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The USAID Water and Development Strategy: A Good First Step

071127-N-7955L-130“Population growth, increased demand for and rising cost of energy, increased urbanization, watershed and environmental degradation, natural disasters, conflict, climate change, and weak water governance are putting water resources under increasing pressure” – USAID Water and Development Strategy 2013-2018

The US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) released its first global Water and Development Strategy on May 21. The purpose of the Strategy is to provide an increased focus on how the agency will approach its water programs from 2013-2018. The executive summary notes:

This Strategy emphasizes how sustainable use of water is critical to save lives, promote sustainable development, and achieve humanitarian goals. Projections are that by 2025, two­thirds of the world’s population could be living in severe water stress conditions. This stress adversely affects individuals, communities, economies, and ecosystems around the world, especially in developing countries.

While the Strategy does not explicitly address climate change – USAID addressed the water and climate change linkage in its Climate Change and Development Strategy (2012­-2016) – the strategy does seeks to strengthen the adaptation and resiliency strategies outlined previously.  The Water and Development Strategy also emphasizes the role of water in terms of U.S. foreign policy goals and national security interests:

Ensuring the availability of safe water to sustain natural systems and human life is integral to the success of the development objectives, foreign policy goals, and national security interests of the United States.

As such, a portion of the Strategy specifically “addresses the impact of water problems for countries important to U.S. national security interests,” as well as “gives priority to supporting…other development objectives such as resilience…climate change efforts, humanitarian assistance,” and “links humanitarian and development efforts more effectively by supporting programming of WASH funds in emergency situations.”

Sen. Durbin’s prepared remarks speak to the link between water and national security:

For people who say America can’t afford to invest in clean water for the world, I would point out that experts in the Pentagon and elsewhere have called the world water shortage a real and growing threat to America’s own security.  In fact, you only had to read New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s devastating piece this weekend about how drought and water mismanagement contributed to Syria’s bloody civil war to understand this serious point…The way to douse the flames of global poverty and disease and conflict is not more fire, it is clean water.

However, targeting countries of strategic importance to the United States has drawn some criticism, characterized by fears that this will lead to the prioritization of diplomacy and security concerns over development, and result in less aid going to the nations with the lowest water and sanitation coverage.  But how the aid will be distributed between nations has yet to be determined.

As John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates notes:

Once the strategy is formally launched, USAID and its many partners across the U.S. and the globe have five years to make this work. The implementation phase of the strategy will build on many of the successes outlined above, and provide further guidance on the strategy’s shortcomings.

This is an important point.  The USAID Water Strategy is an important first document to address the very real and serious issues associated with water, issues that are likely to increase in severity with a changing climate.  Finding a way to improve the lives of billions of people without adequate access to water and sanitation, while also mitigating the risks associated with water security and potential conflict, is no easy task. But it is an important one, and one worth taking the time to get right – or as close to right as possible.

We’ll close with a quote from Rear Admiral David Titley, US Navy (ret):

If you remember nothing else, know this is all about water…There’s too much in some places, too little in others. It’s melted in some places where it’s supposed to be solid; it’s salty in places it’s supposed to be fresh. And that affects a lot, from national security to food production.

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