Dec: CNA: The Role of Water Stress in Instability and Conflict

* CNA: Dec 2017: The Role of Water Stress in Instability and Conflict [PDF; Copy PDF].
* New Security Beat: 05 Feb 2018: The Role of Water Stress in Instability and Conflict.

The Role of Water Stress in Instability and Conflict

February 5, 2018 | CNA Military Advisory Board | The New Security Beat



Tomorrow, the Wilson Center will host the U.S. launch of “The Role of Water Stress in Instability and Conflict,” the latest report from CNA’s Military Advisory Board. Watch live online Tuesday at 9:30 AM EST.

As senior military officers, we see water stress—the lack of adequate fresh water—as a growing factor in the world’s hotspots and conflict areas, many of vital interest to the United States. Our earlier reports have identified a nexus among climate, water, energy, and U.S. national security. We have previously shown how emerging resource scarcityacross this nexus can be a threat multiplier and an accelerant of instability. Withescalating global population and the impact of a changing climate, we see the challenges of water stress rising with time. It is in this context that we now seek to provide a better understanding of the mechanisms through which water factors into violence and conflict.

The Role of Water Stress in Instability and Conflict examines the role of water across a spectrum from civil unrest and localized violence to terrorism, insurgencies, and civil wars to state-on-state conflict. Focusing on water-stressed areas of the world, it articulates the role water plays not only in diplomacy, violence, and conflict, but also how water can be used as a tool of coercion across the spectrum of conflict. Additionally, the research provides insight into how water stress can empower violent extremist organizations and place stable governments at risk.


  • Decreased water availability can be the principal cause of civil unrest and localized violence.
  • Water can bring nation-states to the negotiating table to engage in diplomatic talks across a broad range of issues, with water access being both a key bargaining chip as well as a principal objective.
  • Actual or perceived changes to current or future shared water resources can add to tensions between upstream and downstream states, but this has been—and remains—unlikely as a singular cause for state-on-state war.
  • Water stress can be exploited by non-state actors, violent extremist organizations, insurgents, and other belligerents.
  • Water stress can trigger destabilizing secondary effects, which can lead to conflict.
  • There will be more and widespread occasions of civil unrest and localized violence, with a greater sense of urgency to change perceived governmental inadequacies.
  • As the availability of water decreases, it will become a more valuable tool in the operational strategy for belligerents as well as a larger bargaining chip in diplomatic negotiations.
  • Lower availability of or less access to fresh water will likely add to tensions among neighbors sharing river basins, and finding mutually acceptable diplomatic solutions will become more challenging.


  • Security elements of the U.S. government should regard global water stress as a growing national security concern.
  • In areas of strategic interest to the United States and our allies, expand diplomatic efforts, investment, and technical leadership to mitigate water stress.
  • Expand diplomatic efforts to prevent and mitigate conflicts among countries that share water resources. This will become increasingly important as water stress worsens.
  • Increase U.S. engagement in the development and deployment of water management practices, technologies, and innovations.
  • Incentivize private-sector engagement to spur innovation and improve water management practices. Solutions won’t come from government alone.
  • Develop a common foresight tool to identify areas of emerging water stress, with a focus on the potential for unrest.
  • Develop stronger communication nodes and strategies for alerting the interagency and the international community to the potential for conflict or violence in water-stressed areas.
  • Integrate water stress into strategic-level documents and guidance, such as the National Military Strategy and National Defense Strategy, Geographic Combatant Command theater campaign plans, conflict assessments, risk vulnerability, regional planning, and other material.
  • Incorporate regional water stress information and impact into the U.S. strategy to counter violent extremism.

Designate an office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense to be responsible for global water stress and to coordinate across the interagency on water-stress issues.