USAID declares water is critical to global development

Viewing a new borehole for water access in north Nigeria. photo by Mike Urban

After fifty years in the game, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) unveiled its first ever water and development strategy.

Some say it’s about time.

“For many years in development work, water, sanitation and hygiene have been a bit forgotten,”  said Alanna Imbach, media officer with WaterAid America, to the Inter Press Service. “Instead, significant focus has been placed on education, maternal health and nutrition, overlooking the fact that water and sanitation are foundational building blocks for all of those other elements.”

Though the announcement is appreciated by other NGO leaders, like Water for People CEO Ned Breslin.

“What’s great about this strategy is that it opens up space for creative programming in water development,” said Breslin to IPS. “It’s a huge step forward.”

The five-year water and development strategy is a sign from USAID that it sees water and sanitation as cross-cutting development issues. It is estimated that more than one in ten people (780 million) lack access to safe drinking water. On top of that 2.5 billion people lack access to sanitation.

“This new U.S. Water and Development Strategy will help lift poor people around the world out of conflict and poverty.  It is smart, strategic and builds on our past successes using new breakthroughs in science and technology,” said Senator Dick Durbin who joined other members of congress and USAID Administrator Raj Shah for the release.

Environmental stresses are only making maters worse. UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon warned on Wednesday that the world headed towards a future without clean water if preventative steps are not taken. He said that water and biodiversity must be important components of the effort by countries to meet the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

“We live in an increasingly water insecure world where demand often outstrips supply and where water quality often fails to meet minimum standards. Under current trends, future demands for water will not be met,” Ban said.

USAID’s new plan sets forward a pair of strategies  The first is to ensure the provision of safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) as a way to improve health outcomes. It sets the goal of bringing clean water to 10 million people and improved sanitation to 6 million.

A few people excited about USAID’s Water and Development program.Achieving the goal will require leveraging the over $500 million already spent on water programs in the USAID budget. The 2005 Water for the Poor Act, brought forward by Senator Paul Simon, sets a criteria for determining which countries experience water and sanitation gaps in order to ensure that aid investments reach high need areas.

A bipartisan has grown over the past few years to improve Senator Simon’s bill through the Water for the World Act. Despite the provision to provide WASH support in high-need countries, the reality is that not all the money goes to the right place, say advocates. An estimated 20% of the 2011 WASH budget went to countries where safe water and sanitation were available to 75% or more of a country’s population.

The bill seeks to tighten up the allocation of money and strengthen the ability of WASH programs to target places in need. It will also put more pressure on the need to integrate water, a small part of foreign aid spending, into development as a whole. Advocates should be pleases that the new strategy from USAID recognizes this need, but are likely to keep pressing for more given that it relies on Senator Simon’s 2005 bill.

An approach to prioritize countries will shrink the focus, but may leave countries that still experience WASH gaps without support. CEO of WASH Advocates, John Oldfield, expressed some of his concerns in a blog post following the announcement.

I’m all for selectivity and focus leading to a smaller number of program countries for the water strategy. Dissipation is the enemy, but cutting from 62 countries to perhaps a couple dozen countries overnight is drastic, and will leave dozens of WASH-poor countries – with strong enabling environments (viz. “opportunity to succeed”) – high and dry.

The plan’s second part sees water as a vital part of food security. Improvements in the water side of the agriculture equation will enable sustainable and efficient food production. The problem with agriculture is often not an issue of rainfall, but management of the water available, says the report. USAID will seek to improve water in agriculture by ensuring farmers more efficiently use available resources.

Success can be seen in a program in Haiti led by Feed the Future. Training Haitians in modern farming techniques and providing access to new technologies led to increased cop production in corn by 341%, beans by 100%, and rice by 58 percent.

As the United States takes water and sanitation more seriously, Senator Durbin is excited by the possibilities of the new plan.

“USAID’s new plan will bring water and sanitation – the most basic of human needs – to millions of people around the globe, dousing the flames of global poverty, disease and conflict.”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.