Guest Host: Tom Gjelten

The American intelligence community recently released a report warning that problems with water could destabilize various regions of the world over the next decade. The earth’s rising population, climate change, and poor water management have put pressure on water supplies. On this month’s Environmental Outlook, we look at global water security and water shortages in the U.S.


  • Geoff Dabelko Director of environmental change and security at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
  • Steve Fleischli A senior attorney in the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, former President of Waterkeeper Alliance
  • Jessica Troell Senior Attorney and Director of the International Water Program at the Environmental Law Institute
  • Major General Richard Engel U.S. Air Force (Retired), director of the National Intelligence Council’s Environment and Natural Resources Program

Program Highlights

The U.S. Director of National Intelligence recently released a report on global water security. It warns that over the next decade conflicts over water could destabilize
several world regions. For this month’s installment in our environmental outlook series, we consider how hard it may soon be to provide people around the world with a reliable
fresh water supply.

Water Is Not A Single-Sector Issue

Water security is connected to energy, food, health, economic development, and agriculture, Dabelko said. This seems obvious, but when the U.S. organizes a response to
water insecurity, it has a tendency to “respond in sector, and there’s not nearly enough communication and cooperation,” he said.

800 Million Without Access To Safe Drinking Water

In addition to the estimated 800 million people around the world without access to safe drinking water, an additional 2.5 billion don’t have access to sanitation, Fleischli said. And even in the U.S., some studies have projected that by the year 2050 one third of the counties in the lower 48 states will be facing extreme to high water supply sustainability challenges, he said. “It’s something we really need to think about here domestically as well,” he said.

Water As A Weapon Of War

Water has not yet been used as a weapon of war, but some are concerned that it could be. Water situations could be used as leverage in existing conflicts. “One state would put pressure on another state to stop a construction project of one would put pressure on a state – maybe deny it lines of communication of other things to preserve its water interests,” Engel said.

You can read the full transcript here.


  • 11:06:56

    MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is having a voice treatment this week. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence recently released a report on global water security. It warns that over the next decade conflicts over water could destabilize several world regions. For this month's installment in our environmental outlook series, we consider how hard it may soon be to provide people around the world with a reliable fresh water supply.

  • 11:07:26

    MR. TOM GJELTENJoining us in the studio are retired Major General Richard Engel from the Strategic Futures Group at the National Intelligence Council, also Jessica Troell of the Environmental Law Institute, and Steve Fleischli of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Joining us from KPBS in San Diego, Geoff Dabelko of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. You can contribute your own comments and questions. Call us at 1-800-433-8850, or send us an email, You can join on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, Geoff in San Diego, and the three of you here in the studio.

  • 11:08:08

    GROUPGood morning.

  • 11:08:10

    GJELTENAnd I'd like to begin with you General Engel. You were deeply involved in the preparation of this report on global water security. You at the National Intelligence Council focus on security threats. Make the case for why water should be seen as a security issue.

  • 11:08:31

    MAJ. GEN. RICHARD ENGELOkay. When we looked at water as a national security issue, first of all, we did it for the Department of State. They requested that we do the study. What we looked at and what we observed was that over the next ten years we saw circumstances where water problems, being either water availability, the quality of water or actual floods would preoccupy or consume countries that were important to the United States. As a result of that, these countries may not be able to support U.S. National Security objectives in policy globally, and in addition to that, you could have the possibility of either social tensions leading to political disruptions, ultimately even leading to state failure in some countries that are also important to the United States.

  • 11:09:15

    MAJ. GEN. RICHARD ENGELThis would occur because water is so critical to industrial processes. It's obviously critical to agriculture. Seventy percent of the water that's consumed is consumed for agriculture purposes, and it's critical even for human life. So we saw water and the availability of water as being a critical part of the states' stability as well as the national security of the states.

  • 11:09:37

    GJELTENAnd in order for these issues to be seen as security issues, I assume they had to pass a certain threshold of seriousness or urgency.

  • 11:09:47

    ENGELYes. When we look at these, I mean, one could look at all these issues from the point of view of humanitarian, and there are humanitarian sensitivities and we all want to be responsive to that as human beings.

  • 11:09:59

    GJELTENWe want to live better.

  • 11:10:00

    ENGELExactly. We used a national security filter is a little bit higher filter in our judgment, and it's because the state itself, or the region itself has particular importance to the United States.

  • 11:10:12

    GJELTENUm-hum. Now, I do want to ask you to clarify one thing. This report is, of course, unclassified, but it followed a classified national intelligence estimate that was prepared in October. Now, explain to our listeners why a report on water issues should even be classified in the first place, and what would be the difference between a classified and an unclassified report?

  • 11:10:39

    ENGELWell, let me start with the second part of the question first. The more straightforward reason is the unclassified version really deals with the themes we identified, the types and classes of problems where we saw water would cause national security issues. The classified report deals with the specifics, what countries that may occur in, what regions it may happen in, and there's two things that drive a document like that to be classified.

