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Elizabeth Shope’s Blog

USAID Releases Water Strategy

Elizabeth Shope

Posted May 22, 2013 in Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment

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Yesterday, USAID officially released its long-awaited Water and Development Strategy in front of a group of hundreds of Members of Congress, Congressional staff, Administration officials and water and development professionals. The stated goal of the Strategy is “To save lives and advance development through improvements in water supply, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programs, and through sound management and use of water for food security.” In order to achieve this goal, and those set out by the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act, the strategy will need a robust implementation plan that gives strong guidance to USAID missions on the ground who are implementing the strategy. It will also need to focus aid on the those who need it the most – the poorest countries and communities – as opposed to on a handful of “strategic priority” countries.

The Strategy has strengths and flaws, but after yesterday’s release event, I have more hope that between Congress, the Obama Administration, and the NGOs and corporations who will work to both support the strategy and push the envelope, it is well within our means to not just accomplish but exceed the goals of the strategy. In listening to the speeches at yesterday's release from USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, USAID Water Coordinator Chris Holmes, Senators Richard Durbin and Chris Coons, Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Ted Poe, Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats, along with representatives from several NGOs, I was struck by the personal connections, passion, and wide range of reasons that people see water and WASH as such critical issues to address.

Representative Judge Ted Poe spoke of women traveling long distances to collect water and meeting with men who do terrible things to them, but nevertheless having to return and face the same men day after day. “In 2013,” he said, “that should not occur anywhere in the world.” And to address this issue, he stated, “it’s worth the price, whatever it is. We have it in our power to stop that.”

Representative Blumenauer said that every day, 200 million hours are lost because women are out gathering water in dangerous circumstances. He also noted that addressing water issues is not just a moral obligation but in our self-interest: in part due to climate change, two thirds of the world’s population will be water stressed by 2025; global stability is dependent on solving water supply and demand issues.  Under Secretary Hormats and Administrator Shah also addressed the pressures that climate change are putting on water, with Administrator Shah stating that one of the two main parts of the Strategy is “climate-smart water utilization in agriculture.” The strategy does not aim to just provide people and communities with access to water now, but for the long-term. As Administrator Shah put it, the support for water resources management that USAID will give is for “protecting resources so they are available now and for the future.”

Senator Durbin told a story about visiting Haiti and talking to people in a community where a well had been built. He inquired how much the well had cost: $25,000. That might sound like a lot, but not when you find out that it serves 100,000 people, meaning that the well really only cost 25 cents per person. Senator Durbin said that helping to deal with this issue in a meaningful way – being identified around the world as the leader for bringing safe drinking water to people – that it could be the “biggest breakthrough to American image.”

Whether it’s about violence against women, the stupidity of wasting time, child and infant mortality, the fact that there is a $9 return on investment for every $1 invested in sanitation, or a concern about American image or global stability, there’s a reason that just about anybody can get behind this issue, young or old, Republican or Democrat, people who support foreign aid and even people who generally believe in small government. And in fact, this issue has shattered political divides.

But there is still a long way to go. Representative Blumenauer got it right in his remarks, noting that the Strategy is not a solution but a significant step in the right direction. He thinks USAID should be more ambitious in its goals for the number of people it aims to provide with sustainable access to water and sanitation over the 5 year course of the strategy “Shouldn’t we be lifting our sights above 10 and 6 million?” he asked. And especially with such limited funding, we “can’t have money lavished on ‘strategic priority’ countries, on questionable projects in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Indeed, ensuring sufficient funds and sensible, pro-poor targeting for the limited funds available will be one of the biggest challenges going forward in implementing this important Strategy.

Women carrying unsafe water home Tigray Ethiopia credit waterdotorg.JPGWomen carrying unsafe water home - Tigray, Ethiopia - credit: water.org

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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