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The (Human) Threat To Our Water Supply

Natural threats to our water supply—things like an imbalance of fresh and salt water, water waste, and pollution- may not be the only things we have to worry about. Terrorist organizations are constantly surveying the U.S. for weaknesses. Every facet of our lives comes under intense scrutiny, and each located weakness becomes a new target.

One of the most vulnerable portions of our system is our water infrastructure. Largely stationary and unguarded, a wealth of opportunities exists for those looking to damage the system. Groups could easily dump toxins or viruses into the water or cut off access to certain amounts of the supply. The water infrastructure system in the U.S. has three branches: the water supply, the facilities we use to treat and filter water, and the distribution system. Each one of these branches is vulnerable to infiltration. Terrorist organizations have carried out attacks on water portals for the last ten years in an attempt to prove that no portion of the water system is safe from infiltration or attack. Unlike like shootings or bombings, which have relatively localized impacts on the communities in which they are released, attacks on the water system can affect an entire state, depending on the outlay of the water supply.

Distribution System

The distribution system is the most vulnerable of the three areas of our water infrastructure, and any attack on the distribution system can cause the most potential damage. Any attack on a portal (say, releasing a toxin into a fire hydrant) can carry that toxin far past the point of entry, infiltrating other water supplies as well. Most of the successful attacks on the water system have occurred at the distribution level.

Water officials throughout the country have carried out tests to test the vulnerability of our water system. These tests proved that in only a few minutes, a motivated terrorist group or individual could slip toxins into our water supply via a water hydrant or unsecured manhole. The most disturbing aspect of a potential attack on our water supply is that it takes dangerously little amounts of contaminants to affect the water supply for millions of individuals. We could, on any given day, be the victims of a vicious attack on the water cycle that was carried out using no more than leftover rat poison slipped into a local fire hydrant. Once water has passed through the filtration system, any attack on the water infrastructure is difficult to catch and treat. These types of attacks may even be unnoticeable until several deaths occur in a community. Even then, it would be difficult for water officials to trace the source of the attack, or remove the toxins from the water supply without running the entire water supply back through the filtration plant.

One of the goals of a terrorist attack on the water system may not even be to cause much damage to the system; rather, they may be hoping to disrupt public trust in the system. If a terrorist organization launched an attack on the water system and released a fatal toxin into the water distribution system in a few cities across the country, the ensuing panic could be enough to shut down entire public use of the water system. Already facing a water shortage, what would happen? Nobody would feel safe using water from their local reservoirs or rivers, and the amount of bottled water that would have to be imported to meet our water needs would rise dramatically, ballooning the cost of living for every family across the United States.

Moving Forward

Most of the water infrastructure that we use today was built forty or fifty years ago, when threats of bioterrorism or attacks on our water supply were unlikely. Because officials did not anticipate these threats at the time the infrastructure was built and our government has not taken the initiative to update these systems, almost nothing in the system is protected against bioterror attacks.

When government officials have made attempts to increase the security of the water system, those efforts have primarily been directed at retrofitting large water facilities with security systems. While that certainly does close off one avenue of opportunity for potential attackers, there is a much more efficient way to eliminate likely attacks. Because terrorists will look for a small access point with maximum potential damage, the most crucial thing that we can do to protect our water supply is simply procuring the necessary funding to secure manholes, water tanks, and fire hydrants. This would substantially decrease the likelihood of an attack. Following these efforts, carefully evaluating each portion of the system is necessary to close the current security gaps. Water filtration and distribution systems should receive massive security overhauls in attempts to close the most likely vantage points.

Some experts posit the ideas that residential units can use specialized filtration or distillation systems to filter many of the pathogens that would likely be chosen by terrorist groups in an attack on the water. Increasing chlorine in the water could work against some diseases (cholera or smallpox come to mind), but that would be largely useless against a weaponized form of anthrax distributed throughout the water. In addition to water filtration systems, water testing systems are available; the idea being that each family will have the capability to detect a contaminate in the water before consumption and will be able to alert authorities and switch water supplies. While these home systems should be able to filter out some contaminants based on particle size, government officials do warn families that none of these companies can guarantee that a home water filtration system will protect you from a terrorist’s biological organism of choice.

We will never be able to protect ourselves from every threat against the water supply—or even every threat to the general populace—and that should not be our focus. What we can do, however, is put an end to some of the alarming opportunities that terrorist organizations do have to poison or murder millions of Americans. And if your community is not willing or able to take these steps, then perhaps it is time to pursue off-the-grid water options such as a well or rainwater collection.

©2012 Off the Grid News

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