This paper summarizes our current understanding of water and security threats and their links to conflict, migration, and food insecurity. It is intended for professionals in the defense, diplomacy, and development fields. We review the key drivers behind growing water risk, describe and illustrate water and security pathways, and present approaches for reducing water related risks to global security.

Key Findings

  • A wide range of water-related risks undermine human well-being and can contribute to political instability, violent conflict, human displacement and migration, and acute food insecurity, which in turn can undermine national, regional, and even global security.

  • Political instability and conflicts are rarely caused by any single factor, such as a water crisis. Instead, water crises should be seen as contributing factors to instability.

  • While water risks have threatened human civilizations over millennia, today’s global population growth and economic expansion—together with threats from climate change—create a new urgency around an old problem.

  • We classify water and security pathways under three broad categories: diminished water supply or quality, increased water demand, and extreme flood events.

  • Water risk is not only a function of hazards, such as extreme droughts and floods, it is also a function of a community’s governance capacity and resilience in the face of natural hazards.

  • No single strategy is sufficient to reduce water risk. Instead, multifaceted approaches will be needed.

Executive Summary

Water has played a key role in human security throughout history, but attention to water-related threats has been growing in recent years due to increasing water risks. Water demand has increased sharply in many regions of the world as a result of population growth and economic expansion. Water supply is expected to decline in the mid-latitude regions of the world because of climate change, which is also expected to alter the timing of water availability and increase the severity of drought and flood events. The destruction of natural habitat and the discharge of untreated municipal, industrial, and agricultural wastewater into our rivers and lakes is rendering much of our surface water and groundwater unusable. These increasing pressures on water resources are undermining water security and contributing to conflict, migration, and food insecurity in many parts of the developing world.

A water and security classification system: multiple water and security pathways. There are many pathways leading from water risk to water insecurity (which in turn may lead to conflict, migration, or acute food insecurity). Three general pathways include diminished water supply or quality, increased water demand, and extreme flood events. Each of these pathways includes subpathways, and multiple subpathways often coincide to undermine water security in a given watershed. A region’s capacity to handle “water shocks” also influences outcomes. Water-related conflict, migration, and food insecurity are much more likely if governance is weak, infrastructure is inadequate, and institutions are fragile.

Although water risks are growing worldwide, there are many risk-reducing options available to decision-makers. Some of these options include imposing water demand caps in water-stressed regions; replacing water-inefficient irrigation schemes with more efficient irrigation technologies (irrigation accounts for 70 percent of water withdrawals worldwide); planting water-efficient and drought-resistant crops; introducing social safety net programs; reducing global food loss and waste; reducing population growth rates; implementing urban water conservation measures; investing in wastewater treatment and reuse technologies; engaging in negotiation of watershed agreements; improving water data and information systems; investing in dams, dikes, and levees; protecting and restoring natural capital, including forests and wetlands; and helping countries strengthen their governance systems.