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U.S.: Water Crisis High on Policy Agenda, Clinton Says

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Mar 22 2010 (IPS) - On a rainy morning here Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasised the centrality to U.S. foreign policy of addressing the world’s water challenges.

“For the United States water represents one of the great diplomatic and development opportunities of our time. It’s not every day you find an issue where effective diplomacy and development will allow you to save millions of lives, feed the hungry, empower women, advance our national security interests, protect the environment, and demonstrate to billions of people that the United States cares,” she said.

The provision of clean water is, according to Clinton, one of the “root causes” of the more immediate and flashier stories that make the headlines and as such presents an interesting policy challenge – and opportunity.

“Water is actually a test case for preventive diplomacy” where problems are not left to “fester” but are addressed proactively, she said. “It could establish a precedent for early action.”

Her speech was one of a deluge of events in Washington scheduled around World Water Day, which has been celebrated on Mar. 22 of each year since the United Nations created it in 1992 to focus attention on water crises and their solutions.

Eighteen years later, those crises are only becoming more immediate. Glaciers and snow packs in the Himalayas and East Africa are disappearing, as are the rivers and streams into which they feed. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has projected that 75 to 250 million people in Africa will suffer increased water stress due to the climatic changes by 2020.

But climate change is only part of the equation. A booming global population, poor sanitation, and unsustainable agricultural and household water use all contribute to strain the water cycle that sustains life on Earth, putting both the quantity and quality of the planet’s most important resource in danger.

The World Health Organisation says that water scarcity affects one in three people on every continent and that one-fifth of people live in areas where water is physically scarce. Another quarter of the world’s population face water shortages due to a lack of infrastructure to transport water from river and aquifers.

These are not just humanitarian but security matters, Clinton said Wednesday. “And that’s why President [Barack] Obama and I recognise that water issues are integral to the success of many of our major foreign policy initiatives.”

She noted that addressing water shortages and quality is central to ensuring the “stability of young governments in Afghanistan, Iraq and other nations depends in part on their ability to provide their people with access to water and sanitation.”

Among the other specific initiatives that must take water issues into account, Clinton cited the Global Health Initiative, which commits 63 billion dollars over six years to improve children’s health and fight preventable diseases in poorer countries, among other health goals.

The effects of poor water access or sanitation are well-known. A report from the U.N. Environment Programme released Monday said 1.8 million children under five years old die due to a lack of clean water. The report also said diarrhoea, mostly caused by dirty water, kills about 2.2 million people a year and that over half the world’s hospital beds are occupied by those suffering “illnesses linked with contaminated water.”

Clinton also pointed to the administration’s efforts to promote food security, saying that “70 percent of the world’s water use is devoted to agriculture,” and said that addressing water would assist in the U.S.’s efforts to empower women globally. The economic effects of water scarcity most directly impact women and young girls since they are the family members most likely to spend their time collecting and transporting water.

Taken together, the potential impacts of a lack of clean water place the issue at the heart of many other present and potential crises.

Rather than looking at national boundaries, water should be viewed as a regional resource contained by the natural boundaries of aquifers or river basins, Clinton said, adding that better management of some of these river basins could increase people’s welfare enough to pull some of them out of poverty.

And she focused on the key role of partnerships between governments, NGOs, international financial institutions and the private sector.

“As pressing as water issues are now they will become even more important in the near future,” she said. “By 2025 – just fifteen years from now – nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries will be water-stressed…and 2.4 billion people will face absolute water scarcity – the point at which a lack of water threatens social and economic development.”

Clinton spoke as part of an event on safe drinking water and sanitation at the National Geographic Society. Elsewhere in Washington today, roundtable discussions were held at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies to develop new strategies to address water-related issues.

On Tuesday, advocates will gather in Washington to push the U.S. Congress to adopt sustainable water, sanitation, hygiene and child health programmes as part of the second day of World Water Day events here.

On Apr. 23, UNICEF will host the first-ever annual high-level meeting on sanitation and water in Washington, which finance and development ministers from a range of countries are expected to attend.

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