  • 11:11:04

    ENGELIn one sense, if the material we used for the report came from sensitive sources or sensitive methods, we would not necessarily want to make that available to adversaries to understand our capabilities. The second reason is because oftentimes when we talk about specific countries and we're critical of them, we don't want to complicate the State Department's job. I mean, that is something that's a message important for the State Department to understand, but we don't want to get an ambassador in country X or country Y called in and read over the coals for some remarks made by the National Intelligence Council.

  • 11:11:38

    GJELTENUm-hum. There are diplomatic considerations.

  • 11:11:39

    ENGELThat's right. So we reserve those comments for inside the U.S. government.

  • 11:11:43

    GJELTENOkay. Geoff Dabelko, out there in San Diego, you've been writing and thinking about water issues, environmental issues around water resources for a long time. What's your reaction to this notion of treating it as a national security problem?

  • 11:12:01

    MR. GEOFF DABELKOWell, I think it's a useful step. It's not the only way we should treat it, and as the humanitarian issues that Rich flagged are critically important to keep front and center as well. But I think it does -- the security learns, especially the way that this report sets it out, gives a sense of priority and also in some ways suggests the all-hands on deck approach that we need. We can't leave important actors and important capabilities on the sidelines given the challenges that are presented by these issues.

  • 11:12:32

    MR. GEOFF DABELKOI think part of the reason that that approach the report takes is a positive one is that it moves away from the arm-waving, headline-grabbing, water-wars frame, the kind of sky-is-falling frame that is intuitively appealing and certainly appealing for politicians and headline writers, but doesn't really reflect the reality. And so what this report instead does, recognizes that there's been an awful lot of cooperation around water even in the face of scarcity, and that that cooperation in part helps us avoid conflicts, whether they're violent or political, and that we should invest in those institutions that help us get to cooperation.

  • 11:13:15

    MR. GEOFF DABELKOIt also suggests that it's inadequate and incorrect to think of water as just a single-sector issue. The report is quite clear in connecting it to energy, connecting it to food, connecting it to health, economic development, agriculture obviously, and so that recognition analysis sounds in some way straightforward, but unfortunately, when we organize our responses, we often respond in sector, and there's not nearly enough communication and cooperation.

  • 11:13:43

    MR. GEOFF DABELKOAnd then just finally, I think the report does say that the future may not look like the past, and so while we don't have evidence of states fighting one another over water and the judgment of the report is in the next ten years, we won't see that. It does hold out the prospect for as we go farther down the line in terms of higher levels of consumption and higher levels of population, that we need to pay special attention because there's some particular river basins in parts of the world where, as I said, the future may not look like the past and we have greater concerns for higher levels of conflict.

  • 11:14:18

    GJELTENRight, Geoff. And I think that you correctly characterized the report as saying that up until now these issues have generally be resolved on a cooperative basis, but you also point out that beyond ten years there is certainly a worrisome scenario that could very well come to pass where these issues do lead to conflicts, and of course that's why the National Intelligence Council looking so closely at these issues.

  • 11:14:47

    GJELTENI want to go now to Jessica Troell, and forgive me for having mangled your name the first time.

  • 11:14:51

    MS. JESSICA TROELLIt's quite all right.

  • 11:14:53

    GJELTENSo as General Engel -- as the report makes clear, as Geoff just eluded to, even in these situations where you have countries competing over access to water, there has been a fairly encouraging record of international agreements -- across boundary agreements. How important have those agreements been and how optimistic are you that that kind of international legal cooperation can continue around the issue of sharing water resources.

  • 11:15:27

    TROELLYeah. I think that's a very important aspect of this, and as the report points out, and as Geoff pointed out, that historically there are far more examples of cooperation than of conflict, especially on transboundary basins now. It's a different story at the local level where violent conflict does erupt over water, but at the international level, you know, one study has shown that cooperation between countries sharing fresh water actually outnumbers conflicts by two to one in the period of 1945 to 1999.

  • 11:15:57

    TROELLAnd so while it's not been a key issue leading to war among states, you know, it has been an important indirect diver of conflict, but that the key to maintaining cooperation really has been are there the appropriate institutions and legal frameworks in place to facilitate cooperation, and I think you've seen an evolution over the last several decades in water-sharing agreements that they historically really focused on navigation or water allocation in terms of hard numbers, whereas now treaties are really focusing on joint development, setting up cooperative institutions for managing potential conflicts as they arise.

  • 11:16:38

    TROELLSo the treaties themselves, their substance is evolving, and they're also spreading in more and more basins. There are, you know, an increasing number of treaties that have been concluded in the last two decades.

  • 11:16:49

    GJELTENBut given the urgency of these issues, and the fact that General Engel has laid out -- and the National Intelligence Council has laid out in this report that over the next 30 years the availability of water will not keep up with the demand for water, how sure can we be that those institutions and frameworks you talked about will be adequate in dealing with what will be a more difficult challenge in the future.

