Security of Water Critical Infrastructure: The Threat Footprint

Security of Water Critical Infrastructure: The Threat Footprint

David Birkett
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 29
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3059-7.ch004
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There is an identified and elevated threat level to water services by modern terrorists, in consideration of increasing levels of observed violence in recent terrorist attacks across Europe. This chapter raises significant aspects related to the security of the water critical infrastructure (water CI). Initially, dependencies and interdependencies of water CI, with other CIs, are highlighted as a potential incubating risk, which may well be hidden within the complexities of the modern water value chain of logistics and services. Threats to water CI including single points of failure are further described, followed by terrorist water attack planning methodologies and strategies. Finally, the water CI protection that may be considered to reduce any future threat levels from acts of terrorism is discussed.
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The current heightened risk of terrorist attacks in Western European countries (Europol, 2019), has elevated the threat level of water services to attack from adverse human intervention, such as terrorist groups. Various researchers consider that water services are more likely to be the critical infrastructure (referred to as ‘CI’ within this chapter) at the centre of human conflict for the indefinite future (USACHPPM, 2019; Kroll, 2010a; Maiolo & Pantusa, 2018; Meinhardt, 2006). This chapter provides detailed data and information related to the safety, security and protection of European urban water systems, which is considered by many researchers to be the most vulnerable and highest risk of all CIs (USACHPPM, 2019; Court-Young, 2003; Lee, 2009; Maiolo & Pantusa, 2018).

Areas of CI identified by various European Union (EU) countries have been designated as ‘lifeline systems’ (Wang, Hong, & Chen, 2012), which within our modern societies provide a reliable flow of the products and services essential to the defence and economic viability of modern society. Moreover, the supply of water services certainly fit this definition, as it is essential for human existence, and is a key dependent CI for other CIs.

Why Water Critical Infrastructure?

The progression of modern terrorism has developed to a global phenomenon, and more specifically a potential threat to vulnerable and sensitive sectors of CI (such as water) in developed societies as a convenient alternate terrorist strategic action. A potential terrorist attack on water CI not only displays an immediate effect on society in the targeted area, but also across the rest of the world, engaging a receptive media and global community audience via the internet, news media and social media. Significantly, and more specifically, since the ‘9/11’ terrorist attack in 2001 there is an increasing global awareness, in developed societies, that urban water systems are extremely vulnerable to forms of adverse human intervention, which may impact significantly upon large human populations.

Water Systems are vulnerable to a range of intentional threats, including damage or sabotage through physical destruction and cyber-attack (Maiolo & Pantusa, 2018).

The supply and distribution of potable drinking water, in most societies, is often a hidden, and unrecognised form of CI, despite being essential for life on our planet. Indeed, the average human is able to survive only for an average of three days without the ingestion of water to maintain the human body systems and functionality (Cohen, 2010; Lee, 2009). Deliberate contamination of a water distribution system serving a large European population centre potentially represents a mass casualty event, which may prove similar in outcome to the devastating and horrific attacks on New York, USA in 2001 (9/11) should this scenario occur.

As indicated, the supply of water is considered the most significant and critical, of the various identified sectors of CI due to linkages and interdependencies across all areas of CI.


Initially, dependencies and interdependencies related to water CI in regard to other CI areas are defined. Due to potential various current elevated threat levels to water services, threats to water services, inclusive of single points of failure (SPOFs) in relation to any future terrorism based adverse human intervention, are described. Furthermore, the security of water CI is discussed detailing and addressing the methodologies and template strategies adopted by the modern terrorists, potentially planning, preparing and attacking water services. Finally, the protective strategies which may be adopted to anticipate, protect, deter and act in respect to any future terrorist activity or attack against water services are addressed.


Historical Background

The application of deliberate adverse human contamination of water as a form of using water or wastewater as a weapon is not a new phenomenon, with recorded incidents of attacks on water systems extending from 4,500 years ago (Gleick, 2006), when Urlama, King of Lagash from 2450 to 2400 B.C., diverted water from Girsu, to boundary canals, drying up boundary ditches to deprive the Umma population of water.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Single Points of Failure (SPOFs): Elements in any system which if damaged may cause major operational disruptions of the system or in the worst-case scenario the entire system failure. Both of these may have a subsequent cascading impact on the operation of other CIs.

Emergency Control Centre (ECC): A function activated during an incident, which acts as a communications conduit to the public and emergency personnel in the field.

Emergency Response Plan (ERP): A course of action developed to mitigate the damage of potential incidents, which could endanger an organisation's ability to function.

9/11: Terrorist attacks in New York, USA, on 9 th September 2001.

Chemical, Biological, Radioactive and Nuclear (CBRN): Agents or products, which may be used to deliberately contaminate water.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF): A group formed in 1969 and based in Mindanao, which seeks land ownership and is in conflict with the Philippine Government.

Critical Infrastructure (CI): Necessary resources and structures for populations, which if impacted may cause major disruptions in society and the economy. Examples of CI are energy, water, transport and government services, with the selection of these categories differing from country to country.

Water Treatment Plant (WTP): A facility producing potable water from raw water.

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL): A Sunni jihadist group with a particularly violent ideology, which calls itself a caliphate and claims religious authority over all Muslims.

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