The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Water Wealth and Water Savvy Point to Continuing US Global Strength

Via Meadia wishes its readers a happy belated… World Water Day?

We’re the first to admit that, like many other UN-designated pseudo-holidays, March 22 frequently slips our minds. But this year, there’s real reason to think about the future of water. Speaking last Wednesday in Washington and joined by representatives from federal agencies and major American corporations, Secretary Clinton announced the US Water Partnership (USWP), “a public-private partnership that seeks to mobilize U.S.-based knowledge, expertise and resources to improve water security around the world.” Think of it as a framework that makes it easier for experts from, for example, Procter and Gamble, NASA and Africare to act as a coördinated water management consulting firm to developing countries’ corporations and goverments.

There’s good reason to follow this initiative closely. As a DNI paper timed to coincide with Clinton’s speech made clear, water security represents a potential source of instability for much of the developing world. The report presents a prognosis for those areas of the world that are most likely to suffer instability in the next twenty to thirty years. River basins like the Mekong in Southeast Asia, the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates (Turkey, Syria, and Iraq), the Amu-Darya (Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan) and the Brahmaputra (India and Bangladesh) are likely to see the politics of water becoming contentious. Terms like “water leverage” (pressure on donors or corporations to support or halt water infrastructure projects), “water as a weapon” (cutting off downstream flow), or “water terrorism” (bomb attacks on dams, canals, or desalinization plants) could become as common in the 2020s as “cyberterrorism” has in recent years.

Today water issues play a significant role in India-Pakistan relations because Pakistanis fear that India will divert resources on which Pakistan depends. They figure in Israeli-Palestinian tensions as well in a region where every liter of water is precious and the Jordan River, its water diverted for various purposes, often fails to reach the Dead Sea.

But what is a potential crisis for developing countries represents an opportunity for the United States. At a time when the declinist narrative still plays well in the media, it’s easy to forget how much both American prosperity as well as North American regional stability resulted from our water wealth — and our ability to use it (relatively) wisely both domestically and in cooperation with our neighbors.

Water use played a major role in American history and development. Gilded Age legislators enacted laws like the 1877 Desert Land Act to promote homesteading and irrigation in the American West. Contemporary capital markets, though often speculative and under-regulated, fueled the development of Southern California water companies that helped to eventually turn the Golden State into an economically prosperous state that came to embody Liberalism 4.1. ”The forest and water problems are perhaps the most vital internal questions of the United States,” announced President Roosevelt in his first Annual Message (the precursor to the State of the Union speech) in 1901.

The quest to master North American nature was on. Depression-era federal projects like the Columbia Basin Project in Washington State and the Central Valley Project in the San Joaquin Valley in California helped turn the Pacific Northwest from one of the poorest regions of the United States into a metallurgy and defense hub, and the latter from a Dorothea Lange tableau into the world’s most productive agricultural region. The collection of flood control and electrification projects on the Tennessee River and its tributaries substantially advanced the development of the South. Not only that, as the report highlights, bilateral water management agreements between the USA, Canada, and Mexico in force since the mid-20th century may be imperfect but continue to point the way towards international cooperation when it comes to managing a vital resource.

America has not solved all its water problems.  Complicated networks of subsidies and agreements mean that water is sometimes used most wastefully where care is needed most. Growing water intensive, subsidized crops like cotton in the desert may not be an optimal long term strategy for the US anymore than for Central Asia — or Egypt. Snail darters and smelts continue to pit environmentalists against farmers, and it’s hard to argue that the US always manages this rivalry well.

Even so, warts and all this century-and-a-half long history of American expertise in water management constitutes a fruitful arena for US international engagement in the 21st century. Whether it comes to technology and engineering know-how, information systems that collect and disseminate critical data or the integration of water management with other resource issues, the US remains a global leader.  As the State Department report notes, “US technological capability in water treatment and purification and the efficient use of water in agriculture will also be sought after.” Not only do potential rivals like China or India lack the water resources of North America, they also lack a national water strategy comparable to what the unwashed Americans have put together. More than that, thanks to our continuing abundant supply, the US will be able to export more “virtual water” (water-intensive goods that parched countries struggle to produce) than most of its competitors.

At a moment when miasmic doubt about long-term American prospects is common, it’s easy to forget that America has rich resource endowments, a strong institutional framework to manage them, and a dynamic private sector to exploit those resources and export them to a thirsty world. New innovative policy frameworks like USWP, which can leverage the combined strengths of Coca-Cola, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Army Corps of Engineers to strengthen US relationships with the developing world are part of why there’s reason for optimism against the declinist narrative.

Published on March 25, 2012 12:36 pm
  • Anthony

    Soft power exercised in a 21st century world in furtherance of U.S. foreign policy objectives (in contradiction to declinist narrative).

  • Thomas

    I like the idea of thorium reactors along the coasts powering desalination plants while clean water is transported via irrigation or pipelines to the farmlands and cities of America.

  • Andrew Allison

    The track record of public-private partnership that seeks to mobilize U.S.-based knowledge, expertise and resources to improve [you name it] around the world.” is less than stellar! Smells like yet another NGO boondoggle to me.

  • Kenny

    God has blessed America in many ways, including abundant water and a continental system of navigational rivers & lakes. The latter point, as you know, is one of the major ways a group like Strafor accesses geopolitical & economic strengths.

    The only thing that can prompt America’s decline is not China and surely not the backward Muslims as those in Iran. It is ourselves.

    Up to a dare, Mr. Mead?

    See if you can ‘intellectually’ lower yourself and read The Harbingers” (2011) by Jonathan Cahn (not the reviews of the book, but the book itself) to see my point. For a man like you who makes his living off the written word, you could breeze though such a book in two or three hours tops, with full comprehension.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Water can be removed from air with more than 15% relative humidity using solar power. When this is commercialized, water problems relating to human consumption can be a thing of the past. Without nuclear reactors.

  • BillH

    Good to see another water crisis developing. Only a couple, I believe in my adult lifetime, post WW2 and the 60s or early 70s it seems. We’ve been blessed with running out of petroleum far more often. Looking forward to the next ice age crisis. Going on 40 years since the last one.

  • Jim.

    So has anyone done any thoughtful work about whether it makes sense to devote some of our limited water supply to develop biofuels?

    One thing about Obama’s algae-derived fuel comments — at least that biofuel source wouldn’t complicate our water issues. It’s a pity more hasn’t been made of it since the 1950′s when it was first proposed. Ah well, maybe it’s just a unicorn.

  • Kris

    “The Jordan River, its water diverted for various purposes, often fails to reach the Dead Sea.”

    Hence… :-)

    And mentioning the Depression-era federal projects? Tsk! How will WigWag resist snarking that Blue ain’t all that bad after all?

  • Ann

    The snail darter has won and the central valley has been turned into a dust bowl with an unemployment rate of 25%. Victor David Hanson has written numerous articles about it. Such a shame too because the best peaches and nectarines I’ve ever had were from small farms in that area and I’m sure the small farmers are the hardest hit.