of people in northwestern India and Pakistan. Both countries have built dams and canals to provide hydropower and irrigation. As a result, these projects have dried up stretches of the river and caused displacements of people, contributing to the destruction of the ecosystem in the Indus plain. Pakistan and India signed the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) in 1960, which is the main legal instrument that binds both countries’ water management of the river, but controversy over the Baglihar Dam has sparked disputes in which Pakistan claims that India is exceeding the Treaty’s assigned quotas. Although the IWT has proven to serve as an effective tool to resolve it, the issue is subject to politicization and manipulation by both parties and remains a source of tension.

Nile River Basin. The Nile's waters have been a source of conflict in East Africa and the Horn of Africa for many decades. Riparian nations are Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Egypt. Egypt and Sudan have traditionally been the primary users of Nile water. Political instability and poverty in the other riparian countries have made it difficult to develop and exploit its waters. In February 1999, after years of conflict, the water ministries of the Nile’s nine riparian countries officially launched the Nile Basin Initiative in an attempt to “develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial economic benefits, and to promote regional peace and security.”


Besides the water-related issues in the major river basins, there is the potential that U.S. efforts to bolster the economic development of Afghanistan may be hampered by the country’s water scarcity.   The U.S. is assisting the Afghan Government to exploit the country’s vast mineral and energy resources (identified by the U.S. Geological Service, among other sources) as well as constructing a railroad and highway network to increase regional trade opportunities and create jobs. However, mining requires two important elements that are very scarce in this war-torn country: energy and water.

As noted in Table 1, Afghanistan is already a water-scarce country with a capacity to withdraw 779 cubic meters of renewable freshwater per person, per year (well below the 1,000 m3 water scarcity threshold). Despite years of work performed by the international community, only 46 percent of the Afghan population has access to an improved water source.[13]

Additionally, almost three decades of war have left a poorly maintained and badly damaged power grid in Afghanistan.  As of June 2011, only 36 percent of the population had access to electricity. Without sustained international aid, the Afghan Government will be incapable of delivering the electric generation required to support its mining projects.

A risk from mining is contamination of the existent water resources with severe consequences for the population.  Afghanistan’s economic situation prevents it from undertaking construction of large power producing plants and, as described above, a landlocked Afghanistan finds it difficult to claim riparian rights to build dams along the Amu Darya River.

Adding to the complexity of the water scarcity problem, the Afghan Government has been unable to organize national efforts to ensure successful water management. The Ministry of Energy and Water claims it has jurisdiction over national hydropower projects; the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock also claims such jurisdiction when it comes to the use of the water; the Ministry of Mines claims such jurisdiction by virtue of its cognizance over the country’s underground water resources.  To date, an appointed inter-agency commission has not provided a successful policy for water management at a provincial or national level.

Given the size of the mining reserves, and the New Silk Road Initiative (NSRI)[14] planned to boost Afghanistan’s economy, water scarcity in this country is an important issue to resolve if it is to succeed in developing economically and integrating into the regional economy.

How can the problem of water scarcity be addressed?

Governments cope with each of their particular water scarcity difficulties in different ways. In the near–term, governments have several options to deal with their challenges of increasing supply, but they have few options for reducing the demand for water.

First, the use of technology has helped introduce desalination, sequential recycling, and other water conservation techniques. Desalinated sea water is one of the major sources for potable water in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)[15] countries. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are the top producers of desalinated water among them. Although the process is normally expensive, production keeps growing steadily, and it has become an important part of these water-scarce countries’ water resource strategies. Sequential recycling is based on a simple logical recycling of water resources in the following priority: human consumption, industrial use, and agriculture use. Water used in households is reclaimed to be reused for other purposes (e.g., irrigation or industrial cooling processes). Conservation and optimization techniques (e.g., drip irrigation) have proven to reduce water use between 30 to 70 percent while increasing crop yields 20 to 90 percent, compared with traditional irrigation. The inclusion of fertilizers in drip irrigation water is also a technique used for the distribution of chemicals in a more economical way.[16] It is important to note that the GCC are rich countries that can afford the technology necessary to be successful in this area. Other countries like Yemen have serious difficulties trying to envision projects that require large investments in technology.

Second, water management consciousness has evolved into strategic attitude changes in some countries. An example of this is the reduction of cultivation of water-intensive crops and the compensating increased importation of these selected crops that are no longer produced.

