The Water Security and Conflict Prevention Summit in Washington DC brought organizations together to address water security crises. The event, held in September, kicked off a year-long focus on the connection between water scarcity and increase in conflict.

By: Laura Harnish, CH2M HILL Vice President

Last month, the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Association of the United States Army, and the U.S. Water Partnership hosted the first event of a year-long focus on water security and conflict prevention. The event was striking in that it brought more than 300 scientific, economic, diplomatic, national security, and military experts together to discuss global water security issues. Among attendees, there was a common understanding that the current and impending water scarcity crises around the globe are driven by a combination of factors including:

  • growing populations,
  • insufficient infrastructure,
  • inattention to water efficiency climate change, and
  • poor or inappropriate governance.

LTG Thomas Bostick, Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, gave the keynote address and along with other speakers urged governments to increase their investments in water management infrastructure. Bostick shared how effective water resource management and resilient infrastructure encourage security, as well as economic development and growth.

The event included two panel discussions; the first focused on defining objectives, trends, challenges, and opportunities of water security and scarcity and included experts from the National Intelligence Council, the State Department, World Resources Institute, the World Water Council and CH2M HILL, as a member of the U.S. Water Partnership’s Steering Committee.  After a lively discussion that highlighted the severity of the water security challenges around the world, the panelists underscored that water is more likely to lead to cooperation than conflict, but success in resolving conflicts will depend on many factors including transparent decision-making processes to engage stakeholders and adequate investment.

It’s broadly recognized that as populations and demand expand while water supplies decline, access to water will become increasingly difficult, raising the potential for conflict. During the event, I provided perspective on the private sector’s role in water security, which I believe can serve as a catalyst for bringing independent advice, credible data, science and technology for water security challenges (as evidenced by the Decision Support Framework in the Mekong River Basin and other projects).

Additionally, LTG Jeffrey Talley, Chief and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Reserve, outlined the scale of the water challenges and acknowledged the important role that private and public sectors will play, in addition to government, in addressing the water challenge. LTG Talley identified promoting water security to prevent conflict and introduced the U.S. Army Reserve’s unique approach to apply its expertise and capacity while simultaneously training U.S. soldiers to solve water security challenges.

During the second panel, attendees discussed solutions to water security problems, specifically focusing on Africa—emphasizing the potential of public-private partnerships to address water security challenges.

It was truly enlightening and encouraging to see such a diverse and esteemed group gathered to spotlight this growing concern around the world. Participants had an advanced understanding of the root causes of water security conflicts, the leverage points for change, and proven track records in finding and implementing solutions. I left the event feeling encouraged that there are real leaders moving in the right direction to address this critical issue.

Laura Harnish is a Vice President with CH2M HILL. She originally joined the firm in 1987 and led a variety of environmental studies for large water infrastructure and planning projects. After almost 20 years with CH2M HILL, Ms. Harnish joined the Environmental Defense Fund in 2007 where she served as West Coast Regional Director and led the California water program and served as National Strategy Director for EDF’s Land, Water and Wildlife program. Laura serves on the World Economic Forum’s water security council and recently rejoined CH2M HILL as Vice President, with a focus on water resources and ecosystem management.