Water Security is incredibly important to the safety and security of any country, though it’s a topic that rarely pops up when discussing national security. Water, however, in the majority of the world, is a precious commodity and one that is a necessity for the foundations of any society or civilization. As an example, recently in Oldsmar, Florida, a hacker “gained access to the city’s water treatment plant bumping the sodium hydroxide in the water to a "dangerous" level. The caustic substance could have caused major issues for the city’s drinking water supply.” While this didn’t result in a major threat to the city’s populace, it reinforces the threat that hackers pose to the water industry and how susceptible the water industry is to outside influences.

The Sustainable Water Partnership defines water security as being, “the adaptive capacity to safeguard the sustainable availability of, access to, and safe use of an adequate, reliable and resilient quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and productive economies,” while further describing just how important water is by noting that water is imperative to the survival of humanity, the fueling of agriculture, energy production, [and] transportation ecosystems, and plays a big role in mitigating risk in natural disasters and violent conflict.

A 2012 joint intelligence estimate published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (with all signatory members contributing) explicitly touched on water as being a national security problem, with the assessment stating, 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 U.S. policy objectives.

It’s estimated that 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.

In locations where water is not easily accessible or where there is large-scale conflict (in the form of civil war, terrorism or other geopolitical challenges), maintaining a steady and ample supply of water is imperative.

First, to improve water security, what is most important is gaining large-scale support from the necessary nations, mainly members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, UK, U.S.) and other influential nations in select regions (Saudi Arabia for the Middle East, India for South Asia, South Africa and Mauritania for Africa) that are in places willing to help make water more easily accessible to impoverished or war-torn locations.

Having these allies involved, much like a large-scale military operation, would allow increased resources, political connections and capital, and the ability to cover more ground, bolstering the total effort and making the work less taxing individually. Secondly, infrastructure must be put in place that allows for water to freely enter a location. Allowing international construction companies or enabling domestic construction companies to work on large-scale projects to bring water to these areas would improve economic growth domestically and internationally while providing an essential service to the needy. Thirdly, putting forth a literacy and activist campaign that promotes humanity and individual countries being good environmental policy would assist in allowing people to gain awareness about the issue water security poses to individual communities and countries. 

Naturally, there are multiple other concerns as well. A revolutionary group or government desiring to attain total control of the country could easily cut off water to a region or district in an act similar to extortion or simply cut off the water supply in an attempt to commit ethnic genocide. Not only this, but running pipelines or establishing machinery in an area where there is constant fighting or struggles (for example, a country experiencing a civil war like Syria) poses multiple problems on various fronts, requiring constant physical protection, further involvement in a prolonged and complicated conflict, and working with organizations that, in any other case, a country may not become allied with.

Attacks on water systems can come in various forms, not only from pure physical threats. Again, most water-carrying, transport, and filtration systems are managed by way of sensitive and complex electronic systems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified that cyberattacks upon water systems can involve the installation of, “malicious programs like ransomware, which can disable business enterprise or process control operations… [the stealing of] customers’ personal data or credit card information from the utility’s billing system,” and the general defacement of a company’s website, all of which can, “compromise the ability of water and wastewater utilities to provide clean and safe water to customers, erode customer confidence, and result in financial and legal liabilities.”

What this brief does not get into is how foreign actors could easily manipulate these actions to put forth foreign policy or personal political goals. For example, if the Iraqi government were developing a water system to bring clean water from the Kurdistan in Northern Iraq to other, less water-rich parts of the country, it is very possible that the Iranian government could perform a cyberattack against the developing water system, damaging it and depriving the Iraqis of clean water while simultaneously running misinformation blaming the lack of clean water in Iraq on the Kurds themselves, stoking ethnic divides in Iraq. Or, organized criminal elements could implement programs against a city’s water department which denies citizens the water in exchange for money, a common extortion tactic in use by many organized criminal groups and families. 

In defending against these attacks, the EPA has detailed both basic (having only those with security clearances being able to access systems, monitoring IT systems, regular cybersecurity training) and advanced (advanced cybersecurity threat drills, use of strong and different passwords) measures to protect systems. The American Water Works Association too has identified similar methods of protection for water systems, detailing how there have been cases in the past with ransomware incidents in which water systems were incapacitated. Basically, having a strong and diligent work force that emphasizes cybersecurity and basic methods of cyber protection is imperative to maintaining security.