By: John Oldfield
Several months into the Trump administration, I had the opportunity to brief a senior political appointee on the White House staff on global water security. After a one hour briefing, the individual said, “Global water sounds great — we have to be FOR something.”
Global water is that type of issue — it’s fundamental and receives a great deal of bipartisan support regardless of the political environment, who controls Congress and the White House, or what other pressing issues might be in the headlines.
As we approach March 22, World Water Day, I am reminded of how much we have accomplished in just over a decade.
Over 12 years ago, President George W. Bush signed the Water for the Poor Act of 2005 into law, establishing global safe drinking water and sanitation as priorities of U.S. foreign policy for the first time ever. In 2014, President Barack Obama signed into law the Water for the World Act, authorizing for a second time the global water and sanitation issue.
Just this past November, President Trump and his administration, led by the Department of State and USAID, launched the first ever, whole-of-government U.S. Global Water Strategy. It’s smart strategy that brings together 17 federal agencies to better coordinate and elevate work across the global water security sector, leading to stronger partnerships with the U.S. private sector, more cost-effective and sustainable programming, and a bigger bang for the U.S. taxpayer.
The U.S. Congress deserves a great deal of credit for this momentum. Water leaders like Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Ted Poe (R-Texas) in the House, along with Senate counterparts — Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and many others, have written and passed two meaningful laws that increased water security, appropriations and ensured that water is included in other related legislation, for example the Global Food Security Act.
Congress had held several hearings on the issue over the years, including The Role of Water in Avoiding Conflict and Building Prosperity and The Impact of U.S. Water Programs on Global Health.
Over the coming few days, we will see a great deal of activity in Washington, D.C., at the United Nations and across the globe around water.
I am also reminded of the importance of what has yet to be done.
Water, the foundation for life itself, is pivotal to economic growth and all sustainable progress toward global health and development. Water is key to national security and can be a confidence-building measure in the world of diplomacy. Secure water access can make communities and whole countries more stable in places like the Sahel, the India/Pakistan border, Central America and Israel/Gaza.
In the next decade, some 2.9 billion people in 48 countries will face water shortages, which could pose major threats to global security, according to a UN report. U.S. defense and intelligence communities understand how water access is both an emerging threat and an emerging opportunity. The U.S. intelligence community published an Intelligence Community Assessment on global water security, and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats testified before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2017 that “heightened tensions over shared water resources are likely in some regions.”
CNA’s Military Advisory Board (a group of retired three- and four-star officers from across the U.S. military) recently launched a report called The Role of Water Stress in Instability and Conflict, detailing the very real security threats that global water scarcity could pose to the U.S. and our allies over the coming years i.e., the next water-exacerbated conflicts like Syria and Yemen, and the continued weaponization of water by ISIS and al Shabab.
Based on the strong contributions of USAID and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the U.S. Global Water Strategy, a neglected but pivotal new opportunity is knocking at the door — addressing the astonishing lack of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) in healthcare facilities across the developing world. An invigorated focus on WASH in healthcare facilities would greatly increase safety for newborn babies and pregnant women; achieve significant life-saving health and economic outcomes; and because pandemics know no borders, help prevent and contain infectious diseases related to unsafe water and inadequate sanitation.
Going forward, Congress will have opportunities to steward additional, targeted funding to help increase access to sustainable safe drinking water and sanitation across the developing world; get ahead of water-accelerated conflicts; and prevent the next famines and water-related infectious diseases.
Congress would be smart to encourage the administration to implement the new Global Water Strategy as not just a whole-of-government exercise, but a whole-of-America exercise, increasing the important roles of civic groups like Rotary International, U.S. universities, faith-based organizations and the many nonprofits in the health and development sectors. There are Americans in all 50 states working hard on water-related issues, and their efforts nicely complement those of the U.S. government.
As we approach World Water Day, the U.S. government and private sector have an opportunity to build on over a dozen years of bipartisan progress and significantly accelerate progress on one of the most fundamental needs we face: Global water security.
As originally published in The Hill