The Weaponization of Water Data

Every change in the expected pattern of variability of water supply and quality poses a threat to the security of the water, food, and energy that we are dependent on for quality of life.

Up until the very recent past, conversations about the role of water data tended to be about development of, and management of, our water resources in a way that served environmental sustainability. Water data give us the means to identify the right balance between human and in-stream requirements and the evidence to ensure that such balance is respected.

An ugly truth is unfolding before our eyes. It is that climate change is emerging as an imminent threat to our comfortable existence. It has not escaped the notice of people at the highest levels of power that unprecedented extreme water events kill far more people that ISIS and Al Qaeda together. A single extreme water event destroys more property than all of the IEDs and suicide bombers can. A single drought can cost as much as the deployment of aircraft carriers and long range bombers to do battle in a war zone. This threat is playing out not only in foreign lands but is very much an invasion of homeland security.

This elevation of water issues to the highest levels of policy and governance is changing the language used for water.

Water resource practitioners, more accustomed to soft concepts like sustainability, are being asked to adopt a more militarized vocabulary.

The aha! moment for me was when I realized that the term ‘Environmental Intelligence’ is not being adopted in the sense I imagined (i.e. as a soft concept like emotional  or social intelligence) but in the context of military intelligence. Environmental agencies are being asked to play a role in the fight for homeland security equivalent to what the Central Intelligence Agency is to the fight against terrorism.

Water data are ammunition in this battle for homeland security. Campaigns will be fought using this ammunition to build fortifications against these incursions on our security. This ammunition will be used in the heat of battle to protect lives and property. This ammunition will provide the strength to be able to negotiate a future in which we are at peace with our environment.

I understand, but am deeply saddened, by this change in the role of water data.

Many of us have lamented that wouldn’t it be great if the tremendous observational capabilities developed for the cold war, where analyst in Washington can read a license plate in Moscow, could be harnessed for water monitoring. Well, with the strategic importance of water now clear, that time has come. The future of water monitoring is ‘Big Data.’

One thing that I don’t think the strategic analysts get, yet, is how complex water data – and its interpretation – are. For the foreseeable future there will be a need for boots on the ground. Water monitoring cannot solely be a campaign using high elevation drones, satellite spying technology, and data mining. Luckily, we don’t need body armor to do the necessary work but we do need a lot of bodies. I just hope the strategic planners are factoring that into the projected cost of the campaign ahead.

4 responses to “The Weaponization of Water Data”

  1. Environmental Intelligence, welcomes to the battle!
    Types of needs to water can be considered as a complex, nonlinear model.
    Reaching to a formula, an agreed solution or policy action plan for sharing water is an achievement.

  2. “Weaponization” is a little emotional. But whoever has data or controls data has a leg up on making major decisions. Despite water being more abundant than fossil fuels, its distribution and abundance over historical time has the power to develop or crush empires.

    The distribution and availabilty of water are changing in real time. We’ve lost the control and the ability to redistribute this commodity according to need. Its availability becomes increasingly controlled by a few self-elected powerful people in many countries. There’s a reason Coca-Cola has been buying up water reserves, and it’s not to make soft drinks.

    Affecting water availability is its purity for drinking and agriculture. Used water is polluted in some way, rendering it unft for other uses in many ways, without remediation.

    In the end we are faced with two confounding variables: too many people for the available resources, and the inability to allocate resources wisely and prudently.

    • The use of the verb ‘weaponization’ is in the context of weapon as “a means of gaining an advantage or defending oneself in a conflict or contest.”, which is in clear agreement with your statement on ‘gaining a leg up on making major decisions’.

      Our inability to allocate resources wisely and prudently, given too many people is indeed the true ‘threat’. The increasing fickleness of weather and climate only exacerbates and amplifies this threat.There are discouragingly few means at our disposal for gaining an advantage in this conflict between supply and demand.

      We need better knowledge to understand the threat, better information to manage the threat and better data to create the needed knowledge and information. In using ‘military intelligence’ as a model for developing an ‘environmental intelligence’ system better data can be defined as ‘more data’. More data about everything, everywhere, all of the time. This will require an investment in environmental data acquisition and management that is orders of magnitude larger than anything any of us have ever experienced. It will also require development and implementation of sophisticated techniques and technologies that few will fully understand and comprehend. These are exciting times. There is also risk as we transition environmental data from the custody of people who get their boots in the stream to a a ‘big data’ architecture.

      • The Environmental Intelligence paradigm will be fulfilled by increasingly robotic monitoring at increasingly fine temporal and spatial scales. Beven et al. 2014 provide a good overview of the technologies in use or under development with this capability (“Hyperresolution information and hyperresolution ignorance in modelling the hydrology of the land surface” http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11430-014-5003-4). This is a very good read for anyone interested in the environmental intelligence paradigm.

        There is, and always will be, a role for humans to play in environmental observation, monitoring, inference and deduction. The environmental intelligence paradigm cannot replace human intelligence. In a more perfect scenario we would find convergence between the wonders of modern technology and the wisdom of aboriginal traditions. I am impressed by what I can learn about the environment from a satellite and I am impressed by what I can learn about the environment from a trapper who has spent his life in the bush. The product of extensive first-hand experience with comprehensive data will always be much greater than either on its own.

        There will be a transition of field operations as THE primary source of information to field operations as a means to ground truth remotely sensed data. Validation of, and discovery of the potential in, remotely sensed data might mean that techs in the field may need to get their eyes off of their computer screens and onto the land, water, plants and animals around them. We might need to become more qualitative and deductive in our observation methods – as if our life and livelihood depend on our observational skill. Let humans do what humans do best and let machines do what machines do best.

        Just a thought…

Join the conversation