  • 11:17:17

    TROELLRight. And to be honest with you, we can't. I mean, the strength of basin agreements and basins institutions is really based on the political will of the countries that agree to them. And so in any given situation, you know, if that political will is lacking for whatever reason, if water scarcity becomes an overpowering driving force, then, you know, you don't have that kind of will to execute that through the existing institutions.

  • 11:17:41

    GJELTENAnd Steve Fleischli, you hear this discussion taking place in an international context. You're much more focused on the United States. To what extent are we suffering here in the United States from some of these same scarcity issues?

  • 11:17:54

    MR. STEVEN FLEISCHLIYeah. I think that's a really important issue to focus on as well, you know. The global water security issue is critical and the humanitarian aspects of it are critical as well. You know, 800 million people around the world don't have access to safe drinking water. Two-and-a-half billion people don't have access to sanitation, but there's plenty of challenges here at home that we need to be thinking about as well.

  • 11:18:14

    MR. STEVEN FLEISCHLIWe did a study last year that found that by the year 2050 one-third of the counties in the lower 48 states are looking at extreme to high water supply sustainability challenges. It doesn't mean it's going to happen for sure, but there are the risks there that in the United States we will suffer severe water supply challenges. Over two-thirds of the counties in the U.S. are looking at general water supply challenges by the year 2050. So it's something we really need to think about here domestically as well.

  • 11:18:43

    GJELTENSteve Fleischli is a senior attorney in the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. We're talking about water issues at home and abroad, and the security concerns that they raise. We're going to take a short break right now, and we'll be right back.

  • 11:20:04

    GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in for Diane Rehm today and we're talking in this hour about global water scarcity and the security issues that these water problems are raising. You can join the conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email at or join us on Facebook or Twitter.

  • 11:20:26

    GJELTENAnd I'm going now to Richard Engel from the National Intelligence Council. And one of the most fascinating and descriptive parts of your report, General Engel, was your description of the situation in seven river basins around the world. And all of them share one feature. Apart from the water issues that they have is that they're all of strategic importance to the United States. Just give us a really quick run through of those different river basins where water is likely to be a security issue in the coming years.

  • 11:20:59

    ENGELWell, let me tell you the way that we approach looking at the basins. I think that really gets to the issue. And what we were looking at much to the governance issues that Jessica talked about, we try to evaluate these basins for whether or not the states could handle the water challenges they were going to face. We looked at things like did they have a formal agreement among the various state members that are part of the basin? Is the mechanism that they have, does it have some history of working in times of stress between the states for other reasons? Sometimes water issues, as Geoff pointed out, can help you get through that.

  • 11:21:32

    ENGELWe looked at whether or not the agreements allowed for allocation of water actually as a percent of total available, not just a fixed quantity because, as you pointed out and other people have said, climate change may shift the amount of water we see one way or another. So we wanted to make sure they were flexible in that context. And finally we looked at from the point of view as is there -- are there mechanisms for dispute resolution. In other words, if the states do disagree is there a way the states can work it through among themselves or go outside of even the treaty itself for other -- to other parties, the international courts, to try and get some kind of resolution.

  • 11:22:08

    ENGELSo we looked at all those criteria and as we looked across the various basins, as you can see in the report, we graded them the various levels of capacity to handle that.

  • 11:22:17

    GJELTENList those rivers from -- well, you begin, I think, with the Nile. You've got the Tigris, Euphrates. What are some of the other...

  • 11:22:25

    ENGELWe looked at the Indus, the Jordan, the Mekong, the Nile, the Tigris, Euphrates, Amu Darya and the Brahmaputra.

  • 11:22:32

    GJELTENThe Brahmaputra and Amu Darya, these are in...

  • 11:22:35

    ENGELCentral Asia is the Amu Darya and Brahmaputra is in -- between China and India...

  • 11:22:41


  • 11:22:41

    ENGEL...eastern side of India.

  • 11:22:42

    GJELTENAnd what is the scenario we have to worry about? All of us have made clear that actually there's been no water wars yet.

  • 11:22:49


  • 11:22:50

    GJELTENBut you use that term. You say that water could be used as a weapon of war in some situations. What's the scenario we have to worry about?

  • 11:22:58

    ENGELWell, we seem more likely that water situations would be cause of leverage. One state would put pressure on another state to stop a construction project or one would put pressure on a state maybe deny it lines of communications or other things to preserve its water interests. That's what we meant by leverage as we used it. Actual armed conflict, to be honest with you, it'd probably only occur if there were other existing issues between the states. And then water may be the trigger or what sparks the conflict. And again, we didn't see that inside the immediate ten years.

  • 11:23:29

    GJELTENAnd, Geoff Dabelko, in San Diego, this is something that you have paid attention to, the way that water scarcity can interact with other factors, poverty factors, development factors, etcetera in order to aggravate conflicts between states.

  • 11:23:44

    DABELKOThat's right. And the report handles that well in terms of it flags it again that it's not just the water issue. It's the water issue interaction with the governance factors and other sources of tension. And so it's always going to be like any conflict, a complex mix of factors. And the water scarcity may provide a trigger role or may be an underlying exacerbating role.

