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Archives for Water and Sanitation

Fields of Hope in Burkina Faso

As I rode through the dry, dusty countryside of Burkina Faso in late February, I began to wonder how any plant could thrive in the constant heat, and with seemingly little water. Considering the 2012 food crisis, when late rains led to poor harvests and resulted in widespread food insecurity across the Sahel, I wondered how farmers were able to make this dry, hard land produce anything.

With only four months of rain a year – on average 20-35 inches total – farmers are often dependent on this little rain to produce enough food to feed their families and earn enough income to purchase food in the dry season. It’s a delicate balance – too little rain, and their crops fail; too much rain, and their crops fail.

The importance of water particularly becomes stark when you visit communities that lack a good water source. Families have little to eat because they can’t grow enough due to lack of water; children are in poor health because the water source is not sanitary.

Women in Kofogou repairing a dike. Photo credit: USAID

Yet across eastern Burkina Faso, in areas where USAID’s food assistance programs have been working for the last 10 years, green fields are bringing hope to thousands of families, even during the dry season.

Where land was previously infertile or unproductive, land rehabilitation, particularly in the lowlands, has meant farmers are now able to grow high value crops such as rice during the regular harvest season. This provides much needed food and income, especially in comparison with the small yields from cowpeas, sesame, millet and sorghum grown in small household plots. During the dry season, many families are even able to grow onions, tomatoes, green beans, and other crops on these rejuvenated lands to bring in extra income to support their families.

Water was key to these successes. In every community we visited, families identified water as the main constraint to food security. But where USAID partners Catholic Relief Services (CRS), ACDI/VOCA and Africare were able to create or improve water sources, or teach farmers how to capture rain during the rainy season, communities were thriving.

In the hamlet of Kofogou, one woman spoke to us about how for the first time she was able to cultivate rice herself, instead of buying rice, because she now had a plot on the lowland she and other community members redeveloped through Food for Work. Food for Work is work done by community members in exchange for food. On her 0.15 hectares of lowland she now produces ten 75-KG sacks of rice, providing food for her family and a source of income when she sells some of the rice she has parboiled.

I heard similar stories throughout my visit to Burkina Faso. All communities that have been successful identified water access and lowlands development as keys to their success. In Wattigué, the rice producers group “Teeltaaba”, or “Support Each Other”, was organized last year for the 37 farmers working on the newly redeveloped lowlands. In its first year of production on the lowlands – before the 2012 food crisis – the producers group harvested over 15 tons rice. The group sold a portion of this to traders in the larger towns of Kaya and Ouagadougou, rather than individually as small batches to traders in nearby Tougouri as they had in the past. This resulted in better prices. The group’s 2012 sale of rice netted $1,800 income for the 37 farmers. This doesn’t even count the additional tons sold to local women for parboiling and rice collected from each farmer in the community to help feed 68 kids for 3-4 months at the school canteen. Read more on Wattigué.

Rassomde water irrigation system which is shown providing water to their fields of onion and tomato. Photo credit: USAID

Rassomdé community most struck me. Located in Gourcy province northwest of Ouagadougou, Africare had worked in Rassomdé until 2010, at which time their development food assistance program closed. In traveling to Rassomdé, we hoped to see communities faring better than others which weathered the 2012 food crisis, as a result of Africare’s previous assistance. We were not disappointed.

As we drove up to their fields, we saw 30 hectares of green – onions and tomatoes grew everywhere. Their proximity to a reservoir helped. With Africare’s assistance, communities developed these 30 hectares of land, making multiple canals to bring water from the reservoir to the fields. Today, three years after Africare’s departure, producers can pay their expenses and still earn a net income of $617 per household from vegetable gardening in the off-season. Read more on Rassomdé.

While significant challenges remain because of a lack of water or lack of access to water, what we saw demonstrated to me that lasting positive changes are possible, through helping farmers and their communities. I am encouraged that these efforts in Burkina Faso are similar to what’s being done across the Sahel in USAID’s development food assistance programs. These changes are exactly what will lift communities out of a cycle of crisis and lay the foundation for their continued growth.

