When I tell people I have been working on a report about U.S. international water policy, they usually respond with the same sardonic question: “The United States has an international water policy?” The answer, of course, is complicated. Yes, we have localized approaches to water challenges in parts of the developing world, and we have more than 15 government agencies with capacities to address water and sanitation issues abroad. And yes, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development published a joint strategic framework this year for action on water issues in the developing world.
However, the U.S. government (USG) does not yet have an overarching strategy to guide our water programs abroad and maximize synergies among (and within) agencies. Furthermore, the 2005 Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act—which calls for increased water and sanitation assistance to developing countries—has yet to be funded and implemented in a fashion that satisfies lawmakers. In fact, just last week, legislation was introduced in both the House and the Senate to enhance the capacity of the USG to fully implement the Water for the Poor Act.
Why has implementation been so slow? An underlying problem is that water still has no institutional home in the USG, unlike other resources like agriculture and energy, which have entire departments devoted to them. In the current system, interagency water coordination falls on a small, under-resourced (yet incredibly talented and dedicated) team in the State Department comprised of individuals who must juggle competing priorities under the broad portfolio of Oceans, Environment, and Science. In part, it is water’s institutional homelessness that hinders interagency collaboration, as mandates and funding for addressing water issues are not always clearly delineated.
So, what should be done? For the last year and a half, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Global Strategy Institute has consulted with policy experts, advocates, scientists, and practitioners to answer this million-dollar question. In our report, Global Water Futures: A Roadmap for Future U.S. Policy, we conclude that if we are serious about achieving a range of our strategic national interests, water must be elevated as a priority in U.S. foreign policy. Water is paramount to human health, agricultural and energy production, education, economic development, post-conflict stabilization, and more—therefore, our government’s organizational structure and the resources it commits to water should reflect the strategic importance of this resource.
We propose the creation of a new bureau or “one-stop shop” for water policy in the State Department to lead in strategic planning, implementation, and evaluation of international water programs; mobilize resources in support of water programming overseas; provide outreach to Congress and important stakeholders; and serve as a research and information clearinghouse. This would require significant support from the highest levels of government, increased funding, and greater collaboration with the private and independent sectors.
The current economic crisis means we are likely to face even greater competition for scarce foreign aid resources. But I would argue—paraphrasing Congressman Earl Blumenauer at our report rollout—that relatively little funding toward water and sanitation can have a significant impact around the world. As we tighten our belts during this period of financial instability, it is even more important that we invest in cross-cutting issues that yield the highest returns across defense, development, and diplomacy. Water is an excellent place to start.
Rachel Posner is a research associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Global Strategy Institute.
Photo: Environmental Change and Security Program Director Geoff Dabelko and Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) at the launch of Global Water Futures: A Roadmap for Future U.S. Policy. Courtesy of CSIS.