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What can we learn from defence policy to tackle global water scarcity?

Dr David Stuckenberg, Shannon Stuckenberg and Dr Tony Contento

US Air Force Strategic Policy Fellow and Chairman of the American Leadership & Policy Foundation

10 July 2020

We are accelerating into a once-unthinkable future – a world increasingly beset by a scarcity of freshwater. Decades of non-action have led to failing infrastructure, depleted aquifers, and polluted reserves of freshwater. It is not a crisis we can afford to ignore, lives depend on cooperation and thoughtful, bold, and extended actions from leaders and citizens alike.

Water scarcity: A 21st Century reality

There is no single, instant solution that will stabilise regional or global water security nor fix the geopolitical insecurities that arise as a consequence of this crisis. Given the complex geopolitical and economic repercussions to communities and countries, two elements will be critical to helping innovators and problem-solvers shape and re-shape the environment to mitigate water scarcity: unapologetic leadership and systems thinking. As in any crisis or disaster environment, when the risks are already high this often leads to greater caution to avoid further risks. However, such risk aversion can lead to non-action, so it must be intentionally managed.

During the Apollo 13 Mission to land man on the moon, a mechanical malfunction required that leadership take even more risk to save the lives of the astronauts aboard the Apollo module. The Apollo 13 Mission Flight Director, Gene Krantz, told his team, "Failure is not an option", while demonstrating a willingness to take greater risks by empowering team members to find innovative solutions. This action employed unapologetic leadership.

As for systems thinking, no single solution to Apollo 13's mechanical issues could be brought to bear without considering their holistic effects on other onboard processes and systems. What returned the crew safely to earth required both unapologetic leadership and systems thinking. So, how can we apply this to water scarcity?

Leaders involved in the deliberation of methods to mitigate water scarcity must lead boldly and consider all options, including novel ones.– Dr David Stuckenberg

Avoid omission and scan the environment

Today, leaders involved in the deliberation of methods to mitigate water scarcity must lead boldly and consider all options, including novel ones. Conditions demand it. However, the tendency to hyper-focus on the central problem - a lack of water, can tempt us to overlook or omit other reasonable ways to find holistic solutions to scarcity issues.

For example, in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), many states continue to add significant water capability through desalinisation which puts a strain on other resources such as the bulk power distribution system. In Saudi Arabia, it has been estimated that up to 25 per cent of the nation's total energy generation is spent creating freshwater. While this is a second-order effect of desalinisation, third order effects can include the destruction of ecosystems and even elevation of local seawater salinity. Within MENA, there is growing concern, under certain conditions, that if desalinisation is overused, hyper-salinity (high salt levels) could make reverse osmosis untenable. This represents just one of many scenarios within a complex global freshwater ecosystem.

To avoid hyper-focus during flights, airline and military pilots are taught how to systematically scan aircraft instruments. A failure to take all information into account during an instrument cross-check can have disastrous results, causing either fixation – where a pilot stares in a trance-like state at a single instrument or omission – where a pilot omits a key instrument from their cross-check relying once more on only partial information.

Like pilots, decision-makers within the water sphere can also fixate or omit. Because clean water is still coming out of many faucets, planners often fail to recognise the gravity of growing or even materialising risks. Such failures may provide an early signal for emerging national water security disasters, meaning that compounding regional failures may lead to national-level water disasters.

While omission or fixation within the sphere of water resources, conservation, and utilities may not cause an immediate crash in the sense of an out of control aircraft, these errors can be difficult to recognise and correct promptly. When compounded by unforeseen conditions or catalysts – such as drought, accidents, or sabotage – conditions can rapidly deteriorate, leaving communities stranded. Such outcomes can be avoided if leaders learn what to watch for as water scarcity issues increasingly manifest.

Water scarcity may only be a single causal factor in an environment disrupted by other climatic and social conditions more generally, but the accumulation of these factors can and often will lead to water insecurity.– Dr David Stuckenberg

Water scarcity is caused by a chain of interconnected factors

Disasters and accidents are commonly linked to interdependent causal factors – conditions or events that often lead to unexpected outcomes. Water scarcity may only be a single causal factor in an environment disrupted by other climatic and social conditions more generally, but the accumulation of these factors can and often will lead to water insecurity.

The prevention imperative is to ensure planners, leaders, and decision-makers constantly scan for manifest risks, anticipate unrealised risks, and make inputs before conditions combine to stall or even prevent recovery. In this way, systems thinking, or considering processes as mechanisms comprised of many interlinked systems, can provide invaluable insights into how to solve complex issues such as water scarcity. A failure to plan for possible second- and third-order effects when tackling water scarcity, can make the problem worse.

For example, the use of more than 18,000 desalinisation plants worldwide will, over time, adversely affect the local environment and ecosystems, negatively impacting local and regional economies. The brine from desalinisation contains concentrated salts, heavy metals, and other toxins harmful to humans and biological systems. The cost of this brine waste management may eventually outgrow the budget available as the amount of brine is greater than the amount of freshwater produced.

