Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dwindling Water Rises to Top U.S. Priority

Written by Stephen Kaufman

Increased population growth and the effects of climate change will cause nearly two-thirds of the world's population to be living under water-stress conditions by the year 2025, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warns, and she says the United States is elevating the issue of water scarcity in its foreign policy not only to encourage more efficient use, but also to minimize future political conflicts as resources become more scarce.

Clinton spoke at the National Geographic Society in Washington March 22 on the occasion of World Water Day, first designated by the United Nations in 1992 to raise annual awareness of the growing water crisis.

"Water challenges are most obvious in developing nations, but they affect every country on Earth and they transcend political boundaries," Clinton said. "As water becomes increasingly scarce it may become a potential catalyst for conflict among and within countries."

Along with seeing most of the world's people living under water-stress conditions, in 15 years, 2.4 billion people will face "absolute water scarcity," which is "the point at which a lack of water threatens social and economic development," Clinton said.

When there is not enough water to provide for sanitation or irrigation, the results can range from economic decline to unrest and instability, she said.

Rather than focus merely on geopolitical boundaries, the secretary advised looking at regions in terms of watersheds, river basins and aquifers, noting that more than 260 river basins around the world are shared between two or more countries.

"We cannot address the water challenges of these countries in isolation. We should use every regional watershed or aquifer as an opportunity for stronger international cooperation. Done right, there could be huge political and economic benefits from regional water diplomacy," Clinton said.

Although there is no "technological silver bullet" that currently exists to solve water scarcity, Clinton said current innovations can offer improvements in areas such as disinfecting and storing drinking water, the treatment of wastewater and desalinization. "We need to work harder to share this knowledge with the rest of the world," she said.

"It is my hope that by making water a front-burner issue, a high priority in our national and international dialogues, we can give our children and our children's children the future they deserve," Clinton said.

In remarks at the State Department March 22, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero summarized the overall message of Clinton's speech, saying, "We want to ensure that no person dies from a preventable water-related disease and that water doesn't become an impediment to socioeconomic development or a threat to peace and security."

The Obama administration is integrating the issue of water into its foreign policy priorities, as well as elevating it as "a stand-alone priority," Otero said.

Where there is an existing scarcity, "we already see countries trying to reach agreement and in some cases expressing considerable tension between them. This is precisely the issue that we want to be able to help," Otero said.

"We want to be able to create the increased capacity among countries to be able to dialogue with each other, to be able to reach agreement in those rivers that they share and to be able to plan long term, into the next decade and the following decade, in the way in which they're going to use their sources of existing water and the way in which they're going to share the water that they have," she said.

Michael Yates of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said USAID now spends an average of $500 million every year in water projects that benefit 70 countries around the world.

He said in 2008, USAID was able to provide 6 million people around the world with improved access to water. For 4 million of them it was their "first-time access to improved water."

Yates said USAID helped 7 million people access sanitation in 2008, more than 2 million of whom were obtaining their first access to improved sanitation services.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State)