US Foreign Policy

Presidential Inbox 2013: Strengthen Water Security at Home and Abroad

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The Challenge:

Soaring demand, unsustainable consumption patterns, ineffective management, insufficient investment, and mounting environmental pressures increasingly imperil the world’s vital fresh water resources, undermining US national security objectives and threatening domestic prosperity. Abroad, growing strains on global water supplies could generate tensions between states sharing the same water sources. Water shortages and water-related disasters – when combined with other factors such as poverty and weak institutions – could contribute to social disruptions that can result in political unrest or even state failure. At home, worsening climate change impacts and aging water infrastructure dampen economic growth and could endanger public health.

The Context:


Over the past century, water demand has appreciably outpaced population growth. While the number of people on the planet has more than quadrupled since 1900, global water use has soared sevenfold. In the coming decades, rising populations, continuing economic development, and increasing urbanization will further boost the world’s water needs. By 2030, worldwide water withdrawals will climb more than 50 percent, according to analyses by the 2030 Water Resources Group. Assuming a business-as-usual scenario, without any improvements in water-use efficiency or productivity, global demand would then exceed existing, accessible, and sustainable water supplies by 40 percent. One-third of the world’s population, largely in developing countries, will live in basins where the projected supply deficit will reach 50 percent or more.

Safe drinking water and basic sanitation are essential components of individual welfare and the social commonweal, recognized by the United Nations as fundamental human rights. Yet over 780 million people around the world today lack access to improved drinking water sources and 2.5 billion people – more than a third of the Earth’s inhabitants – lack improved sanitation. Insufficient water access and inadequate sanitation impose substantial burdens on society. Scarce water supplies and polluted sources can impair agriculture and food security, compromise industrial production and power generation, endanger public health, jeopardize livelihoods, and hobble economic growth. Across the developing world, the health impacts and productivity losses linked to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) problems may amount to 2 percent of GDP, rising to as much as 5 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. More troubling than the economic damages are the human costs. Globally, some 3.5 million deaths a year, more than 80 percent of them children, stem from WASH-related diseases like diarrhea, cholera, and dysentery.

Such dire economic impacts and human losses are both unconscionable and unnecessary.  More effective water management can mitigate — if not altogether eliminate — many of these risks. In the developing world, more than 80 percent of wastewater goes untreated. On farms around the globe, much water lavished on the fields evaporates or drains off before ever reaching crop roots and irrigation efficiencies are a fraction of their potential.  Similarly, the World Health Organization calculates that 10 percent of the total disease burden worldwide could be prevented by improvements in WASH delivery and that every dollar invested in drinking water and sanitation would return more than 7 dollars in benefits.

The US has long supported efforts to increase global access to clean water and sanitation and to improve water resources management. In 2000, the US joined the Millennium Development Goals, including the objective to halve the number of people worldwide without safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. In 2005, the 109th Congress passed legislation making access to safe water and sanitation a specific objective of US foreign assistance programs. US programs led by the Millennium Challenge Corporation, USAID, and the State Department have contributed to significant global progress. Yet each of these activities can reflect different priorities and criteria, responding to the goals and objectives of the managing agencies, and raising questions about the strategic direction, balance, and coherence of US international water policies.

At home, improving water security is also critical to providing a stable foundation for future economic growth and bolstering public health. Shifting weather patterns years in recent years – marked by more severe storms, heightened flooding, extended heat waves, and intensified droughts – have combined to severely strain water supplies in some economically vital sections of the country. Drought in 2011 affected one-third of the continental US, costing $10 billion in economic losses and emerging as the year’s most expensive domestic natural disaster. Meanwhile, 2012 registered as the hottest year on record in the Northern Hemisphere and saw the US Midwest experience its most severe drought in half a century.

According to a recent Natural Resources Defense Council study, global warming will likely threaten more than 1,100 counties in the contiguous US with increased risk of water shortages in the next 40 years, a timeframe during which total US water demand is expected to grow more than 12 percent. The report deemed 400 counties (concentrated in the US Southwest and Great Plains) will face an extremely severe risk of shortages, with key agricultural breadbaskets such as California’s Central Valley projected to see five inches less of average annual precipitation by 2050. Declining water availability is already having visible impacts on other areas of the economy as well, with low water levels in late 2012 and early 2013 threatening critical shipping corridors in the Mississippi basin.

Lastly, domestic water issues are not restricted to the rural US. Some urban areas rely on water-delivery systems that lose 30-40 percent of their water due to leaking pipelines and poor maintenance, while some cities’ turn-of-the-20th-century storm-water infrastructure allows untreated wastewater to contaminate public drinking supplies after heavy rains. Left unaddressed in the coming years, the deterioration of urban water infrastructure may jeopardize public health while threatening the vitality and productivity of water-stressed regional economic hubs, especially cities like Atlanta, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix.

Pragmatic Steps:

To bolster the US role abroad as a positive driver of water cooperation and enhance water security and economic productivity at home, the new Obama administration should take the following pragmatic steps:

  • Press Congress to pass the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act.  The Act aims to provide 100 million additional people with sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation. It targets high-priority countries with the greatest needs; emphasizes building local capacities to address water challenges; fosters international diplomatic and scientific cooperation for sharing data, technologies, and best practices; and bolsters coordination between US agencies and integration across existing water, health, development, and food security programs. A rarity for Washington legislation, it enjoys strong bipartisan support and requires no new funding.
  • Encourage Congress to authorize multi-year funding appropriations for WASH and water management assistance efforts. Programs establish goals and targets based on long-term action plans, but it is difficult for USAID, State, and other agencies to formulate and implement multi-year plans while receiving uncertain annual appropriations.
  • Enhance coordination with other funders.  In many developing countries, WASH programs are funded primarily by foreign donors and the private sector. Disconnected program management between donors contributes to redundancies and gaps, heightens demands on local capacities, and weakens overall coherency and oversight across programs. 
  • Invest in water-storage infrastructure to bolster domestic climate-change resiliency. The economic productivity of the US agriculture and livestock industries is closely tied to water availability. To buffer against projections of increasingly erratic seasonal water availability in the coming years, modest public works funding directed at building storage infrastructure in the Southeast, Midwest, Great Plains, and Southwest will help the US economy more ably weather future dry spells.
  • Incentivize more efficient urban water use. Offer tax breaks to companies that invest in water-recycling schemes or demonstrate evidence of efficient water use, paying particular attention to major cities of the water-scarce Southeast and Southwest. Financial incentives for effective private-sector water demand management would better promote economic resiliency in arid urban areas than would increasing surface- and groundwater withdrawals. Meanwhile, shoring up urban water-delivery and wastewater treatment infrastructure should be considered for public-works spending, given the real and achievable gains in public health, environmental security, and overall water-use efficiency that would result.



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