May 24, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - Water Security Demands Attention

"Everything depends on water," says one Cape Town resident, whose city is experiencing its worst drought conditions in the last 400 years. She has a point. Even though we acknowledge water's necessity in sustaining life, we often overlook its global security implications.

Cape Town is likely to be the first major city to reach the point where public taps are turned off and residents are forced onto water rations. Day Zero, as it's come to be called, will hit sometime next year. This has brought inequalities between the rich, who can afford to dig water-yielding bore holes, and the poor, who must rely on public utilities, into sharp relief. As water supplies dwindle, dissatisfaction with civic management increases.

The grim reality is that there are dozens of cities like Cape Town facing severe water stress, and global trends show that more will join their ranks. Zooming out, NASA just published satellite data mapping global changes in freshwater availability. The results reveal large regions in danger of running out of water, including northern India, northeast China, the Caucuses and the wider Middle East.

Water scarcity can lead to a number of security challenges, for instance, civil unrest, disease epidemics, mass migration, and transboundary conflicts. Regions where water is already scarce are particularly vulnerable to two unstoppable forces—climate change and population growth—which will increase water stress and decrease stability. Climate change will make natural freshwater levels more variable and scarcity more acute, while population growth, particularly in highly concentrated urban areas, will increase freshwater demand for sanitation, hydration, energy generation, and commercial activities.

It's time to get serious about preparing for and preventing water-driven conflict around the world. Destabilizing events related to water issues have historically been contained within individual states, but spillovers will become increasingly likely. As Council nonresident fellow Josh Busby writes:

"Local insecurity can spill over to neighboring states through migration, the spread of conflict across borders, or disease, triggering US national security concerns. This is particularly true when the states involved are strategically important to the United States—for instance, because they provide important raw materials, are located along vital sea lanes, are important to the global economy, or coincide with active US military operations."

Last year the US State Department issued its global water strategy, an important step in shoring up water security. If handled the right way, strong institutions for managing water disputes between states, improved infrastructure for increased access, and better resource management can play a critical role in warding off water-related crises—but we needed to have begun planning yesterday.

The United States and the world over has the technical and managerial expertise to mitigate water-related security risks. It comes down to a matter of political will. Are we willing to pay attention to the real threat posed by water scarcity? If so, we need to plan and account for water demand before conflicts arise, or will we pay billions later to respond to crises we can predict today.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments. If you haven't already, please click here to subscribe to This Week's Reads.

How the West Should Judge a Rising China

Martin Wolf / The Financial Times

The “most important truth of our era,” according to Wolf, is that the West must accept its relative decline or engage in a grossly immoral and probably ruinous struggle to prevent it. Part of that acceptance includes evaluating and assessing the views of Chinese leaders—the emerging guard of global economic hegemony. Based on high-level meetings he attended in Beijing, Wolf analyzes how the Chinese ruling elite looks at Western models, rival powers, trade talks with the US, and more.

On Trade, the US and China Consider the Unthinkable: Breaking Up

Keith Bradsher / The New York Times

Leaders in both Beijing and Washington are planning for a time when the economic engines of their respective countries are not so closely linked, particularly in high-tech industries. “They are seeking nothing less than a fundamental rethinking of a trade relationship that encompasses more than $700 billion in goods and services that flow between the countries every year,” Bradsher writes. Thanks to its state-controlled banking system, China might seem to have the upper hand in the divorce, but it trails the United States significantly in crucial areas like microchips, software design, and precision manufacturing. The US, however, may find it difficult to lure back factories that moved to China over the years for cheaper labor.

How the Nixon Pardon Tore the Ford Administration Apart

Donald Rumsfeld / POLITICO

Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who first served under Gerald Ford, recounts how the 38th president tried to, “bring peace to the long and bitter political battles of Watergate, which had been tearing the nation apart.” On September 8, 1974, Ford pardoned Nixon before the latter had even been charged with a crime, hoping to conclude a tragic chapter in American history. This decision, however, fomented suspicions about the circumstances of the pardon, and, ultimately, “as hard as Ford tried to exorcise the ghost of Watergate, it would continue to linger for the rest of his presidency.”

