Apr 12, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: White House eyes water security strategy

Illustration of blueprints with water in the middle

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

National Security Council officials are discussing releasing a first-ever White House action plan for global water security, a source with direct knowledge of the plan tells Axios.

Why it matters: Climate change, border conflicts, cyber threats and inefficient agricultural practices threaten humanity’s future supply. External conflicts over water pose a threat to national security, as well as international relations.

  • A proposed White House action plan would link global water security with national security for the first time.

Between the lines: Inflation, crime and Russia’s war on Ukraine have taken center stage in U.S. politics as pandemic fears recede. But national security experts’ job is to look around the corner for the next big threats.

  • The goals are to ensure America’s water security and prevent conflicts over water — including in the Middle East and Africa.
  • Officials also want to improve global access to sanitation, all while promoting cross-border cooperation over resources.

What they’re saying: An NSC spokesperson said no final decisions have been made about releasing a plan.

  • ”We do not have a comment on any action plan at this time,” a senior administration official told Axios in an emailed statement responding to a request for official comment from the White House.
  • “Global water security continues to play an important role in our national security interests and is a critical component of our ongoing work in the Biden administration.”

How it works: A plan, if approved, would help establish a U.S. government approach to protecting the world’s water resources.

  • It also would create a global framework for ensuring universal access to clean and reliable water.

Flashback: In October, the White House, Pentagon and intelligence community warned climate change will make the world less secure and more prone to conflict.

  • “Climate change is altering the strategic landscape and shaping the security environment, posing complex threats to the United States and nations around the world,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at the time.

What we’re watching: Cyber threats to water infrastructure are a special focus for the administration.

  • In January, it announced the Industrial Control Systems (ICS) Cybersecurity Initiative for the water sector.
  • It extended the same plan it has for the electricity grid and natural gas pipelines.

By the numbers: The United Nations has estimated roughly half of the global population will endure some level of water stress by 2030.

  • 72% of all water withdrawals are used for agriculture, according to the U.N.
  • 16% of water usage is from municipalities to provide for households.
  • The remaining 12% of water is consumed by industries.

Water is inextricably linked to electrification and lifting developing nations out of poverty.

  • Hydropower provides 20% of the world’s energy but requires reliable water.
  • Using water to generate power in one location also threatens reliable water flows and food supplies downstream.

What’s next: Until now, most of the U.S. government’s international efforts have focused on hygiene and sanitation.

  • Action being discussed would elevate water security as a foreign policy objective — much like how the State Department combats corruption and promotes good governance.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that a proposed White House plan could for the first time link global water security with national security.

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