  • 11:24:09

    DABELKOBut here, too, I think even -- I mean, to make it more challenging, it doesn't even have to be the absolute scarcity. It can just be the perception of scarcity where say a rebel group or somebody who has a grievance in one country can demagogue on that issue about how those folks across the border are stealing our water. Whether they are or they aren't it becomes a potential mobilizing issue that creates stability questions of visa vie that group and the government in one country, but also then can exacerbate tensions between the two countries.

  • 11:24:39

    DABELKOAnd so it really behooves us to take this anticipatory approach knowing that this has come -- these water challenges are coming down the line and really invest in the institutions and the dialogue processes that have fortunately helped us have cooperation be a big part of the story in the face of real potential for conflict.

  • 11:25:02

    GJELTENAnd if you've got one demagogue saying that so-and-so is stealing your water, that's a powerful thing to say. That's going to cause people to get really upset, isn't it, Richard Engel?

  • 11:25:10

    ENGELAbsolutely. And one of the things we observed was therefore transparency of water data is very important. You have to be able to have it and share it among the various parties that are part of the treaty. And in one sense inside the United States, if you think about it, that's one of the strengths we have for our systems is that we readily share the water data across all the individual states of our own country.

  • 11:25:31

    GJELTENSteve Fleischli, Geoff Dabelko mentioned climate change. You know, the National Security Establishment, and I've covered it, they don't like to get into political issues like is manmade activity, you know, responsible for global warming. They deal with contingencies, they deal with possibilities. But can you sort out a little bit, whether it's in the United States or in other areas, what is the explanation for this growing issue of water scarcity. Is it climate change or is it simply the development of the global economy?

  • 11:26:05

    FLEISCHLIIt's actually a combination of both things and it really depends on where you are. But no matter where you live you can't escape the reality of climate change. And in some places it may come in the form of more severe water situations from flooding and sea level rise. And other places it might come in the form of less water through droughts or less precipitation.

  • 11:26:24

    FLEISCHLISo the climate change has to play a role in this and people need to recognize that depending on where you live the water scarcity issues that may exist because of increasing population or increased extraction, increased use are only going to be exacerbated by climate change in many of these places around the world. Whether it's from drought or say in the winter time if more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow you'll have different runoff patterns. If you lose some of the snowpack that can store water long term, you know, in the Himalayas and elsewhere around the world, what are the downstream communities going to do that rely on those water sources?

  • 11:27:00

    FLEISCHLIAnd so climate change has to be taken into consideration in terms of how we use the available resources that we have.

  • 11:27:05

    GJELTENJessica Troell, can you list some model agreements for the ways that countries have managed some of these water issues, agreements between countries, treaties, et cetera?

  • 11:27:17

    TROELLSure. I mean, the one that people kind of site as the general model that has not yet been ratified and come into acceptance is the UN Water Courses Convention which has provisions for equitable utilization. You know, it's a competing balancing of factors to determine what equitable utilization between countries are. But I think these framework conventions haven't been as successful as specific basin level treaties have been. And I think some of the most successful and developed treaties have been in the southern African region and also in the European region.

  • 11:27:51

    TROELLAnd probably the most detailed is the UN ECE convention on shared waters, which has very detailed provisions on sharing all the kind of critical important governance issues we're talking about to facilitate cooperation, joint monitoring, sharing of information, impact assessment of potential developments on the water. And so there's a very well developed procedural framework for encouraging and facilitating cooperation, as well as for conflict resolution when conflicts do occur.

  • 11:28:22

    GJELTENRichard Engel, one of the things that intelligence analysts do is assess the seriousness of threats and also the confidence that you have in assessing those threats. Did you come to any judgment about the viability of the types of agreements that Jessica has made in terms of averting possible future conflicts? Do you have a confidence in that capability of governments or are you worried that the challenges are going to be just too great for governments to deal with?

  • 11:28:52

    ENGELI think it depends on the individual agreement. Our overall observation was well structured agreements as we have seen by the examples people have used can endure conflicts between states, and can indeed keep states from going into conflict. So the important lesson to take away is that you can construct the proper kind of arrangement between the parties but it takes a lot of effort to do that.

  • 11:29:16

    GJELTENGeoff Dabelko, in San Diego one of the things that you've been active on in recent years is trying to facilitate dialogue around this and other environmental issues. How hard has it been, in what seems to be an increasingly politicized atmosphere, how hard has it been to promote, you know, reasonable dialogue about issues such as water scarcity and other aspects, other possible consequences of climate change?

  • 11:29:45

    DABELKOWell, the politics is always there, but there are strategies for dealing with that and so I think we can see across the world a number of ways that folks have dealt with that. In some ways, it's to try to take the politics out, to start small local civil societies, start technical, get the engineers and the scientists together, get the school kids together. And so for example, you have what we can all agree is a tough situation from a conflict perspective in the Middle East.

