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Water wells can feed global peace—A Commentary by David S. Abraham and Michael Breen ’11

The following commentary was published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 21, 2010.

Water wells can feed global peace
By David S. Abraham and Michael Breen ’11

When U.S. Army Capt. Benjamin Sklaver deployed to Uganda on a conflict-prevention mission, he quickly discovered the key to success: water. Lack of water contributed to the brutality of a war that lasted 20 years. Ben and his fellow soldiers addressed the problem by devoting considerable talent and resources to water-related development projects.

The effort proved so successful that shortly after he returned to Atlanta, Ben founded ClearWater Initiative, a nonprofit that brings clean water to developing countires. His motives were simple. Ben believed in preventing violence by addressing it early, at the source --- and he understood that a cause of instability in the modern world is often a dry well.

He deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 on a mission to bring needed assistance to the civilian population. Tragically, Ben was killed in a suicide attack only a few months after his tour began.

Tomorrow, on World Water Day, it is essential we remember a central lesson of his life and service: Guns may win wars, but meeting people's needs sustains peace.

Water has always been humanity's most basic and essential resource. Small wonder, then, that societies often use water as a military tool and turn to violence when the resource is threatened. Wars over water are as old as history, and many of antiquity's great empires such as the Assyrians and Babylonians would destroy water sources, leading to conflict.

More recently, water scarcity has been linked to heightened political tensions in the Middle East, central Asia and Africa, as well as the conflict in Darfur and the genocide in Rwanda. Nine of the 10 most violence-torn nations in the world today face serious water shortages. (The only nation on the list with adequate water resources is Iraq.)

If water scarcity promotes conflict, there will be much more conflict in our future. While the global population tripled in the 20th century, water consumption increased seven-fold.

By 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will likely suffer from insufficient water resources. More than 2 billion people already live in water-stressed nations. One country on the list is Afghanistan. Another is Yemen, where al-Qaida is working to establish a safe haven.

If we do not act to alter these trends, cheap assault rifles may soon become more easily obtained than a clean glass of drinking water in some parts of the globe. In a world of globalized insurgencies and international terrorism, we cannot afford to ignore the implications for our national security.

Water projects also remind beneficiaries that the United States remains a responsible global leader --- and that our leadership is an extension of enduring values. Respect for human potential lies at the heart of what defines us as a nation. Without a reliable water supply, too many children in the developing world succumb to disease and are denied the chance to become all that they can be --- all that their societies and the world so desperately need them to be. With an American-funded well in the center of their village, those same children will grow up remembering that generosity from across the sea restored hope when they needed it most.

Fortunately, there is much we can do to prevent future conflict and build American good will. Often at around $5 per person, providing a community with safe water is an efficient way to alleviate the causes of instability and radicalization. Digging wells and protecting springs today is vastly less expensive than putting boots on the ground tomorrow.

Wells are not a panacea for world peace, but there's every reason to believe that they can have a major impact. As a generation of American military officers has learned on the streets of Iraq and in the mountains of Afghanistan, meeting the needs of the people is the key to establishing security.

Quenching thirst abroad is more than charity that confers health benefits --- it's crucial to America's national security.

David S. Abraham, the director of ClearWater Initiative and a Truman National Security Fellow, oversaw foreign assistance at the White House Office of Management and Budget. Michael Breen, a student at Yale Law School, is a former Army captain who served with the infantry in Iraq and led paratroopers in Afghanistan.