We must open up the aperture of how we assess accumulating risks and open people's minds to solutions that may challenge accepted norms. For example, in the development of military water generation systems and solutions, the US based company, Genesis Systems LLC, found itself at the very limits of civil engineering. However, by engaging with the aerospace industry, novel solutions well within the purview of aerospace engineers were applied to the problem. Due to this change in mindset, the company was able to achieve greater than a 70 per cent increase in electrical efficiency in making water from the air. Today, this technology is among the most electrically efficient in the world.

Another example of omission or fixation can be seen in Australia. At least 10 cities in Australia face the prospect of Day Zero. To prevent such an outcome in Southern Australia, more than one billion dollars was spent to open a high-capacity desalination facility. However, little thought was given to what would occur once the drought broke. The total demand on the station is presently estimated to be about 1/10 of the plant's capacity. Today, adjacent communities and citizens are bearing the burden of financing this mega project, as costs soar from falling water demand. These citizens are paying the price for lack of foresight and systems planning by their leadership.

Finally, Mexico City provides an example of sustained second- and third-order effects that are adversely impacting the socioeconomic wellbeing of a population. A large percentage of the city does not have water running in the home. Over the years, mismanagement of the aquifer underlying the city has caused land subsidence, which has weakened structures and destabilised the city. In addition to geological changes, the high cost of electricity needed to pump water from the ground has driven many non-municipal owned pumping stations out of business, in turn, increasing water scarcity. Notwithstanding, truck-based water deliveries provided by most water pumping stations take weeks. To ensure water deliveries are not missed, many of Mexico City's women remain out of the workforce to ensure their homes have water.

In terms of defence, such conditions can undermine militaries' ability to provide for regional and collective security. – Dr David Stuckenberg

Addressing water scarcity: Recognise, confirm, recover

As pilots are trained to recover an aircraft from an unusual attitude or un-expected condition, they are inculcated with three words: recognise (the problem); confirm (the problem); and recover (to a safe attitude and altitude). Around the world, the same can be applied to understanding what must be done to reduce water scarcity.

Recognise: Zero Day scenarios will become more common due to widespread droughts, changing rainfall patterns, and shifting populations. These once-unthinkable scenarios are the first obvious symptoms in a fast-spreading, global trend. When combined with the general lack of water conservation, piecemeal planning, poor regulation, and enforcement, and aging or failing water systems infrastructure, extremely high water stress will soon affect more than one-quarter of the world's population.

Confirm: While water conservation and recycling has proven somewhat effective in certain localities, there must be more aggressive efforts to invest in water systems infrastructure and new technologies. A failure to prioritise long-term investment into these areas will lead to increased water scarcity and water stress as we rely on the same outdated technologies that helped lead to the very conditions they are being used to solve. In other words, new technologies, management methods, and ideas must be generated, or outcomes will remain the same.

In terms of defence, such conditions can undermine militaries' ability to provide for regional and collective security. For example, it is believed that logistics-dependent water sustainment for US Army deployedtroops and peacekeepers, will no longer be possible. Other means of supplying water must be used; otherwise, the collapse of stability operations, like peacekeeping and capacity building, will be a dangerous endeavor. Therefore, the US Army recently recommended the use of emerging new atmospheric water generation systems to supply water to forward operating locations located in remote areas.

Recover: Use intelligent legislation and investment, both short-term and long-term, to prevent exacerbation of the crisis. Such efforts must be planned and conducted using systems thinking, coupled with bold leadership. Bold leadership requires that decision-makers be willing and empowered to take actions that risk dollars, rather than people and communities. Too often, leaders are afraid to risk money due to political pressure or fear of failure. There must be a willingness to fail in the efforts to bring fresh, lasting, and viable solutions to bear.

Global water scarcity is a growing problem today, and we must address it with intelligence and leadership. In doing so, it is critical to ensure that our leaders scan the entire environment to ensure addressable conditions are not omitted from the solution calculus. Once a scan of the environment is made, leaders must be bold about the development of simultaneous and parallel strategies to ensure that the failure of one option does not jeopardise the ultimate success of communities and economies. Finally, systems thinking must be used to ensure second and third-order effects arising from actionable strategies are holistically considered. A failure to do so can lead to long-term issues in unanticipated areas. Such unanticipated conditions can cancel out well-made gains in addressing water scarcity.

Water scarcity is solvable, but it requires adaptation. Business, as usual, will result in predictable outcomes and failure. With intelligent and intellectually honest approaches, leaders and managers can recognise the conditions unfolding, confirm and scan the environmental elements to holistically understand the environment; and finally, recover by making bold and informed decisions that anticipate second- and third-order effects.

Dr David Stuckenberg earned his PhD at King’s College London; he is an US Air Force Strategic Policy Fellow and Chairman of the American Leadership & Policy Foundation.

Shannon Stuckenberg is CEO & Co-founder at Genesis Systems LLC a global water technology company that pioneers state-of-the-art digital water technologies.

Dr Tony Contento is an agriculture and water scientist, Director of Research at the American Leadership & Policy Foundation, and faculty at Colorado State University.

This contribution is based on the original article published by the Harvard National Security Journal (2018).

The opinions, positions, and ideas herein are those of the authors alone. They do not constitute an endorsement by the U.S. Department of State, United States Air Force, or U.S. government agency.

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