News Release

February 8, 2018

For Immediate Release
Contact: Fiona Gettinger, Communications Associate
gettingerf@cna.org, 703-824-2388

Water Stress a Compounding Factor in Global Unrest and Terrorism

Arlington, Va.  An elite advisory group of retired admirals and generals from across the military services has warned that water stress will play an increasingly important role in global security. In a new report, “The Role of Water Stress in Instability and Conflict,” the CNA Military Advisory Board (MAB) investigates how water stress serves as a factor in conflict that runs counter to the interests of the United States and its allies. The report takes in a broad spectrum of conflict — from civil unrest and localized violence to terrorism and insurgencies.

“As senior military officers, we see water stress as a growing factor in the world’s hot spots and conflict areas, many of vital interest to the United States. With escalating global population, demographic changes driving increased food and energy production, and a changing climate, access to fresh water plays an increasingly important role in global security,” said General Ron Keys, USAF (Ret.), chairman of the CNA MAB.

Focusing on water-stressed areas of the world, the report articulates the role water plays not only in diplomacy, violence, and conflict, but also how water can be used as a tool of coercion and place stable governments at risk. This pattern repeats across areas of the world where fresh water is no longer meeting the needs of a burgeoning, urban, middle class, compounded by poor water management and increased demand for water-intense foods.

“The demand for water will not be linear. As quality of life improves, water demand will also increase,” said Vice Admiral Lee Gunn, USN (Ret.), vice chairman of the CNA MAB. The impacts of climate change — dissipating glaciers, saltwater intrusion of aquifers, and changing precipitation patterns — will add to these challenges. “There will be less water where there is already too little, and more water where there is too much,” said Gunn.

Tuesday, at the report’s U.S. launch, MAB members said that the Department of Defense and State Department should regard global water stress as a growing national security concern. “We must better understand the relationship between water and conflict now to avoid more serious threats to our national security in the very near future,” said Gunn.

Julia McQuaid, director of CNA’s Program on Transnational Challenges and lead author of the report, said, “Iran is one example of water stress triggering unrest on the low end, whether those are riots, protests or strikes. Cape Town could potentially be another example. In rare cases it can escalate, and we find that when it does escalate, it’s often because there are other preexisting grievances within those communities.”

In areas of strategic interest to the U.S. and our allies, the report recommends expanding diplomatic efforts, investment, and technical leadership in the mitigation of water stress, as well as incentivizing private-sector engagement to spur innovation and improve water management practices.

CNA is a nonprofit research and analysis organization dedicated to the safety and security of the nation. It operates the Center for Naval Analyses — the only Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) serving the Department of the Navy — as well as the Institute for Public Research. CNA is dedicated to developing actionable solutions to complex problems of national importance. With nearly 700 scientists, analysts and professional staff, CNA takes a real-world approach to gathering data. Its one-of-a-kind field program places analysts on carriers and military bases, in squad rooms and crisis centers, working side-by-side with operators and decision-makers around the world. CNA supports naval operations, fleet readiness and great power competition. Its non-defense research portfolio includes criminal justice, homeland security and data management.

Note to writers and editors: CNA is not an acronym and is correctly referenced as "CNA, a research organization in Arlington, VA."