Water rights

Global access to water could bring national security to all

The lack of access to water in unstable developing countries is an international security threat. Although the United Nations declared 2013 as the “International Year of Water Cooperation,” solutions to international water issues will not be met unless the global north directs foreign aid dollars to improve reliable access water, sanitation, and hygiene. Contrary to persistent beliefs, such aid has substantial international security bases.

Aid systems and development policy must support a system that is responsive to complex community-level needs because the labyrinth of water, sanitation and hygiene issues exists at the confluence of health, education and equity problems. Root causes of global economic and political instability are linked to poverty, inequality and unemployment. The rapid rise in global poverty has accompanied the rise of international security threats since the Cold War, according to anthropologist of development professor Akhil Gupta of the University of California, Los Angeles. Achieving human security in developing countries is paramount for reducing international security threats and goes beyond simply the absence of violent conflict — it means establishing basic access to essential services like water, sanitation and hygiene. The many competing human uses for water — personal consumption, agriculture, industry, and sanitation systems — combined with the lack of sufficient infrastructure in developing countries means that natural water systems (rivers, aquifers, streams and rainfall) cannot be abstracted from discussions of human and international security.

The 2006 United Nations Human Development Report found that people suffering from waterborne illnesses occupy over half of all hospital beds globally. Pathogens from dirty water result in diarrhea which still remains the leading killer of children younger than 5 years old — 1.8 million a year, or about 4,900 per day. Water-related illness alone causes 443 million missed school days per year. This means that for other development improvements to be met — including improving universal achievement of primary education, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and eradicating extreme poverty and hunger – water, sanitation, and hygiene must be prioritized in the global policy and aid agenda.

While empirical data regarding the impact of aid on economic growth is mixed, the overall positive effects of aid specifically directed to the water sector are clear. A 2010 article in the Journal of Global Health used a country-level analysis to determine the relationship between official development assistance and improvements in access to water and sanitation. The results of this inquiry into aid effectiveness since the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 shows that countries receiving official assistance are 4 to 18 times more likely to have access to improved water supply than countries without assistance. Furthermore, countries with the greatest gains in sanitation were up to nine times as likely to have greater reductions in infant and child mortality.

Although aid is not a panacea for the many complex problems plaguing developing countries, cutting aid for water and sanitation programs would cause significant harm. As the United Nations Security Council suggests, water security takes on a double meaning: It describes both sustainable access to the resource, and the absence of water as a contributor to conflict. Although the global community met the Millennium Development Goal target for safe drinking water, the World Health Organization found that 800 million people are still without clean water and 2 billion without basic sanitation. The momentum to increase access to safe drinking water and improve sanitation in water stressed countries cannot be lost now.

According to Stratfor, a global intelligence agency, Egypt has renewed threats to militarily engage in the event that Ethiopia continues plans to build a dam on the Nile. This example is an indicator for a larger looming security crisis according to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who conveyed the findings of a Defense Intelligence Agency report this September at the United Nations roundtable on water security. Clinton warned that “demand for water will go up, but our fresh water supplies will not keep pace,” increasing the threat of instability within and between states.

Criticism about the infusion of aid to the transitional governments in the unstable regions is not unfounded, but reducing or blocking aid to water stressed countries could heighten tensions rooted in anxiety over reliable access to water. Middle Eastern and North African countries continue to be the worst off in terms of human and economic development indicators, including access to water and sanitation. USAID recently reported that only 27 percent of Afghanis have access to safe drinking water, and 12 percent to adequate sanitation, while two-thirds of water is lost through decrepit infrastructure. Aid directed at improving infrastructure in neglected areas for water and sanitation could significantly improve health, education and human security in such regions.

The BBC estimates that for developed countries and Brazil, Russia, India and China alone, “$800 billion per year will be required by 2015 to cover investments in water infrastructure, a target likely to go unmet.” According to a recent Guardian Global Development article, the developing world will be home to 29 megacities with more than 10 million residents by 2025; therefore, improving infrastructure in these areas to meet the growing demand for water will be crucial. As rainfall becomes more unpredictable and devastating floods continue as a consequence of global climate change, directed aid could reduce conflict in water-stressed countries that are politically and economically volatile.

There are many ways that Cal students can engage with critical water issues. UC Berkeley is transforming into a hub for water-based community engaged research, advocacy, and activism. A number of DeCals all offer opportunities for students. The Berkeley Water Group is a student-driven think tank and research collaborative aiming to nurture ideas and innovation. Many research opportunities, particularly though the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship program, are beginning to focus more water, health and environmental issues.

Whether students work domestically or abroad on water issues, any solutions must be tied to the environmental, economic, social and cultural realities.

In a world with more cell-phones than toilets, improving access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene is both a strategic investment and a moral imperative. The post-9/11 world forces a re-examination of the relationship between human security and global poverty. Development policy changes in the global north, rather than charity, that prioritize water, sanitation and hygiene will contribute to healthy people, thriving ecosystems and sustainable economies in the future. International security necessitates meeting the basic needs of those in developing countries, especially the most basic resource to sustain life: water.

Rebecca Peters is a junior at UC Berkeley and a 2013 Truman and Udall Scholar.

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