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Illustration by Richard Mia

World Water Woes

​Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 commencement speech, titled “A Strategy of Peace,” foreshadowed the vulnerability of nonrenewable resources around the world today.

Human beings require approximately 50 liters (about 13 gallons) of fresh water per day. But in North America, the average citizen uses more than 300 liters (almost 80 gallons) of fresh water every day, more than twice the world average. At least 75 percent of the water consumed in North America has been acquired, transported, treated, and distributed through municipal or regional water treatment systems, at a significant cost. 

Water treatment systems in North America are vital—and make tempting targets for terrorists. Between 1994 and 2014, 138 attacks targeting food and water supplies were recorded in the Global Terrorism Database maintained by the University of Maryland. As a vital asset and symbol of democratic societies, water is and will continue to be considered a high-value target for terrorists.

More evidence of threats to these critical systems can be found in the water conflict chronology list, compiled by the Pacific Institute in the United States. 

In 2014, three men in the U.S. state of Georgia were arrested for planning to attack water treatment plants, power grids, and other infrastructure. And, in 2011, a hacker targeted a water plant in Houston, Texas, following earlier news of an electronic attack on an Illinois water plant. The breach occurred after the attacker hacked into supervisory control and data acquisition software used by the utility.

The relative scarcity of water around the world may lead to global conflict. In 2012, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) issued Global Water Security, an assessment that concluded that the safety, security, and sustainability of Canada’s water supply may soon become a source of conflicts between nations. 

“Several regions of the world will face major challenges coping with water problems,” according to the report. “Between now and 2040, fresh water availability will not keep up with demand, absent more effective management of water resources. These findings reinforce the view that water is not just a human health issue, not just an economic development or environmental issue, but a peace and security issue.”

Water rights may also impact the relations between countries, as exemplified by disputes that arose recently when municipalities in the United States began replenishing their aquifers by withdrawing water from the Great Lakes. Canada and the United States not only share the longest unprotected border in the world, but also the Great Lakes—the largest surface freshwater system on earth.  

The United States and Canada have identified water and wastewater systems as critical infrastructure, and the protection of this infrastructure raises significant challenges, including a less-than-ideal governance model. 

There are no federal standards or agreed-upon practices within the water infrastructure sector to govern readiness, response to security incidents, or recovery in the United States or Canada. By providing the industry with an adequate governance framework, the governments could promote resilience along the entire water supply chain.  

Given these governance issues, the aging water infrastructure, dwindling expertise, complex and open systems, and the lack of standards in protection, North America’s vulnerabilities to potential attacks may be considered high to very high. 

 “Although the frequency of warfare, particularly in developed countries, may be decreasing, advances in technology, including increased global mobility and communication, have heightened the threat posed by individuals and small groups, including decentralized terrorist organizations,” according to the 2014 book Drinking Water Security for Engineers, Planners, and Managers by Ravi Jain. 

By assessing and revisiting the security risks associated to water and wastewater, the effectiveness of current layers of protection can be determined by using a standard equation where risk is calculated as the product of the likelihood, the consequences, and the vulnerabilities.​


Many nations are engaged in a war of ideas and values with terrorist organizations that export their concepts to individual citizens. Recent events confirmed the fact that no one is immune to terrorist attacks and that these organizations will go to great lengths to carry out attacks on the most vulnerable contingents of society. Security professionals must learn from past events while building on this knowledge to identify how and where the next attack may occur.  

Conflicts have begun to emerge between nations over water issues in Africa and the Middle East. These isolated events may increase in number as the world population continues to grow. Geopolitical, environmental, and economic factors will contribute to migrations, adding to the size of large metropolitan areas—by 2050, seven out of 10 people will live in cities.

These changes will spur new pressing demands for water services, which may affect public and national security as well. For example, while the likelihood of a terrorist attack in parts of Africa may currently be low, this level could be elevated rapidly based on intelligence gathered by national and international authorities. ​


Attacks directed at water infrastructure can be categorized as rare events that occur with a low frequency. However, the consequences could be severe. Researchers have attempted to identify and even quantify just what those consequences could be. 