  • 11:30:17

    DABELKOYou have a very innovative NGO, Non-Governmental Organization that -- called Friends of the Earth Middle East that's starting with schools. And, you know, it turns out that Palestinian, Israeli kids both get sick when the waste water is untreated. And based on that very kind of interdependence there is school to school and then it becomes mayor to mayor. And then it becomes those mayors from Palestinian and Israeli and Jordanian communities coming together to lobby on their national level, to come over to the United States and testify in front of congress.

  • 11:30:49

    DABELKOAnd so what seems like a very modest beginning, and of course it's not going to solve the ultimate problems, but have real evidence of both improving the water quality and the health issues associated with it, but also providing a lifeline for dialogue so to speak in times of conflict. That we have seen evidence where those kinds of what seemed modest efforts can actually be part of building the trust and confidence that can contribute to wider political coming together.

  • 11:31:20

    GJELTENOkay, Geoff, that's an encouraging story but I want you to focus for just a second on a much more worrisome situation and that is in the country of Yemen. Can you sort of summarize? This is a country that has often been identified as perhaps facing one of the most serious water issues in the world today. What's the situation in Yemen right now?

  • 11:31:41

    DABELKOWell, yeah, that would be a tough nut to crack. It has all these challenges that we've talked about starting with on the population side. It's more than 24 million now and has a total fertility rate of 5.5. So that means that that growth is going to continue rapidly in the near and longer term future as it stands in a country that frankly has no fresh water rivers or lakes. They're completely dependent on groundwater that is unsustainably being pumped. And so you have tremendous water scarcity many times over the kind of thresholds for defined water scarcity.

  • 11:32:23

    DABELKOI think the challenge there is the governance -- obviously it's kind of a state of conflict and unrest that those institutions are having a very difficult time addressing some of those challenges that would be tough even if they weren't in times of conflict. But the -- if we're going to look for some possibilities, 90 percent of the water's used for irrigation. And among other things the big cash crop is khat, the crop that is chewed and...

  • 11:32:54

    GJELTENIt's kind of a narcotic sort of...

  • 11:32:56

    DABELKOExactly, thank you. And so, you know, again if the governance strength can be strengthened there are ways to conserve. And so there's, you know, some potential for looking forward.

  • 11:33:08

    GJELTENRichard Engel, Yemen also happens to be sadly the grounds of the Al-Qaida and the Arabian Peninsula which your own intelligence colleagues have identified as the most worrisome branch of Al-Qaida in the world today. Now that's an unfortunate coincidence to have these serious water problems in an area where terrorism concerns are absolutely at the top.

  • 11:33:28

    ENGELAbsolutely 'cause the water problems give an opportunity for the terrorists to leverage one portion of the population against another portion of the population. I think the interesting observation out of Yemen also is this extraction of groundwater and excessive replacement, particularly if one does it from fossil aquifers for which there is no expectation that the water will ever be replaced.

  • 11:33:50

    ENGELBut this use of groundwater, often for agriculture, if we do not get our hands around that and we really end up pumping groundwater out so it never -- is not available for agriculture we're going to have an agricultural impact. And the agricultural impact will directly get to food security. And the food security will then facilitate its own set of stability issues inside countries.

  • 11:34:12

    ENGELWhen we looked at instability among countries the things we considered were not just whether or not the water was going to be available, what the water was going to do to agriculture and industry. And then we looked at the other factors, you know, good governance, social inequalities and things like that that would cause countries to be unstable for other reasons, in which case then food and water can just trip it.

  • 11:34:32

    GJELTENRichard Engel is working with the Strategic Futures Group at the National Intelligence Council. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've talked here about some possible legal remedies to this challenge, international agreements and so on. What about some technological advances? You know, there's been a lot of talk, for example, about desalination and the prospect of desalination. Either Richard or Steve, what are the prospects that we could have some technological advances that will make water management more manageable?

  • 11:35:13

    ENGELWell, I'll start and then let Steve finish up with it. When we looked at water technology, our observation was that we didn't see any silver bullet that was really going to solve water problems, particularly since most of the water's used for agriculture. Desalinization is good for human consumption, but we don't have the energy availability to really do it at the scale necessary for agriculture or even probably a large scale industry.

  • 11:35:35

    ENGELHaving said that, there's a great deal that could be done in the agriculture sector to improve the use of water, do it more efficiently, either with drip irrigation or leveling the land so you minimize the amount of water that you really consume for agriculture purposes, avoiding canals that have leakages and seepage and so forth. And those kinds of development activities would go a long way towards solving the individual water challenges of localities.

  • 11:36:01

    GJELTENSteve, one of our listeners writes in, "With the looming sea level rise, are there any efforts being made to develop reverse osmosis technologies?" That means nothing to me. Does it mean anything to you?