A key concept to remember is virtual water, which hydrological experts define as “the amount of water used to produce a good or service.” For example, it takes an average of 1,300 cubic meters of water to produce one metric ton of wheat.[17]

Another important concept is virtual water trade, which refers to the idea that exchanging goods and services is the same as exchanging the equivalent “virtual water” associated with them. Under this concept, water-scarce countries may purchase food crops equivalent to significant amounts of virtual water, or exchange these crops for products they can produce without restrictions. For example, purchasing - instead of producing - 1,000 metric tons of wheat would spare a country approximately 1.3 million m3 of water, which can then be used to quench other consumption needs.

However, this approach requires bilateral and multilateral cooperation, the legal framework to support it, as well as sufficient funds to import food crops equivalent to significant amounts of virtual water. With appropriate and timely government intervention, the agricultural sectors of water-rich countries may sell their surplus crops and food products to buyers, who, in turn, make payment in kind via exchange of their own goods with selling countries.  For example, many countries in the USCENTCOM AOR import between 50 -90 percent of their food requirements.[18]

In theory, globalization and world trade make it easier for water-scarce countries to cope with their lack of readily available water supplies. Bilateral and multilateral free trade and cooperation agreements may be viable options for water-scarce countries to ensure that their populace has uninterrupted access to adequate water supplies.

Third, the creation of national or regional food and water strategic reserves with the capacity to respond to winter or disaster needs has also proven itself to be an important national capability. Developing such a strategic water reserve requires countries to make significant investments in physical and transportation infrastructure, as well as to conclude appropriate agreements with other countries to maintain a balanced flow of food imports. Furthermore, developing regional-level reserves would require even higher degrees of investment and cooperation in order to be effective.

What can military leaders do?

There is considerable literature explaining what governments can do to ameliorate their water scarcity problems, but implementing solutions requires leadership at the national, regional, and global levels and the appropriate diplomacy to actively engage and prevent conflicts from becoming either internal or interstate conflicts. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced the launching of the United States Water Partnership (USWP), a U.S.-based program that seeks to mobilize public and private assets to address water issues around the globe, especially in the developing world. The aim of USWP is to engage water-stressed areas in the world to solve water challenges by sharing expertise, promoting and sharing technology, and fostering water management capacity. Although not a formal member, the Department of Defense (DoD) participates in USWP through work performed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

At a military strategy level, a DoD whitepaper explains the importance of this issue to the U.S. and how it relates to its National Security Strategy and National Military Strategy. In “DoD/COCOM Water Security Program Strategy,”[19] Erik Fleischner argues that Water Security be incorporated into DoD strategy and combatant command (COCOMs) Theater Security programs. His recommendations include the identification of the water security scope, possible helpful stakeholders, potential partners and programs, possible gaps and ways to prioritize them, and potential actions to close the gaps and funding sources. He also suggests ways to develop processes to implement programs and performance metrics, and portrays ideas on how to begin execution and continue coordination within DoD and with U.S. partners. The white paper explains how COCOMs can and should use their own assets as well as combine them with the assets of partners to develop an effective water security strategy in their specific AOR.

These recommendations could be implemented via increased support to USWP. By committing departmental and military assets to support USWP efforts in affected countries in each AOR, DoD would assist the U.S. to better achieve its national interests on a regional and global scale.


Water scarcity disputes and tensions, if left unaddressed or unsuccessfully resolved, may lead to increased levels of violence and armed conflict that undermine intrastate, interstate, regional, and international peace and security.

The successful management of water scarcity is a leadership problem of strategic import and, as such, demands that civilian and military senior leaders include water management as a key component of a country’s national security and military strategies.  This explicit recognition of the importance of water scarcity should be followed by the adoption of appropriate policies, plans, and programs enabling a country to responsibly manage its own water resources as well as its relations regarding water scarcity issues with other countries.

When not appropriately managed by national leaders, water shortages  can be expected to result in increased food and water prices, diminished access to affordable food and water by indigenous populations, and increased anti-government sentiments.  These events may trigger political and social unrest and increase economic imbalances that escalate into armed conflict at the local, regional, national, regional, and global levels.

It is not axiomatic that water shortages and resulting high food prices, in and of themselves, may be the cause of intrastate and/or interstate armed conflict but rather whether, and how competently, governments manage their water scarcity challenges.  In fact, governments have demonstrated that their interventions in domestic water production and consumption patterns, along with diplomatic moves to generate economic alliances that ensure access to water and food for the people, may diffuse underlying tensions that otherwise would lead to violence and in many instances armed conflict.

