During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important US policy objectives. Between now and 2040, fresh water availability will not keep up with demand absent more effective management of water resources. Water problems will hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth. As a result of demographic and economic development pressures, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia will face major challenges coping with water problems.
Engineering solutions to water shortages—including the transfer of water between rivers—are becoming increasingly common, particularly as urban water demands grow. However, such measures threaten to raise tensions between organizations implementing these transfers and those harmed by them. In addition, in developing nations significant engineering efforts often harm the livelihoods of local populations, leading to increased poverty and food insecurity. They are expensive and degrade natural processes such as water cleaning and flood and drought mitigation. The lack of water data systems, especially in the developing world, leaves efforts to foster efficient water management open to the risk of creating unintended consequences through ignorance of the freshwater systems they are altering.
Because US expertise in water management is widely recognized, the developing world will look to the United States to lead the global community toward the development and implementation of sound policies for managing water resources at the local, national, and regional levels. Pressure will arise for a more engaged United States to make water a global priority and to support major development projects, including through financial assistance.
US expertise on water resource management in both the public and private sectors is highly regarded and will be sought after worldwide. Improving water management, trade of products with high water content, and institutional capacities to treat water and encourage efficient water use will likely be the most effective approaches to mitigate water-related social tensions.
States with water problems will require integrated water, land use, and economic data to achieve sound policymaking and management. The United States will be expected to develop and disseminate satellite and other remote sensing data and hydrological modeling tools that allow users to better understand and manage their resources.
These states will look to the United States for support to develop legal and institutional arrangements that resolve water disputes or advance cooperative management of shared waters. Currently, water basin agreements often do not exist or are inadequate for many nations sharing watersheds. New or updated international agreements would lessen the risk of regional tensions over water.
The United States can benefit from an increased demand for agricultural exports as water scarcity increases in various parts of the world. This would be especially true if states expecting increased water scarcity rely upon open markets instead of seeking bilateral land-lease arrangements in other countries to achieve their food security.