8 Things Our Future Military Leaders Need to Know About Water Management

Last year the National Intelligence Council released its first-ever Global Water Security Intelligence Community Assessment (PDF). The report noted that during the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems—shortages, poor water quality, or floods—that will risk instability and state failure. Additionally, between now and 2040, fresh water availability will not keep up with demand absent more effective management of water resources.

At USAID, we support a wide variety of water programs that foster economic development throughout the developing world. These programs help mitigate the prospect of conflict and play an important role in both meeting emergency relief needs and bringing long-term stability to people in areas afflicted by conflict.

One day, our future military leaders will be planning and implementing peace-keeping operations, and it is important for them to know how the range of water management approaches implemented by USAID can help foster stability, resilience and economic growth.

I was thus pleased to receive an invitation from Col. Wiley Thompson, the head of the United States Military Academy Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, to deliver a lecture in mid-December on water to about 140 West Point cadets. As these men and women will one day be leading our country, I was honored to impart lessons about how water management may help strengthen the cadets’ capacity to lead.

Chris Holmes with West Point cadets following the lecture on water management. Photo credit: USAID

While my core message to the cadets was this –Water management is key to stability, to improving health, to producing food and energy, to adapting to climate change – there are eight key lessons that I believe would help these cadets as they continue their educations.

1. USAID and the military can and must form effective partnerships.

The Army and USAID have partnered on wide range of water activities, such as: increasing the energy output of the Kajaki dam in Afghanistan, restoring carp fisheries in Iraq, and providing relief to flood and earthquake victims in Pakistan. Such partnering is supported by the USAID- DOD Civilian Military Cooperation policy (PDF). Both USAID and the military bring differing but complimentary technical expertise. In addition, the military provides the logistics support and security to support USAID efforts in the field. This collaboration is essential, especially in providing security in areas prone to conflict and in providing emergency humanitarian assistance requiring the transport of medical supplies and relief personnel.

2. Women leaders must play a vital role in leading water programs.

In Afghanistan, the USAID Sustainable Water Supply Sanitation and Hygiene program supports the development of women leaders, including Female Health Action groups. Women leaders play an essential role in leading community-based water organizations and in resolving disputes over water.

3. Policy Makers must take an integrated approach, linking sectors, programs and policies.

The objective of USAID’s recently initiated Rwanda Integrated Water Security Program is to improve the sustainable management of water quantity and quality to positively impact human health, food security, and resilience to climate change for vulnerable populations in targeted catchments. This integrated water resource management project is intended to serve as a model for USAID water projects.

4. Remote sensing and communications technologies change the game.

In East Africa, The USAID Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNET) is identifying where climate change is actually occurring, analyzing climate change data in patterns over the last 30 to 50 years. This enables USAID and its developing country partners to look in to the future and take steps to adapt to climate change.

The Indonesia WATER SMS project will apply new data-collection tools and sharing methodologies through Short Messaging Services (SMS) and web mapping to increase civic participation to improve water services. Residents, using hand phones and email, can rapidly report chronic and acute conditions.

5. Think across the border.

More than 300 water bodies are shared by two or more countries. Tanzania and Kenya border the Mara river. The USAID Transboundary Water for Biodiversity and Human Health project in the Mara River Basin (TWB-MRB) has helped local communities to develop new water services, refurbish nonfunctioning water systems, and improve sanitation services. There has also been support for setting up water user associations and village savings and loan groups, emphasizing the participation and empowerment of women and the long-term sustainability of the new organizations. Major conflicts can arise over water resources, grazing lands and territory; loss of assets, livestock, hundreds of people killed and  thousands displaced. This calls early focus on  a peace building process, e.g., strengthening Institutions for peace and development

6. It’s not just high tech.

Meeting complex economic development needs requires combining traditional low-tech approaches to water management, such as sand-dam water catchments, with sophisticated high-tech approaches. As part of the climate adaptation strategy in Mali, informed by data from the high-tech FEWSNET, USAID also supports programs that reintroduce traditional soil conservation and management programs to increase food production, a tried and true low-tech approach to enhanced productivity that is being practiced of millions of acres. Drilling rigs for bore holes can easily be counterproductive if not sited in close collaboration with all stakeholder groups in a wider landscape, and linked to local village management capacity.