It is unfortunate that some governments may attempt to use a water scarcity crisis for their parochial political purposes.  Leaders of such governments may view such a crisis as an opportunity to lay blame on the political opposition.  Political opposition leaders themselves may attempt to exploit such a crisis to underscore their long-standing political, economic, and social grievances to exacerbate unrest and provoke anti-government protests, rebellions, and other anti-government behavior.

Although future conflicts triggered by unaddressed or unresolved water scarcity issues are not necessarily imminent, it is important to monitor all aspects and possible sources of such potential conflicts in order to be able to timely intervene to prevent escalation to large-scale intrastate and/or interstate armed conflict.

Finally, as previously discussed, water management is a critical issue for the Afghanistan government and its allies and partners to “get right” in the country’s reconstruction efforts.  None of the major reconstruction and development programs being undertaken in Afghanistan will enable it to become economically viable without ensuring the national government is able to manage the water-related issues in the major river basins and the country’s water scarcity.


USCENTCOM and other U.S. regional COCOMs, especially U.S. Africa Command, should address water scarcity and its effects on national, regional, and global peace and security in their deliberate and contingency planning processes.  It is recommended that these regional COCOMs leverage available civil government, non-profit, and private sector experts; enhance mil-to-mil relations with counterpart defense establishments; and make greater use of the interagency process to boost a “whole of government approach” to solving water scarcity challenges at the regional level.

The issue of water scarcity can be highly technical and complex and, as such, it should be addressed by leading experts in the relevant scientific, engineering, economic, agricultural, and political disciplines to provide COCOM senior leaders with actionable recommendations on how to prevent and/or mitigate crisis arising from water scarcity.  COCOMs may wish to consider creating specialized cells within their headquarters organizations to perform continuous monitoring of water scarcities and evaluate the first, second, and tertiary order effects.  The goal is for COCOM commanders to provide continuous situational awareness enabling them to decide whether, and how best, to intervene before a crisis develops due to unresolved water scarcity challenges rather than only allow them to react to a resulting military and humanitarian crisis.

With respect to its AOR, USCENTCOM should specifically monitor the five main river basins as potential sources of water-related conflict in order to analyze their impact on the region’s political and economic stability. The analysis should conclude with traditional military courses of action as well as recommended courses of action that can be implemented by the U.S. interagency.

USCENTCOM should also seek to become an active participant in the USWP to advance measures and programs that provide information and constitute the basis for U.S. Government initiatives in its AOR.

Finally, the U.S. should include water management as an important part of its reconstruction strategy and economic development program in Afghanistan.  Additionally, the U.S. should leverage its interagency capabilities to facilitate increased dialogue between the Afghan Government and the governments of its neighbors to address riparian rights; support the formation of a national authority that addresses the matter with a holistic view; provide the technical support necessary to implement water management strategies, and broker agreements between its key allies and partners to bolster the water management capabilities of the Afghan Government. The recently announced USWP appears to be a relevant tool for the U.S. diplomatic and economic approach to implement U.S. strategy in this matter.

[1] U.S. Director of National Intelligence, U.S. Intelligence Community, Intelligence Community Assessment: Global Water Security, ICA 2012-08, 2 February 2012, page 3.

[2] World Water Development Report 2 (WWDR 2), UNESCO 2006, 7 Place de Fontenoy, 75007 Paris, France, figure 8.3: Water Use by Industry vs. Domestic Use and Agriculture, page 279.

[3] Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi, Liz Creel, and Roger-Mark De Souza; Finding the Balance: Population and Water Scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa, Population Reference Bureau, July 2002, Table 1, Population Growth and Fresh Water in MENA, p. 4

[4] Roudi-Fahimi, Creel, and De Souza, p. 4

[5] Roudi-Fahimi, Creel, and De Souza, p. 2

[6] Victor Dukhovni, David Sokolov, Scientific Information Center of the Interstate Commission for Water Coordination in Central Asia, UNESCO/IHP/WWAP, p 33.

[7] Roudi-Fahimi, Creel, and De Souza, p. 4

[8] U.S. Director of National Intelligence, U.S. Intelligence Community, page 3.

[9] Dr. Rita Padawangi and Dr. Arpita Mathur, panelists of Session I: Inter-state Water Conflicts-An Overview, Symposium on Inter-Ste Water Conflicts in Southern Asia, Report, Singapore, South Asia Programme of the RSIS Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies and RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, February 2011.

