Water Treatment Plant

The Process Water to the Tap

Water supply usually comes from surface water such as lakes, rivers and seas.  In many communities, water is pumped from aquifer located underground then routed to a treatment plant, where a variety of physical and chemical processes render the water safe to drink.  Photo: 2009 Situated by a lake, a building on the grounds of the water treatment plant in downtown Austin, Texas, United States. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimnix/3654215458/

Diliberate Contamination

Without much consideration of the acquisition, treatment, and distribution of water, these processes have been geared toward providing high quality of water for over a century.  But since the 1990s and the evolution of new terrorist targets, the threat of a deliberate contamination of water supplies has become more probable.  Kunze (1997) identified 833 major destructive acts at US public utilities between 1986 and 1995.


After the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, attention has been drawn to the security of many institutions, facilities, and systems including water supply systems and water quality infrastructures.  These systems have long been recognized as being potentially vulnerable to terrorist attacks of various types, including

  • physical disruption,
  • bioterrorism/chemical contamination, and
  • cyber attack.

Damage or destruction by terrorist attack could disrupt the delivery of vital human services in many countries, threatening public health and the environment, or worse, causing loss of life. Further, since most water infrastructures are government-owned, it may serve as a symbolic and political target for some.  This report presents an overview of this large and diverse sector, describes security-related actions by the government and private sector and discusses additional policy issues and responses.

Historial Precedent

The potential for this type of terrorism is not new.  In 1941, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote,

“it has long been recognized that among public utilities, water supply facilities offer a particularly vulnerable point of attack to the foreign agent, due to the strategic positions they occupy in keeping the wheels of industry turning and in preserving the health and morale of the American populace.”  

Water infrastructure systems also are highly linked with other infrastructures, especially electric power and transportation, as well as the chemical industry which supplies treatment chemicals, making security of all of them an issue of concern.  These types of vulnerable interconnections were evident, for example, during the August 2003 electricity blackout in the Northeast United States: wastewater treatment plants in Cleveland, Detroit, New York and other locations that lacked backup generation systems lost power and discharged millions of gallons of untreated sewage during the emergency, and power failures at drinking water plants led to boil-water advisories in many communities.

Assessment of Vulnerability

Water treatment plant TXAssessment of the vulnerability of a country’s water supply infrastructure should be viewed as a long term endeavor.  The nature and degree of vulnerability of the infrastructure will change with time as a state’s population and economy grow and redistribute themselves geographically.  Also, as terrorist motivations, and their ability to carry out threats against water supply systems, change.  Although the focus of this study is terrorism, attention is given to natural hazards, which are commonplace.  There is an extensive body of literature on system failures resulting from occurrences of natural hazards.  In contrast, only a few terrorist threats have been directed against water supply systems, and those threats have not been widely publicized. Generally, the threat of contamination of drinking water through terrorist activities is small. Means to lessen the risks that natural hazards present to water supply systems may, to varying degrees, harden a system against terrorist threats and improve system surety.   Photo: 2011 Interrior of water treatment plant in Merlin, Texas, United States. http://www.flickr.com/photos/ksaengineers/5713666503/

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