U.S. clean water legislation passes under the wire

U.S. Capitol building. (Credit: Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr)

Sen. Thomas Coburn, R-Okla., lifted his hold on the Water for the World Act late last night to clear the way for the Senate to pass the bill. It comes roughly a week after the House of Representatives passed the same bill, putting it only a President Obama signature away from becoming law. It was a last-minute victory for water activists as Congress heads into its holiday recess.

“The Water for the World Act shows that the U.S. is serious about giving effective aid targeted at enabling the most vulnerable to lift themselves out of poverty. Water for the World focuses U.S. efforts on water and sanitation investments where they’re most needed, all without costing more money,” said Simon Moss, managing director for the advocacy group The Global Poverty Project, in an interview with Humanosphere.

The bill appeared stalled when Sen. Coburn placed a hold on it late last week. The outgoing senator held up a few pieces of legislation over spending concerns. With the need for unanimous consent, he held the power to alter or kill any of the bills. Concerns were put to rest late Monday when Coburn reversed his hold on the bill and it was later passed by the Senate.

At a time where Congress is characterized by bipartisan bickering, the Water for the World Act posed a rare instance where both sides of the aisle agree. The legislation easily passed in the House and unanimously passed in the Senate. It is expected that Obama will soon sign the bill into law.

Advocates say the law will do two important things: improve the coordination of programs and spending on water and ensure that they reach the countries that need it most. It is a necessary improvement on the Sen. Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005, explained Lisa Schechtman, director of policy and advocacy at WaterAid America. She said the United States Agency for International Development has a mixed record on water since 2005 with 40 percent of money spent in countries who already have 85 percent or higher access to clean water.

“This bill requires USAID to be more stringent in their analysis before they invest,” Schechtman said in an interview with Humanosphere. “There is a need for flexibility to be able to focus on poor communities. We don’t want the methodology to be so stringent that they don’t respond in circumstances like sudden emergencies.”

A key requirement in the new bill says that the U.S. government must publish a strategy for addressing water, sanitation and hygiene, also known as WASH. The report will include a ranking of country-level progress toward increasing access to water and sanitation. Money spent in countries not part of the bottom 50 will require a notification in Congress. The idea is to increase transparency, encourage spending in the countries that need support the most and provide Congress with information to hold USAID accountable.

“The bill does direct the administration to behave differently than it has before, on principle it might not want to change,” said Schechtman.

Overseeing all the programs and changes will be the USAID-appointed global water coordinator and the State Department’s special adviser for water resources. The new bill creates both positions. The idea is to strengthen the foreign policy bodies in their WASH work, which would increase access to clean water and sanitation in developing countries.

The successful passage of the bill is attributed to Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Ted Poe, R-Tex., who all served as co-sponsors for the bill in their respective chambers. Advocates thanked the sponsors for their leadership and successful passage of the bill.

“We are grateful to the true champions of this bill – Senators Durbin and Corker, and Congressmen Blumenauer and Poe, along with key advocates Congressmen (Aaron) Schock and (Charlie) Dent,” said Justine Lucas, U.S. country director for the Global Poverty Project.

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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.