Climate Adaptation

Water: Weapon of War or Tool for Cooperation? A Reflection on Marcus King’s Research

Nigeria, one of the most fragile states in the world, is facing significant challenges regarding water security. Its issues with weak governance, insurgent campaigns perpetrated by Boko Haram, ethnic clashes in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, and militant groups attacking oil infrastructure leading to water pollution are only making the situation worse.

The following article Water Stress, Instability, and Violent Extremism in Nigeria, expands on a book chapter by IIEP’s Marcus King. In the piece, King discusses Nigeria’s struggles as one of many countries facing poor water security. Not only is this a serious situation for Nigerians, but it also has implications for the U.S. as well as international and regional institutions. These international implications arise because Nigeria is key in fighting Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has already established influence in neighboring Niger, Mali, and Mauritania. Nigeria’s threatened water security also leads to inconsistent supply distributions in Nigeria’s oil sector as well as leading to a migratory arc of instability.

When examining the situation in Nigeria, water security conditions seem unwinnable, but Marcus King argues that water issues can actually lead to cooperation amongst nations in his paper Water, US Foreign Policy and American Leadership. Water insecurity is defined as water problems involving shortages, poor water quality, or floods affecting food, energy, and health. In the face of this insecurity, the U.S. has the opportunity to be the global leader in the development and implementation of technology and practices dedicated to improving water resource management. A key tool to achieve this is the utilization of public-private partnerships (PPPs) as a way for the U.S. government to leverage private sector innovation and capital.

Additionally, not only is the prevention of water instability a good policy choice for the U.S., it is also good politics. With bipartisan support on the issue, stronger water management policies address development, diplomacy, and defense challenges in critical regions.

Ethiopia can be looked to as an example of just how vital U.S. intervention is regarding water security. Currently, Ethiopia suffers from water scarcity in some regions and water abundance in others, with the totality of the state encompassing socio-economic systems that are sensitive to climate change. The U.S. currently provides military aid and assistance to Ethiopia as it is a base for U.S. drone operations aimed at combating terrorism. Furthermore, the potential conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia over dam projects in the Nile could lead to regional conflict, which would place the U.S. in the center of the unrest.

By working with Ethiopia and other vulnerable states of interest to the U.S., America can strengthen its soft power brand as an international leader and innovator, while preventing unneeded conflict.

For the U.S. to develop an effective strategy to fulfill this, King suggests a “whole of U.S.” approach calling for Congress and the Administration as a whole to give greater priority to water issues, the establishment of a Senior Director position at the National Security Council, and an increase in staffing and budgets for various water initiatives to work with the government. Some of the recommendations are reflected in the U.S. Government Global Water Strategy released on November 16, 2017.

Water is essential for human health, but it should also be considered essential for U.S. national security. Pursuing water security not only saves lives in the country being assisted, but it also prevents regional conflicts, leading to a more secure and peaceful world.


The Institute for International Economic Policy (IIEP), which is located within the Elliott School of International Affairs, serves as a catalyst for high quality, multi-disciplinary, and non-partisan research on policy issues surrounding economic globalization. The Institute research program helps develop effective policy options and academic analysis in a time of growing controversies about international economic integration in many countries around the world. The institute's work also encompasses policy responses for those who face continued poverty and financial crises despite worldwide economic growth. Affiliated faculty have appointments in the departments of economics, history, and political science as well as the law and business schools.

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