7. We must provide sustainable solutions to enhance the resilience of communities.

USAID and other donors, through the Productive Safety Net Program, identified a population of 8 million people in Ethiopia particularly vulnerable to climate change. Building large-scale water irrigation and supply systems helped provide sustainable, lasting assistance to enable these communities to weather the 2010/2011 East African droughts.

8. We can’t do it alone.

In Ethiopia, the USAID-funded Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Transformation for Enhanced Resilience (WATER) program works closely with regional and community governments to develop access to clean, safe and sustainable water sources.

 

When I arrived at West Point, I was awed by the history and physical geography of the place, the Academy high on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, gray granitic slabs of stone emerging from the hills, blending into the school’s impressive stone architecture. The geology, the architecture, the teachers, the students all conveyed one word: strength. In reflecting on my interactions with West Point faculty and students, I came away encouraged and impressed by their understanding of the “strength” of effective water management, how it links both the respective resources and missions of  the military and USAID to foster stability and economic development.

Partnering for Development in Water

To meet the water, sanitation and food needs of the global community, we face huge constraints. Public and private funds for development are limited. Significant water resources are being depleted at a rapid pace. Arable land occupies a relatively small portion of our planet. Conflict and natural disasters cause immense suffering and impede the progress of development, turning back the clock. Yet, in one area we do not face constraints. That is in our capacity to empathize, to set a purpose for our lives that responds to the needs of others, and to realize that purpose by creating and implementing solutions whose scale and impact is potentially immense.

Chris Holmes speaks to the water community of Colorado. Photo Credit: USAID.

During my recent trip to Colorado, I met with several groups that embody this capacity – creative, compassionate and enthusiastic academics and Rotarians working to research, innovate and implement new solutions to some of the development challenges we face today. Many of these challenges focus on, or relate to, water. Water is vital to sustaining life, essential for the sustainable production of crops and critical to many manufacturing and industrial processes. Water availability, or lack thereof, is an issue familiar to Coloradans, and their state faces many of the same challenges that countries around the world face: drought, growing populations, and rising water needs of multiple users. The water community of Colorado has expertise not only on domestic water issues, but also on global issues such as water scarcity, treatment and sanitation.

I had the opportunity to meet with some of the members of this community, including students and faculty from University of Colorado at Boulder and Denver, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and Regis University, and Rotarians from the cities of Denver and Evergreen. In my discussions with these groups, I learned about their current development activities, including partnerships with USAID, and shared some of the approaches USAID is currently employing, including open source based development, partnerships and finance, science and technology, integrated programming, resilience and scale.

Universities and groups like Rotary are key partners in reaching USAID’s development goals. Both groups are familiar with the type of interdisciplinary thinking that USAID is using in our effort to establish linkages between sectors, such as water, agriculture and energy in order to bring about new solutions. Developing and implementing effective linkages will be key to USAID’s ability to meet global water and related food and health needs. Universities make a huge difference in educating the present and future generation of leaders who will find it critical to use these approaches and tools to save and improve lives. My visit left me feeling optimistic and excited about the future of global development, and I look forward to our continuing partnerships with universities and Rotary groups.

A Lasting Impact on Food Security

I recently traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to visit food assistance programs implemented by USAID’s Office of Food for Peace. My first impression of the Congo was the same feeling I had in Uganda when visiting projects there last year – why in countries so lush and ripe for agriculture were people so food insecure? Food insecurity is a complex issue, and for the DRC it includes key issues such as low productivity, lack of market access and infrastructure, ongoing conflict and poor nutrition practices.

As a country struggling to pull itself out of conflict, the DRC is a challenging environment to work in. Never mind the logistical challenges for our partners and staff: little infrastructure in program areas; communities cut off by rains, conflict or other factors at certain times of year; and monitoring difficulties due to USAID staff being based on the opposite side of the country from the projects.

Despite these challenges, I was amazed at the ability of USAID’s partners to have as much positive impact as they have had on food security. This was particularly apparent in the visits where development assistance had ended the previous year, but the lasting impact of programs was still very visible.

I visited two communities previously supported by Food for the Hungry (FH) – Kamalenge and Kateba – which continue to benefit from initiatives started under FH’s previous program.

