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Obama Pressed To Increase Global Water Aid
Ben Block, 20 Mar 09

In his inauguration speech in January, U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned four words that lifted the hearts of water advocates worldwide: "Let clean water flow."

Although Obama has proposed doubling U.S. spending on foreign aid, his new budget, released last month, offers few details on whether the additional funding will support his inaugural vow, especially in the face of a debilitating financial crisis.

Despite global economic uncertainty, sitting and former U.S. members of Congress heightened their calls for Obama to support water aid in the developing world as politicians and water experts gathered for the 5th World Water Forum in Turkey this past week.

Illinois Senator Richard Durbin announced new legislation on Tuesday that would "reestablish U.S. leadership on water around the world." The bill would authorize funds to support water development and sanitation technologies.

"The goal is to reach an additional 100 million of the world's poorest people with sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015," Durbin said during a speech Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. "This would represent the largest single commitment of any donor country to meeting the Millennium Development Goal on water."

Durbin's bill also proposes the establishment of an Office of Water in the Obama administration. The new office would be part of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

"We ought to be assigning some of our best minds to solve the global water challenge," said Durbin, the senior legislator from Obama's home state. "Right now, however, we don't have the staff at USAID to meet our goals on water or any other urgent development need."

Bill Frist, the former Republican Senate leader from Tennessee, joined Coca-Cola Company Chairman E. Neville Isdell at a separate event at CSIS on Wednesday to issue a "declaration" on how the Obama administration could better tackle global water challenges. The document concurred that a high-level position is needed to coordinate across the 15 federal agencies that currently work on water issues.

The declaration, endorsed by several water-focused non-governmental organizations, corporations, and former politicians, also called for an additional $1 billion from the United States each year for global water assistance over the next four years.

"Our government's commitment remains far below what is needed if we are to meet these [Millennium Development] goals," Frist said. "We need to increase aid for water issues that beacon for others around the world, around which they can rally for support."

CSIS president John Hamre, the former U.S. deputy secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, is among the declaration's supporters. "There's nothing - nothing - that would do more to lift up the world's perception of America than if we were to embrace a goal that, within 10 years, every human being in the world would have access to safe drinking water," Hamre said during Wednesday's event.

Congress appropriated $300 million last year to support 2005 legislation aimed at furthering U.S. foreign assistance for safe water and sanitation worldwide.

Environmentalists and aid organizations have welcomed the proposals for additional clean water funding. But some argue that aid efforts will continue to struggle without improved coordination among development groups and a more targeted dispersal of resources to the regions with the greatest need. Others still cite a dearth of collective political support.

"The most significant barriers to making real progress to address this urgent situation have been a lack of strategic thinking and political will," said Patricia Dandonoli, president of WaterAid America, and Jacob Scherr, international program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a joint statement following a review of USAID's water activities.

In addition to calls for stepped-up government funding, Coca-Cola's Isdell said businesses in the private sector should increase their contributions as well. "Some say that they cannot afford to make water investments in this tough economic climate. I say that if water is a cost for your business, then addressing your water footprint now will actually save you money and make your business more sustainable," he said.

Isdell's company has been criticized for consuming large amounts of water in developing countries for manufacturing soft drinks and other beverages. In response, Coca-Cola announced last year it would improve the water efficiency of its worldwide operations 20 percent over 2004 levels by 2012. The company has also invested in improving the quality of its water sources. "We recognize that if communities are not sustainable, we do not have a sustainable business opportunity," Isdell said.

As part of the United Nations-sponsored Millennium Development Goals, initiated in 2002, the United States and the international community agreed to reduce by half the number of people without access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015.

Current trends suggest that more than 90 percent of the world population will have access to clean drinking water by 2015, but today some 340 million people in sub-Saharan Africa remain deprived. By 2030, "business as usual" scenarios project that 5 billion people - 67 percent of the projected world population - may be without proper sanitation unless current development efforts are doubled, according to the UN World Water Development report, released on Monday.

"While the world's growing population is consuming more freshwater, climate change is making less water available in many regions as glaciers recede, rainfall becomes less predictable, and floods and droughts become more extreme," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a statement prepared in advance of this Sunday's World Water Day. "Our collective
future depends on how we manage our precious and finite water resources."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at

Photo credit: flickr/David A. Villa, Creative Commons License.

Also check out Julia Levitt's article Freshwater Roundup for more resources, innovations and and big ideas on water.

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