[10] U.S. Director of National Intelligence, U.S. Intelligence Community, page 3.

[11] Dr. Peter H. Gleick, Water Conflict Chronology, Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, November 2008, p. 12

[12] Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, “Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia’s Growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan”, A majority Staff Report presented to Congress’ 112th Session, Washington DC, February 2011.

[13] WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, Estimates for the Use of Improved Drinking-Water Sources, Afghanistan, Updated March 2012, p. 1.

[14] The U.S. Department of State has described the Obama Administration vision for the NSRI as integrating the Afghan economy into the regional economy via “hardware” (e.g., building pipelines and power grids) and “software” (e.g., reducing regional customs barriers) approaches.  Joshua Kucera, “The New Silk Road?”, The Diplomat (11 November 2011).

[15] Created in May, 1981, the GCC is a political and economic union  organization that includes the Arab States bordering the Persian Gulf and located on or near the Arabian Peninsula, namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates.

[16] Roudi-Fahimi, Creel, and De Souza, p. 6

[17] A. Y. Hoekstra · A. K. Chapagain, Water footprints of nations: Water Use by People as a Function of their Consumption Pattern, Water Resource Manage (2007) 21:35–48, p. 36-39.

[18] Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP), The Global Food Crisis: Middle Eastern Dimensions, 2011.

[19] Erik Fleischner, U.S. European Command Liaison Officer to HQ U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, DOD/COCOM Water Security Program Strategy, White Paper HQUSEUCOM, April 2010.


About the Author(s)

Col Nelson E. Hernández is a Command pilot with more than 2,000 of flying hours, who has served in the El Salvador Air Force for 30 years. He graduated from the Salvadoran Military Academy in 1984, and has done studies in the United States for Pilot Training, Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College and Air War College in Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Col Hernández has commanded several units in the Salvadoran Air Force from Squadron to Air Brigade level, and served as Chief of the General Staff during 2010 and 2011. He served in Iraq as a Chief Planner in the Multinational Force-Iraq staff in 2005, and is currently working at USCENTCOM as the El Salvador Representative and also as an Action Officer in the Combined Planning Group (CCJ5/CPG).



Thu, 01/14/2021 - 3:20pm

In reply to by GHD


I do agree with you that the U.S. does not have to do all this alone. There are several countries with the resources to fund Water Security projects in the Middle East. If this were the case, I would suggest the U.S. lead the effort with an equal or equivalent participation in terms of funds. The leading nature of the U.S. participation must not be neglected, or the regional effort itself would simply not happen.

I don't see the problem with these countries being muslim, and I neither think they are not true U.S. allies. I give you the point about their true alliance nature. We need to remember the fact that an alliance is a bilateral or multilateral relationship based on mutual interests. Nothing more, nothing less.

"So why should the American taxpayer be paying for a very expensive water security system"? Because it is in the U.S. diplomatic interests. So the whole reccomendation should be based on a previous assesment of what exactly the U.S. interests are in the region and in the countries involved.

I don't deem necessary to get into an argument about U.S. interests in the Middle East. I think the fact that the U.S. has fought two wars there and is currently fighting one, should be enough to consider the Middle East as a region the U.S. cannot disconnect from.

Some can even argue that these wars could have been prevented should the U.S. have paid more attention to this region.


Every country you have listed in Table 1 is No. 1 Muslim, & No. 2, not a true ally of America or just a fair weather ally at question as to where their true alliance lays, so why should the American taxpayer be paying for a very expensive water security system (think TVA) while they sit on their backsides hating the country that is trying to help them?.

Many of these countries have enormous wealth or are satellites of countries who could help them establish water security (i.e. vast numbers of reservoirs throughout the country, instead of watching the annual rains wash out to sea, often inundating the countryside), but instead they refuse to help their own countries prepare to survive for the future...too sad.

"...the U.S. should include water management as an important part of its reconstruction strategy and economic development program?"

Au contraire...the U.S. needs to get out of the reconstruction business all together & start letting these welfare states, or countries who continue to milk the USA teat in spite of their wealth, start taking care of themselves.

It might lead to a new reorganization of states such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, Philippines, Cambodia, etc., who cannot seem to get their act together, but that is not really America's concern...we have to start taking care of issues that "Directly Effect" the national security of the USA & stay out of everyone else's business.