Last year the National Intelligence Council released its first-ever Global Water Security Intelligence Community Assessment (PDF). The report noted that 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. Additionally, between now and 2040, fresh water availability will not keep up with demand absent more effective management of water resources.

At USAID, we support a wide variety of water programs that foster economic development throughout the developing world. These programs help mitigate the prospect of conflict and play an important role in both meeting emergency relief needs and bringing long-term stability to people in areas afflicted by conflict.

One day, our future military leaders will be planning and implementing peace-keeping operations, and it is important for them to know how the range of water management approaches implemented by USAID can help foster stability, resilience and economic growth.

I was thus pleased to receive an invitation from Col. Wiley Thompson, the head of the United States Military Academy Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, to deliver a lecture in mid-December on water to about 140 West Point cadets. As these men and women will one day be leading our country, I was honored to impart lessons about how water management may help strengthen the cadets’ capacity to lead.

Chris Holmes with West Point cadets following the lecture on water management. Photo credit: USAID

While my core message to the cadets was this –Water management is key to stability, to improving health, to producing food and energy, to adapting to climate change – there are eight key lessons that I believe would help these cadets as they continue their educations.

1. USAID and the military can and must form effective partnerships.

The Army and USAID have partnered on wide range of water activities, such as: increasing the energy output of the Kajaki dam in Afghanistan, restoring carp fisheries in Iraq, and providing relief to flood and earthquake victims in Pakistan. Such partnering is supported by the USAID- DOD Civilian Military Cooperation policy (PDF). Both USAID and the military bring differing but complimentary technical expertise. In addition, the military provides the logistics support and security to support USAID efforts in the field. This collaboration is essential, especially in providing security in areas prone to conflict and in providing emergency humanitarian assistance requiring the transport of medical supplies and relief personnel.

2. Women leaders must play a vital role in leading water programs.

In Afghanistan, the USAID Sustainable Water Supply Sanitation and Hygiene program supports the development of women leaders, including Female Health Action groups. Women leaders play an essential role in leading community-based water organizations and in resolving disputes over water.

3. Policy Makers must take an integrated approach, linking sectors, programs and policies.

The objective of USAID’s recently initiated Rwanda Integrated Water Security Program is to improve the sustainable management of water quantity and quality to positively impact human health, food security, and resilience to climate change for vulnerable populations in targeted catchments. This integrated water resource management project is intended to serve as a model for USAID water projects.

4. Remote sensing and communications technologies change the game.

In East Africa, The USAID Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNET) is identifying where climate change is actually occurring, analyzing climate change data in patterns over the last 30 to 50 years. This enables USAID and its developing country partners to look in to the future and take steps to adapt to climate change.

The Indonesia WATER SMS project will apply new data-collection tools and sharing methodologies through Short Messaging Services (SMS) and web mapping to increase civic participation to improve water services. Residents, using hand phones and email, can rapidly report chronic and acute conditions.

5. Think across the border.

More than 300 water bodies are shared by two or more countries. Tanzania and Kenya border the Mara river. The USAID Transboundary Water for Biodiversity and Human Health project in the Mara River Basin (TWB-MRB) has helped local communities to develop new water services, refurbish nonfunctioning water systems, and improve sanitation services. There has also been support for setting up water user associations and village savings and loan groups, emphasizing the participation and empowerment of women and the long-term sustainability of the new organizations. Major conflicts can arise over water resources, grazing lands and territory; loss of assets, livestock, hundreds of people killed and  thousands displaced. This calls early focus on  a peace building process, e.g., strengthening Institutions for peace and development

6. It’s not just high tech.

Meeting complex economic development needs requires combining traditional low-tech approaches to water management, such as sand-dam water catchments, with sophisticated high-tech approaches. As part of the climate adaptation strategy in Mali, informed by data from the high-tech FEWSNET, USAID also supports programs that reintroduce traditional soil conservation and management programs to increase food production, a tried and true low-tech approach to enhanced productivity that is being practiced of millions of acres. Drilling rigs for bore holes can easily be counterproductive if not sited in close collaboration with all stakeholder groups in a wider landscape, and linked to local village management capacity.

7. We must provide sustainable solutions to enhance the resilience of communities.

USAID and other donors, through the Productive Safety Net Program, identified a population of 8 million people in Ethiopia particularly vulnerable to climate change. Building large-scale water irrigation and supply systems helped provide sustainable, lasting assistance to enable these communities to weather the 2010/2011 East African droughts.

8. We can’t do it alone.

In Ethiopia, the USAID-funded Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Transformation for Enhanced Resilience (WATER) program works closely with regional and community governments to develop access to clean, safe and sustainable water sources.


When I arrived at West Point, I was awed by the history and physical geography of the place, the Academy high on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, gray granitic slabs of stone emerging from the hills, blending into the school’s impressive stone architecture. The geology, the architecture, the teachers, the students all conveyed one word: strength. In reflecting on my interactions with West Point faculty and students, I came away encouraged and impressed by their understanding of the “strength” of effective water management, how it links both the respective resources and missions of  the military and USAID to foster stability and economic development.