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Opening the Floodgates: Water Security and Terror

In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to clean drinking water, and called upon states and international organizations to provide safe, clean, accessible, and affordable drinking water for all. Despite this resolution, 663 million people are still living without access to safe water, and each year one million people are killed by water, sanitation, and hygiene-related diseases. The issue of water safety is also central in US context: between 2014 and 2016, twelve Americans died in Flint, Michigan due to water contamination and unsafe hydraulic infrastructure. Clean drinking water is as valuable as ever, which makes it particularly vulnerable to attack. While multiple United States government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have admitted that the introduction of biological or chemical agents to the United States’ water supply is possible, they maintain that such an attack would be difficult to carry out effectively and is therefore not plausible, although history tells a different tale. A threat – real or imagined – to America’s water could incite catastrophic psychological damage, and threaten Americans’ trust in government. In order to effectively protect the United States’ water infrastructure, steps must be taken to ensure that biological and chemical agents cannot and will not be released into the United States’ water system, potentially causing mass casualties, disruption, and undermining American power and values.

Water is supplied to American households through a complex network of over 151,000 publically and privately owned water systems, which are regulated by the federal government but operated locally. The system works as follows: water is pumped from the source to the treatment plant, and after impurities are removed and minerals added, it is stored in tanks – and is subsequently distributed to consumers. Each distribution system is broken up into multiple components, including pipes, storage facilities, and the elements that convey drinking water. Public water systems supply water to 90% of Americans. The complexity of this arrangement, involving an expansive network composed of millions of pipes that are remarkably difficult to monitor, leaving the system vulnerable to attack.

In an attempt to assuage citizens’ fears after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Ronald Dick, the Deputy Assistant Director of the Counterterrorism Division and Director of the National Infrastructure Protection Center at the FBI, spoke before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on October 10, 2001. Dick claimed that an attack on the water supply was possible, but not probable. Because of the dilution effect, filtration, and the disinfecting of water, extremely high amounts of any biological agent would need to be introduced in the water supply in order to threaten the public. Terrorists would also need critical knowledge and access to the water infrastructure. An obvious way to circumnavigate these apparent limitations would be to localize attacks and contaminate water towers or other storage facilities. While the effects of such an attack would be much smaller, they could have devastating effects by reducing the public’s trust in government and its ability to provide security. Indeed, a critical aspect of water terrorism lies in its ability to instill fear, not just realized, physical damage.

As demonstrated by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, once a water supply is contaminated, it is difficult to reassure people of their safety. The city of Flint – which is 57% black and where 40% of residents live below the federal poverty line – began to use the Flint River as a temporary water source in April 2014. Nine months later, Flint was found to be in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act because of high levels of chemical contamination and dangerously high levels of lead in private homes, which corroded from pipes. The mayor declared a state of emergency in December 2015, over a year and a half after the initial switch in supply. Over a dozen state and local officials were later criminally charged over the contaminated water in Flint. Today, more than three years later, the residents of Flint continue to distrust the government’s capabilities and they still drink, cook with, and bathe in bottled water. Given the misinformation that the government gave throughout 2014 and 2015, residents are skeptical about any new information that officials present. If people lose faith in their water supply and their government, even improvements in infrastructure and water quality may not be received by skeptical and cynical residents.

Another aspect to this threat is emerging in the form of cyber-manipulation, given the increased use of remote, Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems to manage the water supply. Such attacks would likely take the form of disruption of service, carried out by hackers who identify and prey upon vulnerabilities in the technology that controls portions of the water system.

Attacking a nation’s water supply is not without precedent. There have been several instances in which state and non-state actors have effectively carried out water terrorism. Given advances in technology, it is possible, and potentially catastrophic, to execute an attack on a nation’s water infrastructure. In July of 2015, five people linked to ISIS were arrested in Kosovo for allegedly planning to poison a reservoir. After the plot was discovered, the authorities in Kosovo cut off the water supply to tens of thousands of people in the country’s capital in order to test the water for possible contaminants.

On January 24, 2001, the FBI received a threat from a credible, well-funded terrorist group in North Africa, announcing their intention to disrupt water operations in 28 U.S. cities. The response? A fax to water utility executives across the country, to “take precautions and be on the look-out for anyone or anything out of the ordinary.” While the warning was later determined to be a forgery, the lack of a centralized response is alarming. Even today, because of the highly decentralized nature of the system, there are huge disparities in terms of level of protection, funding, and exchange of information between various water-supply companies. There are insufficient funds to address risks ahead of time, and unenforced and outdated requirements that do not respond to evolving threats, such as cyber attacks. In order to better respond to and address current threats, updated and uniform physical security measures should be enacted. Secure means of sharing information among the water supply sector is essential in determining current risks and applying potential solutions.

The United States has enacted several pieces of legislation concerning water sanitation and quality since the Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1948. As evidenced by the water crisis in Flint, however, these laws are not always enforceable. The tragedy of contaminated drinking water in Flint should be a lesson to us all: water, essential to all forms of life, is precious and vulnerable. The government should undertake physical countermeasures: installing ventilation devices in reservoirs that are designed to prevent contamination and fencing off and installing alarms in restricted areas to protect water infrastructure. Creating emergency water lines from a protected water source that is only to be activated in emergencies is another proactive step the government can take. Installing and updating current backflow preventers would be added protection against potential contaminants. In the event that these fail, installing contaminant warning systems to detect the presence of and location of toxins is essential to forming comprehensive responses to attacks, in order to prevent the spread of contaminants. The continued use of online water quality monitors is also essential, as is the continued tracking of consumer complaints in regard to inconsistencies in regard to taste, odor, or appearance of water. Updated security monitoring systems and frequent sampling and analysis of water are also essential and proactive steps the government can take to secure America’s water system against potential attacks.

Protecting water, both from decaying infrastructure and from external threats, should be a priority. In order to protect against hostile acts, the United States must take proactive steps to ensure that the supply remains secure. Though President Trump promised “crystal clear, crystal clean” water during his campaign, his administration has already proposed cuts to the $1 trillion infrastructure plan; abandoning several EPA cleanup initiatives and side-lining several water infrastructure improvement projects. Upgrading infrastructure and safeguarding water systems from attack requires centralized federal action in order to protect the technology and complex network of reservoirs, pipes, treatment plants, and storage facilities that provide water to over 290 million people.

About the Author

Annie Lehman-Ludwig '20 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Annie can be reached at