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US Elevates Water Security as Foreign Policy Priority

An official at the Carlsbad Desalination plant fills a cup with filtered water made from ocean water, May 26, 2022, in Carlsbad, Calif.

Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday announced the White House Action Plan on Global Water Security, drawing direct links between water scarcity and national security and elevating water security to a core foreign policy priority for the first time.

With almost half of the world's population likely to struggle to meet its water needs by 2030, food scarcity and economic and public health issues could lead to insecurity and mass migration and would have a profound impact on America's interests around the globe, Harris noted during the launch event.

"Water insecurity also makes our world less safe," she said. "Disputes between countries or communities over limited water resources can, predictably and by extension, over time provoke armed conflict."

Attacks on water systems

With the world's population rising and climate change bringing more erratic rainfall and severe droughts, experts say the number of water-related violent incidents is growing. More than 200 such conflicts occurred in the past three years, according to data from the Pacific Institute, which tracks water-related violence around the world.

"The violence and war between Russia and Ukraine that worsened in 2014 and expanded again with the Russian invasion just a few weeks ago have included attacks on civilian water systems and the use of water as a weapon," said Peter Gleick, the institute's co-founder.

The Biden administration's action plan is "an all-of-government approach to addressing global water security," Melanie Nakagawa, Senior Director for Climate and Energy at the White House National Security Council told VOA, adding that it is critical for the U.S. to "get out in front of what is often an overlooked area of action."

The U.S. already has what it bills as a "whole-of-government Global Water Strategy" aimed at creating a more water-secure world. The strategy is mandated by the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2014 to be developed and released every five years. The next update, due later this year, will reflect contributions from more than 17 government agencies and departments.

Three pillars

The global water security action plan comprises three pillars: achieving universal and equitable access to water, sanitation and hygiene; promoting sustainable management of water resources; and ensuring multilateral action that promotes water security.

This means that American diplomatic efforts will integrate water security into development programming and infrastructure initiatives, including those undertaken with international partners.

Observers welcomed the initiative.

"By adopting a broader water security framework, the United States will be better positioned to address the real water challenges that impact people on the ground," said Aaron Salzberg, director of the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and former special coordinator for water at the U.S. Department of State.

Salzberg noted, however, that the initiative is a "repackaging" of existing programs and does not propose structural changes or add new resources to what the U.S. is already doing.

"It certainly sets no new targets," he told VOA.

Still, a greater emphasis on deploying U.S. technical expertise abroad and data-sharing with partners can be a "game changer" for countries, he said.

With Earth systems observation technologies changing rapidly, the U.S. can help other countries readily absorb and utilize the data, allowing them to better monitor, model and forecast what's happening with their water, Salzberg said.

"This is a key first step for any country seeking to achieve water security and manage the impacts of climate change," he added.

During the launch event, Harris noted that water scarcity is slowing the advancement of women and girls around the world.

"Worldwide, women and girls spend 200 million hours a day — 200 million hours a day — gathering water," the vice president said.