  • 11:36:12

    FLEISCHLIYeah, I think that question goes to the question of how when sea level rises it impacts water supply sources. And essentially potable water gets contaminated with salt water and what do we do about that? And so that goes to desal and the question of desal and reverse osmosis is a process whereby you can take the salt out of the water. One of the challenges there is, as General Engel mentioned, just the energy costs associated with that can be very high.

  • 11:36:40

    FLEISCHLIYou do see some successful efforts particularly in places like California, to re-inject cleaned up waste water through reverse osmosis to create a barrier between the salt water and the potable water supplies. And that can be effective where you take essentially waste water or sewage water, you treat that and then inject it into the groundwater to create that barrier.

  • 11:37:01

    GJELTENSteve Fleischli is a senior attorney in the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. We're talking this morning about the growing issue of water scarcity and the way that it could have an impact on global security, on possible conflict between states, problems here at home. We have a lot of listeners anxious to join the conversation. You can call us at 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email, After this break, we'll be going to the phones giving you a chance to comment. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is "The Diane Rehm Show." Stay listening.

  • 11:40:02

    GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about global water scarcity and all the issues that it raises, including questions of national security. And it's time now for you, our listeners, to join the conversation. I want to begin with a couple of emails, one from Phillip in Michigan who -- and both of these emails have something in common, which is they are asking about to what extent are commercial uses of water contributing to water scarcity.

  • 11:40:35

    GJELTENPhillip asks, "Corporations like Nestle are draining aquifers around the world, including the Great Lakes. Please ask your guests about the commercial appropriation of world water sources." And Ruth, writing from Ohio, asks about fracking. That's hydraulic fracturing, the use of great amounts of water in extracting shale gas from the earth. That's obviously a big use of water. Richard Engle, in your study did you look at commercial applications, commercial uses of water, whether in the United States or elsewhere?

  • 11:41:15

    ENGELYes, we did. We looked at it from a technology point of view. And many industries are trying to get to the point where they actually consume all the water they take in and return nothing back to the stream. And that kind of an industrial process, if they attempt to do that and achieve really reduces the damage that can be done to downstream users of the water.

  • 11:41:36

    ENGELThe other important part of industrial processes is well water treatment. After it's been through an industrial process it's critically important the water be treated so subsequent users downstream have the benefit of the water and can likewise use it. As to the question of fracking, we looked at that only as one of the ways that water was connected with energy development. And we didn't look at it because it's relatively new technology and its scope is somewhat limited globally. We didn't look at it in terms of actually how it would impact water availability specifically.

  • 11:42:08

    GJELTENOkay. I want to go now to Damon, who's calling us from Curryville, Mo. Good morning, Damon. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show." Thanks for the call.

  • 11:42:17

    DAMONThanks for taking my call.

  • 11:42:17

    GJELTENYeah. And your question?

  • 11:42:21

    DAMONWell, I would like to make a comment.

  • 11:42:22


  • 11:42:24

    DAMONYou know, I've been studying the world and the biosphere for many years. And the overarching issue is, of course, human population. And I'm just curious to why no one wants to go there. No one wants to talk about it.

  • 11:42:38

    GJELTENNo one wants to go there?

  • 11:42:39

    DAMONWell, there's one solution. And it is that the human being is, of course, an organism of the biosphere and it must be reproductively controlled. I’m just wondering why no one wants to go there. No one wants to talk …

  • 11:42:57

    GJELTENGeoff Dabelko, why don't you take that question? To what extent is population growth really the culprit here?

  • 11:43:06

    DABELKOYeah, the caller is correct that it's a third rail for political discussion. Nevertheless, it's part of the equation. Not the entire equation. It's part of the equation so it's got to be part of the discussion. I think, however, it is most usefully tackled in two ways. One, to understand that in any conversation about population, one also has to talk about consumption. Does the number of people matter? But they matter in the context of how much they're consuming.

  • 11:43:36

    DABELKOAnd so there are massive differences in terms of our water footprint. And so it's not just a matter of numbers, although numbers have to be part of the discussion. Second, the kind of coercive nature of fertility control is one in part what raises hackles and rightly so, given some of the history in various aspects of this. But nevertheless, the good news, so to speak, is that there is a real option for meeting unmet need for, for example, family planning services around the world, where 215 million women want to control the number or choose, I should say, the number and the spacing and the timing of their children.

  • 11:44:22

    DABELKOIf we meet those needs with voluntary family planning services, something that compared to many other interventions is very inexpensive, then those are ways that instead of thou shalt not, it becomes an empowerment option that allows women and girls to do all those things that come with associated advances in education and role in the household and economic opportunities. It doesn't need to be penalty. It really can be part of an empowerment agenda in addressing these problems.

  • 11:44:59

    GJELTENWell, one of the themes that we've heard repeated throughout this hour has been that if water scarcity were a problem in isolation it would be a lot less serious, but it's one of these problems that interacts on many different levels with other issues, social issues, development issues, etcetera. I want to go now to Julie, who's calling us from St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Julie. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:45:23

    JULIEHi, great show.

  • 11:45:26

    GJELTENThank you.