In Kamalenge, the water management committee responsibly manages the use of water from the community water pump installed by FH, by creating a fee-based system for maintenance. Under this system, households pay 100 francs a month per household and adhere to a strict usage schedule, ensuring each household has access to the water and the water source does not run dry.

Nearby, a women’s goat breeding group is still working, giving goats to households in the community and selling the extra goats.  This income is helping with children’s school fees. In the coming year, with additional proceeds, the 25 members of the goat breeding group hope to start a pharmacy in the village for community members.

In Kateba, I met a mother care group who continue to teach health and nutrition messages to new mothers and child caretakers in their community. Using songs and flipcharts to teach the messages introduced by FH, women are improving their household’s health and nutrition, all with their own food resources. They were proud to declare the village free of malnutrition as a result of these efforts.

The seed multiplication station in Emilingombre made a lasting impression on me. This station resulted directly from the difficulties they had in their first development food aid program procuring improved seeds and cuttings of disease resistant varieties of cassava, bananas, and other crops. This challenge resulted in FH creating a seed multiplication station within its new beneficiary communities so farmers had more direct access to seeds and seedlings. Using seeds and seedlings developed on demonstration plots from their previous program, they have built a 22 hectare station and nursery, which the communities will maintain with Food for Work during the life of the program. Eventually, the station will be self-sustained by the community to provide plant seeds and tree seedlings of multiple varieties. The tree seedlings will also help reforest nearby areas.

These small examples are reflective of a holistic set of activities USAID partners are implementing to address food security from all angles. I left DRC impressed by our partners’ ability to operate and communities to thrive in such a challenging environment. I am eager to see the gains they will make in the coming years.

Why Africa Water Week Matters

Last week, the White House unveiled a new strategy for Sub Saharan Africa (PDF) to promote opportunity and development, particularly sustainable access to clean water. Walter North shares highlights from his recent participation in Africa Water Week addressing the world’s most devastating water challenges in sub-Saharan Africa.

Water is fundamental to development. As Secretary Clinton said during World Water Day earlier this year, “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. And therefore, we must have an equally comprehensive response.”

Most of the world’s water challenges are concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 300 million Africans lack access to safe drinking water and more than 500 million lack access to improved sanitation. Every year 800,000  children die from diarrhea – one child every 20 seconds. USAID recently launched the “Every Child Deserves a 5th Birthday” campaign, to envision a world where diarrhea is no longer one of the top three killers of children under five. Since diarrhea is primarily caused by unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and poor hygiene, USAID must target the people and places most in need.

Mid-May, I spent some time with water ministers, professionals and NGOs from across Africa working in the water sector to discuss these challenges, as part of as part of the fourth Africa Water Week, held in Cairo. There, I was delighted to hear a commitment to action – not just further discussion – from everyone gathered at the most comprehensive gathering of water sector experts on the continent.

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Notes from the World Water Week Conference

Note from World Water Week Conference on the critical role women play in securing access to WASH services- Christian Holmes, USAID Global Water Coordinator

Today at the World Water Week conference in Stockholm, I had the privilege of opening and moderating an exceptionally important session focused on “Do Rights-based Policies Enhance Women’s Leadership and Contribute to Sustainable WASH Outcomes: Taking Stock and Moving Forward.”

We tackled the added-value of rights-based policies in order to enhance women’s leadership and contribute to sustainable WASH outcomes in a seminar jointly organized by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), Freshwater Action Network (FAN), U.S. Department of State, WASH Advocacy Initiative, and WaterLex. The discussion centered on 4 key topics:

  • Best practices around equity and inclusion;
  • Women’s leadership in sustainable WASH programming and policy development;
  • Rights-based standards and M&E in WASH management; and
  • Citizen service engagement

Achieving sustainable access to affordable and appropriate water and sanitation services for all, including the poorest and most marginalized, remains a major challenge for the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sector.

In my opening comments, I stressed the critical role women play in securing access to WASH services. I stressed that it is time to support and enhance the capacity of women to develop and lead the implementation of water and sanitation solutions; women have the right to participate equally in decision- making within their communities to help address these needs.

