On March 22nd, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and World Bank president Robert Zoellick signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) committing to a stronger partnership on water issues.  The agreement, signed at a World Bank ceremony on World Water Day, will bring the U.S. government and World Bank together to work on global water and sanitation challenges.

The need for a combined effort on water issues could not be clearer.  An estimated 880 million people lack access to an improved water source.  More than 5,000 people—most of them women and children—die every day from causes linked to unsafe water, sanitation, and hygiene.  The current outbreak of cholera in Haiti is a stark reminder of this reality.  Beyond health, water is central to a number of development challenges, such as climate change, food security, conflict, energy, and gender.

Secretary Clinton providing remarks at the MOU signing with the World Bank. USAID’s Deputy Administrator Don Steinberg and World Bank President Zoellick looking on. Photo Credit: State Department

The work promised at the signing has already begun: USAID and the World Bank have started to develop a prize to stimulate the development of new technologies related to drinking water and sanitation.  The World Bank is also working with NASA to provide remote sensing technologies around the world.  As speakers at the ceremony emphasized, this type of cooperation is necessary because water issues cannot be confined to just one area.

“The water crisis is a health crisis, it’s a farming crisis, it’s an economic crisis, it’s a climate crisis, and increasingly, it is a political crisis,” Secretary Clinton noted.  “And therefore, we must have an equally comprehensive response.  Now our experts in the United States Government are working on water issues at nearly two dozen agencies – of course, from State and USAID, but also the Millennium Challenge Corporation, NASA, NOAA, EPA, Treasury, and so much else.”

As a result, the United States is one of the largest bilateral donors on water and sanitation; USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation together invested more than $770 million in the water sector and on sanitation-related activities in developing countries in fiscal year 2009.

Secretary Clinton highlighted several USAID projects launched since her speech at last year’s World Water Day, which are representative of the new direction set for the U.S. government water program:

-       In Indonesia, USAID has begun a five-year, $34 million water, sanitation, and hygiene project to reach more than 2 million of Indonesia’s urban poor.  USAID also launched a project in Haiti to teach women about sanitation and hygiene so they could better take care of their households.  In India, USAID is supporting a project to provide slum dwellers in eight states with municipal water and sanitation systems.

-       USAID and the Qatar National Food Security Program convened representatives from 17 water centers in 10 countries across the Middle East and North Africa to create a regional network to share technical knowledge to solve the complex water challenges they face.

-       In Kenya, USAID is working with local water utilities, a local cell phone company, and a local microfinance institution to create new ways for poor people to pay for water. They receive a microloan to cover the initial cost of connecting their homes with water systems, then they repay those loans using micro-banking services on their cell phones.

-       In the Philippines, Japan and the United States have worked together to establish a water revolving fund to leverage private investment to improve water and sanitation for more than 100,000 people in 36 villages. Last year, the first USAID guaranteed loan for $2.5 million was granted.

-       To promote science and technology, USAID is working with NASA to use satellite images to monitor and forecast ecological changes in the Himalayas, including the monitoring of glacial melt. USAID has also worked with the private sector to open a ceramic water filter factory in Cambodia.  With ceramic filters, people no longer need to boil water to make it safe to drink, so they don’t need to burn as much wood or charcoal, which in turn reduces greenhouse gases.  The plant has even applied to receive carbon credits for future sales.

At the 2010 World Water Day event, Secretary Clinton stressed the U.S. government’s commitment to strengthening its partnerships; the MOU with the World Bank is reflective of that commitment.

Under the new agreement, the United States and the World Bank will work together in a number of areas, including rehabilitating wetlands, improving irrigation practices, and mobilizing public-private partnerships and private capital to support water projects around the world.

Progress in these areas depends upon the efforts of numerous organizations.  NGOS, private industry, foundations, and international bodies were all represented at the event.  Many of them have ongoing projects with USAID and the World Bank across the globe.  As USAID Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg emphasized, “our presence here today reflects a basic truth in the development challenges we face: no single government, international institution, civil society group, or private corporation has a monopoly on good ideas, dedicated commitment, or ground truth.”