  • 11:45:27

    JULIELove your guests. But I wanted to mention I went to pay my water bill and the account representative told me that water is now in the stock market. It's traded as a commodity like gasoline. And this is something recent and she said, yeah, you can buy stock in water.

  • 11:45:49

    GJELTENWater companies.

  • 11:45:50

    JULIESo my fear is the price of water is going to go up like the price of gasoline.

  • 11:45:57

    GJELTENWell, in fact, we do pay for water. Utilities provide water to our households and we get a monthly bill, don't we, Steve Fleischli, for that water. Is this a concern that increasingly we're going to see water treated as a commodity?

  • 11:46:11

    FLEISCHLIWell, you are seeing that in many places, particularly overseas, but also here in the U.S. And, you know, interestingly, the Texas Supreme Court just rendered a decision a couple weeks ago about property rights to water underneath your land, where you own land. And in that opinion the Supreme Court had a very difficult time finding differences between water and oil and gas, which I found really remarkable because I think it shows, basically, a lack of appreciation for the differences there.

  • 11:46:41

    FLEISCHLIAnd water is something there's no substitute for, whereas oil and gas, there are other substitutes we can use for energy needs. In the context of not having a substitute though, you have to recognize that there's a basic need for water and there should be a basic right to water. But for people who use more than that basic amount of water, they should be charged accordingly. So there should be tiered pricing for water so that those who use the most water are paying for that. And those don't have access to it are guaranteed access to it.

  • 11:47:11

    GJELTENWell, Richard Engel, this is certainly the kind of situation that one has to worry about internationally, where some governments are a lot less responsive to their citizens and others and in some cases, as your report makes clear, there can be efforts by central authorities to suppress minority groups or sectarian groups...

  • 11:47:29


  • 11:47:29

    GJELTEN...of one kind or another. Have you seen any evidence of governments using sort of punitive measures such as taxes, in order to deprive populations of their access to water?

  • 11:47:41

    ENGELNot necessarily taxes. The better example, quite frankly, is that water is subsidized for certain uses by governments, most predominately for agriculture use. But I did want to pick up on a point that comes out of your caller's comment about water as a commodity. One of the things we observed was that water content inside products is something that can be shipped around, even if the water itself is not shipped around.

  • 11:48:07

    ENGELFor example, if one ships beef that has a high water content because of the water required for the grain and for the animal itself. So countries that are water poor, if they have the ability to import these products that have water content in them, we call that virtual water, they can kind of make up for their own internal deficiencies in water. That assumes they have something else they can export to give them the fiscal resources to do the importing.

  • 11:48:31

    GJELTENLet's go now to Dan who's calling us from Columbia, Md. Good morning, Dan. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:48:40

    DANIt's a pleasure to be here.

  • 11:48:40

    GJELTENThank you.

  • 11:48:41

    DANThank you for taking my call.

  • 11:48:42

    GJELTENYou're welcome. And do you have a comment or a question for us?

  • 11:48:47

    DANI do. My company uses a technique called computerated dispute resolution to help resolve water management disputes across the country. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, Kansas River Water Assurance District, The Delaware River Basin Commission and a whole raft of others, including the coop section of The Potomac River Commission, that assures water for Washington, D.C. itself, have used this technique to resolve otherwise very complicated agreements.

  • 11:49:20

    DANThis puts analytical tools in the hands of stakeholders and allows them, the stakeholders, to build agreements and institutions, such as the coop section of The Potomac River Commission, that resolve these things. Most of the benefits of course are local to water users in any given basin. So I think it's vital for local stakeholders to be involved in water management decisions. And this is rarely the case, particularly in international negotiations. The current state of negotiations on the Columbia river is an example of this, where the state department and the Corps of Engineers are doing all of the negotiations for the United States and it's difficult for stakeholders to get involved.

  • 11:50:07

    GJELTENWell, Dan, just to understand more clearly what it is you're talking about. What would be an example of a dispute and who would the parties to that dispute be?

  • 11:50:17

    DANOh, let's take a look at the Alabama, Georgia, Florida dispute in the ACF Basin, Atlanta's water supply. The parties are all of the stakeholders in the ACF, Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Basin. And those stakeholders have had little or no voice in the resolution of the disputes. It's all been among the governors of the states.

  • 11:50:43


  • 11:50:44

    DANAnd consequently, no solutions have been forthcoming, in part because the governors have been, I believe, able to exploit the situation for political gain, rather than serve the interests of their constituents. There is now a collaborative process going on in that basin which (unintelligible) in.

  • 11:51:01

    GJELTENOkay. Jessica -- Thank you very much, Dan. Jessica Troell, from your work at the Environmental Law Institute, you have, in fact, focused on some of these kind of cases, haven't you?