“The potential economic fallout from accidental or deliberate contamination in a water system is significant,” Jain notes in his book. J.W. Porco with the American Water Works Association estimates that “the cost for radiological contamination in a water system serving a population of 10,000 could be as high as $26 billion; for a population of 100,000, the estimated economic impact could be $100 billion.” 

Although biological, chemical, and radiological detection systems protecting water sources are becoming more sophisticated and effective, they can only protect against known forms of attacks and may not fare as well against zero-day vectors. Considering the severe impact that could be generated by similar scenarios, the consequences of such attacks can be estimated as very high. ​


To identify a nation’s vulnerabilities, officials must start by assessing the governance model to determine how effectively the procedures and the equipment associated with the protection of water and wastewater systems are managed. 

The U.S. governance model provides a significant level of coordination and oversight from the federal government under the leadership of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), supported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). 

The objective of the EPA is to build resilience at drinking and wastewater utilities, notably by providing section-specific plans including security, which are found on the DHS website. It is unclear how the new U.S. administration will approach water infrastructure.

In Canada, most of the investments and practical managing issues are delegated to municipal and regional authorities under distinct provincial and federal legislation. There is not as much coordination or oversight from the central government, which may explain the lack of national standards for water protection.

The newly-elected liberal government in Canada has pledged to provide provincial and municipal authorities in the country with infrastructure funding in the coming years. This may allow municipal and regional authorities to invest in water and wastewater infrastructure, which in many cases is old and fragile. The aging infrastructure is further compounded by a North American demographic trend where experienced workers are leaving the workforce in record numbers. It is unknown whether current succession planning and training efforts are sufficient to counter this trend.  ​


Terrorist organizations are determined to exploit weaknesses, either physically or virtually, to create chaos and terror, usually accompanied by a significant impact on national economies. This is their raison d’être, and to remain relevant and to attract more followers, they will continue their attacks. 

Simple and minimal resources on the part of the terrorists are inflicting major damages, whereas the means to prevent and protect against those attacks are both complex and costly, creating an asymmetric conflict. It is difficult to determine how much to spend on reducing the risk of attacks to critical infrastructure when measured against other forms of security risks, as well as whether the resources invested in the protection of this infrastructure are delivering the desired outcome.

As part of a diligent approach, the risk level associated with critical infrastructure must be regularly assessed to prevent accidents and incidents that could put North America’s respective populations at risk.

It may be beneficial for Canada and the United States to develop—in collaboration with provincial and state regulators—an all-hazards approach to water security based on existing models, such as the American Water Works Association Risk and Resilience Management of Water and Wastewater Systems. Although the countries’ regulations may differ, it may be beneficial to develop measures that could be mutually recognized and accredited by central, provincial, and state governments. To do otherwise may lead to duplication, confusion, and wasted resources. 

Building resilience will also require an increased awareness of the issue on the part of the public. In this regard, Canada should copy and adapt the Water Sentinel project that was launched by the EPA in 2006. 

Considering the cross-jurisdictional situation of watershed management, more regulatory clarity, increased oversight, and audits to build resilient water and wastewater systems are necessary to instill a higher level of accountability and readiness among the various stakeholders.​


Demographic trends for the next 30 years show a significant growth in urban populations in the world, including North America. As the population grows so will the need for food and water, which are intimately intertwined. Along with the continent’s disturbing consuming habits and changing weather patterns, this will further stress fresh water supplies. 

The scarcity of fresh water in the future will make this infrastructure even more critical and attractive for terrorist organizations. It will be imperative to effectively respond to unforeseen events, from using collaboration across national and organizational boundaries to resuming operations once the threat has been eliminated.

Collaboration fosters resilience, and actions such as providing stakeholders with standards, training, and common communication and information sharing platforms will help accomplish that.  


Yves Duguay, ICD.D (Institute of Corporate Directors, Director), CSSP (Certified Sport Security Professional), is the president of HCI World.