Preventing Terrorist Attacks on the Water and Wastewater Systems Sector Research Paper

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Preventing Terrorist Attacks on the Water and Wastewater Systems Sector

Terrorism is nowadays an already established threat that is part of every security strategy of modern states. It is not only an un-conventional threat at the address of national security but also it drove the re-definition of the term of security as it was understood and worked with some twenty years ago. Currently, there is talk about economic, political, social security as part of the areas that the state must take into account when drafting and enabling a national security strategy. At the same time though, especially after the events from September 2001, the security of the infrastructure and that of natural resources has become an increasingly important aspect to consider.

Currently in the United States, the country considered to be the most targeted by terrorist threats, an important part of the security strategy is related to the economic sectors that need protection from possible perpetrators. One such sector is the water and wastewater system. The current research focuses on the way in which the government understands the insurance of the security of this sector, by pointing out the role this sector has on the larger strategy related to these issues, the actions that are constantly taken to limit the vulnerability of this sector, as well as the official opinions related to these actions. At the same time, the final section of the research takes into account the possible improvements that can be made in order to further increase the security of this sector.

The water and wastewater sector is hugely important for the well-being of every nation. In the United States, given the large population of the country as well as the size of its territory, the water and wastewater sector plays a vital role in the lives of the American people. More precisely, "There are approximately 160,000 public drinking water systems and more than 16,000 publicly owned wastewater treatment systems in the United States. Approximately 84% of the U.S. population receives their potable water from these drinking water systems, and more than 75% of the U.S. population has its sanitary sewerage treated by these wastewater systems." (Dept. Of Homeland Security, 2013) The percentage of the population that depends on this system is impressive. This high degree of dependency also relates to the consistent infrastructure that is set in place throughout the country. From this point-of-view, there is a clear necessity to ensure that this infrastructure is not by any means vulnerable from both an internal and external perspective.

From a general perspective, the system is vulnerable from the simple fact that it cannot be at all times protected. The traditional threats are not necessarily external and relate to every day aspects of life. In this sense, there have been several key issues identified. Thus, "Sector assets are vulnerable to a variety of separate or combined attack methods and natural disasters. Plausible attack methods include explosive devices; contamination in drinking water distribution systems; sabotage of water treatment systems; hazardous material releases; and cyber attacks on Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. Natural incidents such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and pandemics also pose threats to the Water Sector." (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2010)

Better said, the infrastructure is vulnerable in the face of threats that cannot be controlled such as natural disasters or earthquakes. For instance, the storms that have passed through the U.S. In recent years, from hurricanes to massive storms have caused impressive damage to the sector. As per a report from 2005, the damage that was caused by the hurricane was assessed even in the electric system that fueled water pumps. Moreover, "Damages at many water infrastructure facilities as a result of Hurricane Katrina included loss of electric power to pump, process, and treat raw water supply and wastewater. Initially following the storm, some plants were able to operate temporarily on backup generators, so long as fuel was available." (Copeland, 2005) This comes to point out that even the old fashioned threats such as natural disasters affect an entire array of elements that eventually impact the water system.

The terrorist threat to the system however is one of the most important elements from the threats list. It is important firstly because the system, as mentioned above, affects millions of lives throughout the country and from this point-of-view only, can be a target for terrorists that aim to impact through their action as many people
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as possible in order to send their message across. Further more, the role of the water system is crucial for the government and terrorist groups are aware of this constantly. Therefore, if a terrorist group wishes to send a clear and unequivocal message to the central government it would most likely target a system that would touch as much of the population as possible.

There have been numerous studies conducted on the topic and the subject in itself is constantly under discussion in order to better understand the vulnerabilities of the system and develop better means and strategies to deal with these vulnerabilities. In a study conducted in 2010, it was concluded that "Damage to or destruction of the nation's water supply and water quality infrastructure by terrorist attack or natural disaster could disrupt the delivery of vital human services in this country, threatening public health and the environment, or possibly causing loss of life. Interest in such problems has increased greatly since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States." (Copeland, 2010). The possible consequences of an infestation of the drinkable water system could not only cause immediate death for the people in contact with the water, but would also result in numerous injuries that in turn would disrupt help relief systems, hospitals, infrastructure, and other related services that would be necessary to act in such a catastrophic situation. Further, the effects would not only be on the short run, but most likely would impact several generations of people, especially if the means of contamination would not be immediately identified and eradicated. It can be said that such a dramatic scenario would resemble real life scenarios of mining areas where the water was slowly yet constantly polluted with chemical substances without environmental agencies or local people to notice. These cases resulted in decades of health issues for the population and infestation of the soil and of the environment on the long run. If such a scenario would be applied at a national level, the effects would be catastrophic. This is the main reason for which the water and wastewater system is vital for the population as well as for the government and, on the other hand, so appealing for terrorist groups.

Given the above the actions taken at the level of the government have changed in time. In order to address the traditional threats such as the natural disasters, the measures taken are as well traditional. In this respect they rely a lot on prevention. " water system planners should take inventory of the actual incidents that have caused or led to serious service interruptions during the past 20 years and the frequency of the incidents. This will help identify any particularly troublesome areas of the system that are vulnerable to the most common hazards. The next step involves researching specific threat information germane to your organization's geo- graphic location. This is best achieved by reaching out to law enforcement agencies in your jurisdiction or your state's intelligence/fusion center. A fusion center is an effective and efficient mechanism to exchange information and intelligence, maximize resources, streamline operations, and improve the ability to fight crime and terrorism by merging data from a variety of sources (USDOJ, 2006). It is also important to engage with other stakeholders from within the utility's own organization and partnering agencies, who might be able to add valuable insights and perspectives." (Leuven, 2011) These are effective measures when it comes to an established system of security that is set in place as a result of specific threats.

The terrorist threats however are much more difficult to tackle and prevent. This is why these threats are not subject to the same preventive measures. In this sense, measures have been taken after 2001 to increase the response time in case of calamity or any type of attacks. "Although officials believe that risks to water and wastewater utilities are small, operators have been under heightened security conditions since 9/11. Local utilities have primary responsibility to assess their vulnerabilities and prioritize them for necessary security improvements. Most (especially in urban areas) have emergency preparedness plans that address issues such as redundancy of operations, public notification, and coordination with law enforcement and emergency response officials." (Copeland, 2010) As it can be seen, most actions taken into account focus on informing people of a damage that has already been caused, this is to say to avoid the impact on the population rather than to actually prevent the system from being attacked.

It is commonly known that terrorists can make use of…

Sources Used in Documents:


Copeland, C. 2005. "Hurricane-Damaged Drinking Water and Wastewater Facilities: Impacts, Needs, and Response" CRS Report for Congress. Available at

Copeland, C. 2010. "Terrorism and Security Issues Facing the Water Infrastructure Sector" Congressional Research Center Available at

Dept. Of Homeland Security. 2013. Water and Wastewater Systems Sector. Available online at

Leuven, L. 2011. "Water/Wastewater Infrastructure Security: Threats and Vulnerabilities" in R.M. Clark et al. (eds.), Handbook of Water and Wastewater Systems Protection, 27 Protecting Critical Infrastructure, available online.

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