  • 11:51:11

    TROELLYeah, absolutely. As the caller mentioned, he really raised the critical issue of stakeholder engagement and sound water management. And that happens at all levels, at the local level all the way up to the transboundary level and the difficulties, particularly at the transboundary level of dealing with so many varied interests. But recognizing that conflicts break out when there is either no framework for equitable allocation or where the system for allocation is perceived as inequitable, that when you can involved users in planning and decision making, whether that's, you know, farmers at the local level or states sharing a basin, it provides a really important mechanism for identifying what potential conflicts might be and for potentially mitigating those conflicts.

  • 11:51:53

    TROELLAnd I think it gets harder and harder when you talk about the public, you know, water users writ large to have a successful mechanism for engaging them in these high-level discussions, but there is a move towards trying to create those mechanisms at the river basin level involving communities, but also within international water projects sponsored by the Global Environment Facility for example.

  • 11:52:17

    GJELTENJessica Troell is senior attorney and director of the international water program at the Environmental Law Institute. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And I want to go now to a website comment. Claire left a note on our website saying, "I find it ironic that water would be covered under national security concerns, but gasoline and food grains are not." General Engel, what is the argument for focusing specifically, in this case exclusively, on water to the exclusion of other environmental issues?

  • 11:52:52

    ENGELWell, we have not excluded other issues. We look at other issues that affect national security. Obviously, energy security is a major...

  • 11:52:59


  • 11:52:59

    ENGEL...thrust for the intelligence community.

  • 11:53:00

    GJELTENWhat about food and grains?

  • 11:53:02

    ENGELWe are doing right now a report on food that we hope to have published probably in about twelve months that will be a national intelligence estimate on food. So we are following suit after our water. And by the way, both of those follow our climate change report, which kind of identified food and water as issues where climate change may end up impacting states.

  • 11:53:23

    GJELTENI actually sort of put words in your mouth previously, which I shouldn't do. How does the National Security establishment, your intelligence colleagues, also your military colleagues deal with this very contentious issue of climate change and the question of whether human activity has contributed to it or not?.

  • 11:53:42

    ENGELWe really don't. I mean, from our point of view, we ask the scientific community to answer the question for us. Is the climate changing? How is it changing and where is it going to change? We use that data from the scientific community and this is where a whole of government approach would be very constructive, to help us understand what it's going to mean to future water availability, what that climate change might mean to future food availability. And then with all of that we make national security judgments based upon what they tell us is going to be available.

  • 11:54:09

    GJELTENOkay. I want to go now to Shiloh, who's calling us from Lansing, Mich. Good morning, Shiloh. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:54:16

    SHILOHGood morning.

  • 11:54:17

    GJELTENYou have a question for us?

  • 11:54:19

    SHILOHThank you for having me on. I wanted to bring it back to the issue of bottled water. And I was wondering if any of your guests could comment on what the corporations are doing, both in this county -- and I live in Michigan, so it's an issue significant to me where I live, but also the corporations preventing access to water in other countries by putting it in their plastic bottle to ship it around the world and then it's not available to people in third world nations that really need it. If any of your guests could comment on that.

  • 11:54:54

    GJELTENSteve Fleischli, I'll bet you have a thought on that.

  • 11:54:56

    FLEISCHLII do have some thoughts on it. You know, it goes back to the issue of the commodification of water and what are we doing about that. You know, interestingly, in the Great Lakes, the Great Lakes Compact which talks about agreements with Canada on how we're going to allocate Great Lakes water within the basin allows for an exclusion for bottled water. So you can't transfer water outside the basin if you just want to use it in a neighboring community that's just outside the boundaries, but you can ship it out as long as you have it in a small enough container to take it out. And I do think that locally, you know, depending on where you live, you do see significant problems with bottled water and the impact on resources.

  • 11:55:34

    FLEISCHLIAnd I think it's incumbent on the bottled water industry to really make sure that they're extracting at sustainable levels and that the community's involved in that process and isn't being exploited in that process. And overseas I think we see that as well. Around the country you do hear of challenges in India, in particular, where farmers might not have access to water and yet bottling companies have access to water. And I think, you know, that's a real challenge and it's a real problem.

  • 11:56:00

    GJELTENJessica Troell, very quickly.

  • 11:56:01

    TROELLVery quickly. I'd just say, to be fair there are a lot of bottled water companies or some bottled water companies that are understanding the risks to the community and that are inherent in their productive capacities and are undertaking water risk assessments in order to more actively engage with those communities and understand what the impacts of their commodification of this water is.

  • 11:56:18

    GJELTENJessica Troell is senior attorney and director of the international water program at the Environmental Law Institute. We've been talking today about global water security and the discussion was prompted by a report from the National Intelligence Council. Richard Engel, who's a retired Air Force Major General and director of the National Intelligence Council's Environment and Natural Resources Program, was key to that. And we'd like to thank you, sir, for coming on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:56:44

    ENGELMy pleasure.

  • 11:56:45

    GJELTENI know it's not easy for intelligence officers to get out of your headquarters back there. Thanks also to Geoff Dabelko, director of Environmental Change and Security at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Steve Fleischli, a senior attorney in the water program at the National Resources Defense Council. I'm Tom Gjelten. I've been sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.

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