More than 780 million people around the world -half of them children- rely on unsafe water sources. Lack of access to water and sanitation is a major health issue: diarrheal disease related to unsafe water and inadequate sanitation is one of the top causes of child death globally.
Clean water and good sanitation saves lives. When children no longer struggle with stomach problems, they can go to school and get an education. Their parents can tend to their fields and earn an income. Girls can attend school instead of spending hours every day fetching water from distant sources.
Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Passed the Water for the World Act – a step forwards towards enacting important legislation that could bring safe drinking water and basic sanitation to as many as 100 million people around the Globe. Water and sanitation are basic human rights, and with over 800 million people lacking access to safe drinking water and over 2.5 billion people – more than a third of the world’s population – lacking a toilet, passing this legislation should be a no-brainer. In fact, Water for the World has bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, so it’s time for the House to start taking steps to passing this legislation as well. To this end, the CEOs of 33 U.S.-based organizations including NRDC President Frances Beinecke sent a letter today to the House of Representatives asking Members to cosponsor and support the Water for the World Act on the House side.
Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is not just a human rights issue. Rather, as the CEOs write in the letter: “WASH aids in our collective efforts to ensure all children can succeed in primary school, to advance food security and nutrition, to promote sustainable water resource management, and to reduce poverty.” The House and Senate versions of the legislation have some differences, but ultimately, both seek to provide safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene for millions of people, largely by improving upon the 2005 Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act and making the way that the United States provides foreign aid on water and WASH projects more efficient. Water for the World would:
- Increase coordination of WASH with other programs. The House legislation finds that, “For maximum effectiveness of assistance, safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene must be coordinated with and integrated into programs and strategies for food security, global health, environment, education, and gender equality.” It goes on to say that USAID should carry out this integration at the Global Water Coordinator level and at the USAID Mission Director level. The coordination that the Senate legislation calls for has a more environmental focus, indicating that one of the responsibilities of the State Department Special Coordinator for Water Resources will be to “oversee and coordinate the diplomatic policy of the United States Government with respect to global freshwater issues, including interagency coordination related to sustainable access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene; integrated river basin and watershed management; global food security; transboundary conflict; agricultural and urban productivity of water resources; disaster recovery, response, and rebuilding; pollution mitigation; and adaptation to hydrologic change due to climate variability.”
- Enhance USAID and Department of State capacity at headquarters, through existing offices and positions, and at mission levels, to improve partnerships and technical capacity of in-country implementers and national governments, so that country leadership in planning, implementing and evaluating WASH programs can be prioritized. Having higher level water coordinators in USAID and the State Department is also critical for being able to successfully integrate WASH and other programs.
- Increase the sustainability and local ownership of WASH projects. The Senate legislation calls for the Secretary of State and USAID Administrator to build the capacity of host countries to “provide affordable, equitable, and sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation; educate the populations of such countries about the dangers of unsafe drinking water and lack of proper sanitation; and encourage behavior change to reduce individuals’ risk of disease from unsafe drinking water and lack of proper sanitation and hygiene.” And In the House legislation, Section 5 is focused on “Increasing Sustainability of Safe Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Projects and Activities.” These pieces of the legislation are critical, because if we want to make meaningful, long-term changes in people’s lives on the water and sanitation front, we need to be working not just towards providing first-time access to infrastructure but also access to long term services and behavior changes. Just because there’s a latrine installed doesn’t mean people will use it, know how to empty it when it needs to be emptied, or know how to repair it.
- Improve targeting of WASH funding, recognizing that the poorest people stand to benefit most from receiving access to these services. Specifically, the House legislation indicates that, “Projects and activities should be targeted to the poorest and most vulnerable countries and communities, including women and girls, displaced persons and refugees, and other marginalized populations.”
- Support research and regional partnerships to continue our learning and support innovative and effective solutions.
- Once again call on U.S. Government to produce the comprehensive, multi-year strategy water strategy that they have been supposed to produce since the passage of the 2005 Water for the Poor Act. The Water for the Poor Act called on the State Department to produce the strategy. However, USAID has taken the lead on producing the strategy. The House legislation officially shifts the responsibility for producing the WASH strategy to USAID, and calls for the strategy to be produced by January 1, 2013 that covers the next four years.
In short, this legislation would help individuals and communities in desperate need, and make the work that the United States is already doing to help more meaningful and efficient. Both the House and the Senate versions are good pieces of legislation on their own and which, if merged, have the potential to be even stronger. To continue to move this legislation forward, Members of Congress should join H.R.3658 – the Water for the World Act – as cosponsors, and call on the House Foreign Affairs Committee to move the bill – as our CEOs have called on them to do. Then the full House and the full Senate should pass the legislation. You can take action and ask your Senators and Representative to support Water for the World here.
Family collecting water in Haiti. Credit: water.org.