Session presenters included:

  • Hilda Coelho, Freshwater Action Network (FAN) Representative and President of CRSD in India;
  • Hélène Boussard, Research Coordinator on Water Governance for WaterLex;
  • Mary Ann Brocklesby and Sheena Crawford; and
  • Kate Harawa, Country Director for Water For People, Malawi

Concluding the seminar, Sanjay Wijesekera, Team Leader for WASH at DFID, called on all participants to move evidence into practice. He said, “Rights-based approaches have been successfully deployed to drive change and accelerate progress on the WASH Millennium Development Goal targets. However, to use such approaches effectively, we need to ensure that the legal and policy frameworks are harmonized with human rights commitments, and that we document systematically these experiences.”

I strongly recommend reviewing the presentations made at the session.

Sustaining Human Life and the Environment

Ultimately, I believe, our planet’s sustainability will be determined by one overarching action: how mankind protects, supports and realizes the potential of human life and human systems and that of other species and ecosystems— and how sustaining life and the environment go hand in hand.

In that regard, I participated last month during World Water Week in a “WASH/Environmental Working Group” panel which addressed the linkage between the conservation of freshwater ecosystems and the protection of human health undertaken by water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs.

At that meeting, on behalf of USAID, I invited the NGO participants to continue our dialogue and meet with a wider range of USAID experts. On April 13, representatives from the WASH Advocacy Initiative, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Conservation International (CI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) came to USAID. They met with several USAID executives, including Eric Postel, newly confirmed Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Economic Growth, Agriculture and Trade; Dr. John Borrazzo, Chief, Maternal and Child Health Division, Bureau for Global Health; representatives from USAID ‘s Bureau for Food Security and Bureau for Policy, Program and Planning; and myself.

The meeting examined ways in which the USAID and the NGO community might increase their impact on sustaining both human populations and ecosystems by working together to build on past success and develop new models of integrated freshwater supply and water supply, hygiene, and sanitation approaches, as well as ways to effect WASH-Food Security integration.

We discussed the USAID-funded WASH–NRM “Healthy Families, Healthy Forests” project in Madagascar being undertaken by CRS and CI to conserve biodiversity and provide critical health services to remote rural populations.  Another project, supported by USAID and TNC in Ecuador, established a revolving fund both to protect a major watershed and to provide water from that watershed to the urban poor. Additionally, we also addressed WWFs’ “Green Recovery” approach to assist people recovering from disasters by minimizing harm to the environment.

Looking ahead, we will continue to consider ways in which to forge this crucial linkage between the protection of natural resources and human health.

On World Water Day, Rain Water Harvesting Highlighted in Zimbabwe

USAID/Zimbabwe commemorated World Water Day 2011 on March 23 with a special ceremony to draw attention to the efficiency and effectiveness of rainwater collection as a way to provide clean water to families and schools. The event took place at the Tasimukira Primary School in Chitungwiza, outside the capital, Harare.

Zimbabwe’s Minister of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture David Coltart with USAID/Zimbabwe Mission Director Karen Freeman and other officials. On March 23, 2011, USAID held a World Water Day celebration in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe at the Tasimukira Primary School, where students benefit from a USAID program that harvests rain for a clean water supply. Photo Credit: USAID/Zimbabwe

Since 2009, USAID has supported the Peri-urban Rooftop Rainwater Harvesting (PROOF) program to provide safe drinking water to over 26,000 Zimbabweans in urban and rural areas.  The program was initiated in response to the worst cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe’s recent history, which led to nearly 100,000 cases and over 4,000 deaths.  Poor water and sanitation systems, inadequate access to health care, and underlying risk factors such as malnutrition contributed to the severity of the epidemic.

Through this project implemented by International Relief and Development, USAID provides clean water to Zimbabweans until the water system is overhauled.  The initial phase of the program focused on the high-density suburbs of Harare and Chitungwiza.  In June 2010, it expanded into Mutare and Buhera in southeastern Zimbabwe.

To date, USAID has supported the installation of 805 rain water collection systems serving 2,653 households and eight schools with over 26,000 total beneficiaries.  All components of the rain water harvesting systems are manufactured in Zimbabwe, creating jobs and a nascent rain water collection industry in the free market.

 

 

 

Rain water collection systems consist of roof gutters and a water storage tank.  The equipment provides abundant clean water during the rainy season, when the highest incidents of waterborne diseases, such as cholera and typhoid fever, are seen. With regulated consumption and sufficient water storage capacity, these rainwater collection systems can provide clean drinking water all year round.