There Has Never Been a Better Time to Invest in France

Anne Dias / The Financial Times

“France is witnessing reform at a rate never before seen in the Fifth Republic,” Dias writes, crediting Emmanuel Macron for the unprecedented speed. The president’s economic adaptations fall into five broad categories: labor market reforms, individual tax cuts, lowering corporate tax rates, a “flat tax” on investment income, and cutting red tape for entrepreneurs. Will President Macron’s plan pay off? “That depends on whether tax cuts and deregulation are accompanied by a serious attempt to cut the size of government,” Dias concludes.

Trump Is Proving to Be the Most Predictable of Presidents

Fred Hiatt / The Washington Post

President Trump is predictable because he makes decisions based on instincts and biases, many acquired decades ago, Hiatt argues. These beliefs include: Allied nations take advantage of the US, dictators are strong and admirable, immigrants and people of color are suspect, wealthy people know best, intellectuals are not to be trusted, and, of course, anything Barack Obama did should be undone. “That canon of gut feelings can explain most of what Trump has done,” Hiatt writes, from pulling the US out of the Paris climate accord and issuing a travel ban aimed at Muslims to cozying up to Vladimir Putin. “Look at whatever he has believed since the 1980s; ignore any evidence that has emerged since; and you can make a fairly educated guess where he will end up.”

Trump Grappling with Risks of Proceeding with North Korea Meeting

David E. Sanger / The New York Times

President Trump seems increasingly concerned that the summit with Kim Jong-Un might not go as well as he imagined. Sanger points out Trump was “both surprised and angered” by a statement from North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator who, “declared the country would never trade away its nuclear weapons capability in exchange for economic aid.” According to Sanger, the president’s aides are concerned about Trump’s grasp on the details of North Korean denuclearization, saying he has, “resisted the kind of detailed briefings about enrichment capabilities, plutonium reprocessing, nuclear weapons production and missile programs that Mr. Obama and President George W. Bush regularly sat through.” Adding to the discord, last week Trump contradicted his national security advisor, John Bolton, over the efficacy of using the Libya model for denuclearization.

Where “America First” Once Led

Eliot A. Cohen / The Atlantic

A new exhibit—that has been years in the making—at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Americans and the Holocaust,” seems to speak to where America stands today, Cohen writes. It is composed of hometown newspapers from around the country during the rise of Hitler. Although “sympathy with the Jews of Germany and later Europe was impressive,” Americans were not willing to take in refugees, even children. “The exhibit brings home both the feel of these attitudes and policies and the human price paid for them,” Cohen writes. “This might all be an occasion for mere brooding about the past, were there not some jarring echoes for today.”

Italy Illustrates the Way to Liberal Democracy’s Demise

Wolfgang Münchau / The Financial Times

Underestimating threats to the liberal order is a classic mistake dating back to the Weimar Republic, writes Wolfgang Münchau in his latest commentary on populism in Italy. Münchau evaluates the arguments of those who refuse to believe Italy could exit the Eurozone, countering each with a healthy reality check. Italy's constitution, financial market reaction, a strong Italian president, the center's ability to "stitch things up," and the European Central Bank's powers are all plausible barriers to Italy’s exit, but will all fail if liberal democracy can't deliver economic prosperity for a sufficiently large portion of the population over long periods of time, he writes.

Ending the Dead End in North Korea

James Clapper / The New York Times

James Clapper, director of national intelligence from 2010-17, says he felt North Korea policy during Obama's administration was flawed, and expresses hope that President Trump's decision to meet with Kim Jong-Un would mark a courageous step for the de-escalation of tensions on the peninsula. In Clapper's view, the US should give up its demand that Kim disarms before any other negotiation, sign a peace treaty, establish an American office in Pyongyang and allow Kim to establish a mission in Washington, and eventually hope to offer up a road map to withdrawing many of the US forces from the peninsula. "The United States has no permanent enemies," he recalls telling a previous North Korean interlocutor, and he remains hopeful that the narrative can still change with North Korea.


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