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.

In the “Water for Development” panel I participated in, fellow panelists made clear that “people cannot live on potential,” and “no will is good without action.”

Africa, while home to thundering river valleys, is scarred by astounding scarcity. “In the midst of plenty,” one panelist commented, “our people remain thirsty.”

His Excellency Macky Sall, President of Senegal, himself a former water minister, urged delegates to keep in mind throughout the conference that a child and mother without water were waiting for them on their return home.

Why is this important? Because a range of voices in the U.S. Government recently put together an assessment of Global Water Security, which I urge all of you who care about these issues to read. The analysis confirmed what I’m sure you already know: that, if left unaddressed, water challenges will pose a threat to global security. It reinforces that water is not just a human health issue, not just an economic development or environmental issue, but also a security issue.

USAID has a long history of work in water.  These investments are critical. Back in 2000, the global development community put in place a series of Millennium Development Goals (MDG) addressing a range of development challenges, including water and sanitation. Early this year, we took great pride in the global achievement of the MDG for water – halving the number of people in the world without sustainable access to drinking water three years before the 2015 target. Yet the great majority of those who lack access to clean drinking water live in Africa. Furthermore, we are nowhere near accomplishing the MDG related to sanitation, and unless a fresh round of priority commitments are made, we will not achieve it by the 2015 target date.

I am proud of the progress we have made in Egypt and across Africa, and urge all of us to rally with a greater sense of urgency around the challenges that remain. As the delegates proved during Africa Water Week, together we can do great things.

Read more about USAID’s work in water and sanitation issues around Africa and in Egypt.