International World Water Day was first recognized by the United Nations in 1993.  It is held annually on March 22 to focus attention on the importance of fresh water and to advocate for the sustainable management of fresh water resources.  World Water Day 2011 emphasized the impact of rapid urban population growth, industrialization and uncertainties caused by climate change, and conflicts and natural disasters on urban water systems.

U.S. and World Bank Strengthen Water Partnership on World Water Day

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.”

Making the Unavoidable Unacceptable

On World Water Day, March 22, safe drinking water and sanitation experts gather across the globe both to celebrate successes and to develop more effective, sustainable ways of meeting this vital development need. One element of those conversations is that the lack of safe drinking water and sanitation in developing countries poses a number of multidisciplinary challenges:

  • This is primarily a global public health challenge, but requires primarily public works solutions.
  • Water and sanitation are important in their own right, but both are also vital to sustainable progress for other important development challenges including health, nutrition, education (especially for girls), poverty alleviation, and human security.
  • Solutions require innovation, but most importantly they require appropriately and sustainably scaling the answers known since Roman times, or at least since the introduction of chlorine into New Jersey’s municipal water supply in 1903.

As challenging as it is, however, we can undeniably achieve universal access to water and sanitation with today’s technology, funding, and political leadership.

That last statement resonates most loudly for the 884 million people who lack safe drinking water today, and for the 2.6 billion people who lack improved sanitation facilities. The approximately two million deaths due annually to unsafe water and sanitation, and the waterborne diseases causing those deaths, can for the most part be prevented. And preventing them is not simply smart development policy for the United States; it is a life and death situation for millions of people, and a significant leadership opportunity for this Administration and country.

On World Water Day let us recognize that this challenge is not simply solvable. It is being solved by communities all over the world, and the government of the United States and its philanthropies, corporations, and citizens are helping in often very effective and sustainable ways. Health specialists, engineers, and economic development experts work together to not just drill more wells and build more latrines, but to strengthen capacity of indigenous groups and communities in developing countries to provide these services themselves.

So as USAID and its partners in the United States and abroad continue to implement fully the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005 [PDF], some suggestions follow on how to accelerate that progress and make sure the work sustains itself over the long run:

2011 is the year of quality, effectiveness, and sustainability in the water and sanitation sector. Implementing agencies of the U.S. Government and outside entities (nonprofits, philanthropists, civic groups like Rotary International, corporate philanthropies, and private citizens) should always ask themselves the tough questions during the early stages of each program:

  • Is the activity they are implementing or supporting likely to endure technically? Are local businesspersons trained and incentivized to manage a supply chain?
  • Is the financial model in place to ensure that the funds will be available locally to repair, upgrade, or expand the system?
  • Is the ribbon-cutting ceremony not just the self-congratulatory end of the program, but simply the next step toward a sustainable water and sanitation intervention that endures 15-20 years?
  • Is there an ongoing monitoring and evaluation program whose successes and failures are frequently updated and knowable to all stakeholders?

In today’s tight fiscal times we need the answer to these questions to be “Yes” more frequently than in the past. This will get the biggest possible bang for our dollar, be it a development assistance or a philanthropic dollar.

So on World Water Day let us take a closer look at sustainably tackling the lack of safe drinking water and sanitation. This is an unassailably grave yet solvable development challenge, and a multi-track diplomacy opportunity with almost unlimited upside. The United States government and citizens have an opportunity to prevent more waterborne illness and mortality and should redouble efforts to do so in a sustainable, scalable fashion. Let us work together to turn water-related death and disease from an unavoidable fact of life to completely unacceptable.

World Water Day events in the Washington DC area: www.waterday.org
The United Nations World Water Day website: www.worldwaterday.org
UNICEF / WHO Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation: www.wssinfo.org

John Oldfield is Managing Director of the WASH Advocacy Initiative, a nonprofit advocacy effort in Washington DC entirely dedicated to helping solve the global safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) challenge. Its mission is to increase awareness of the global WASH challenge and solutions, and to increase the amount and effectiveness of resources devoted to solving the problem around the developing world.

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