5 Focal Points for U.S. Global Water Strategy (And Submit Your Own Too)

Have something to say about the U.S. government’s approach to water around the world? Here’s your chance. The Department of State has issued a public call for comment on its global water strategy. An open session was held in Washington last Friday, but written comments can be submitted until November 12.

For inspiration, here are points made by our own (and American University’s own) Ken Conca, edited for space:

Water must become a consistent priority in U.S. foreign policy. Handled properly, water can be a critical element in support of democracy and prosperity, at home and abroad. Safe and reliable water supplies are a foundation for resilient livelihoods, public health, and educational attainment, particularly for girls and young women. Good water governance, in the form of community-based natural resource management and other participatory mechanisms, can be a powerful democratic experience for millions of people. And water demands cooperation across all sorts of social and political boundaries, creating interdependencies that can be used to build trust, deepen understanding, stabilize relationships, and contribute to sustained peace.

Water is also a priority because the failure to address pressing water challenges can have dire consequences: political and economic instability, livelihood- and health-related vulnerability, and irreversible damage to critical ecosystems. The resulting demands for action may tax or exceed the capabilities of fragile states. In extreme circumstances, water can be a trigger or threat multiplier for violent conflict. Several accelerating drivers – including climate change, urbanization, and changing patterns of municipal and industrial demand – are combining to create significant adjustment challenges for water systems, today and in the years ahead.

A global water strategy should seek to maximize cooperative opportunities, while managing and reducing conflict vulnerabilities. The growing body of evidence we have – from peer-reviewed scholarship and experiential knowledge of practitioners – suggests five critical focal points:

1. Support SDG 6 and ensure that U.S. efforts are consistent with its principles

The 2014 Paul Simon Water for the World Act calls for “promoting the maximum impact and long-term sustainability” of water, sanitation, and hygiene-related (WASH) projects and programs. For most countries facing WASH challenges, the UN Sustainable Development Goals – and specifically Goal 6 on water – have become the focal point for these efforts. SDG 6 is vastly improved over its predecessor, the Millennium Development Goal on water, which focused narrowly on supplying drinking water and sanitation. SDG 6 adds three critical themes: first, reducing pollution, protecting watersheds, and safeguarding the freshwater ecosystems on which sustained supplies of safe water ultimately depend; second, building capacity for water reuse, rainwater harvesting, and wastewater treatment; and third, strengthening the participation of local communities in water decision-making. All WASH-related efforts supported or funded by the United States should be screened for consistency with these three provisions of SDG 6.

2. Strengthen the human right to water and rights-based approaches to water governance, management, law, and policy

The question of whether there exists a human right to water has a long and contentious history. Today, however, that debate is effectively over. The United Nations and its members have recognized a right to safe drinking water and sanitation. For most of the important actors in international water policy and practice, the focus has shifted from whether such a right exists to what it means to implement rights-based approaches. It is time for U.S. policy to consistently and proactively embrace a rights-based approach. Specifically:

3. Strengthen international water law

There are an estimated 276 international river basins that form or cross national borders. One-third of the world’s population lives in these basins, and 60 percent of the world’s freshwater supply is derived from them. International water law is a critical tool for managing conflict and institutionalizing cooperation around these shared resources. Yet, institutionalized transboundary water cooperation remains fragmented and underdeveloped. Fewer than half of these basins have an international water accord, and only about one-fourth of accords include all basin states.

The UN Watercourses Convention, which entered into force in 2015, encourages several good-governance principles and promotes best practices, including information exchange, prior notification of planned projects, environmental protection, and peaceful dispute resolution. Signing and ratifying the Watercourses Convention would give the United States a stronger voice in diffusing these principles to basins around the world and should be a priority for the next Congress. The convention has been ratified primarily by states in Africa and Europe, not coincidentally, the two world regions that have made the strongest advances in transboundary water governance, cooperation, and law. Promoting ratification across the Americas and in several key basins in Asia is essential if the accord is to be an effective tool.

4. Make international water law more adaptable and “climate-smart”

Along with working to extend its reach globally, the United States must promote the modernization of water law. Too many international water accords are narrow and static agreements, limited to allocating supplies among the parties or setting the terms for construction of infrastructure. Dispute resolution procedures, when they exist at all, focus on addressing these narrower concerns, and few agreements contain any provisions for dynamic adaptation to changing conditions. To improve water management and better address the accumulating effects of climate change, river-basin agreements must evolve from fixed contractual arrangements to dynamic tools that can adapt to changing conditions of water availability and demand. U.S. policy should:

5. Do no harm

Water scarcity can, under certain circumstances, lead to direct conflict over limited supplies. But the far greater conflict risk in most cases is that steps taken to adapt to changing water availability – new infrastructure, new rights of access, new pricing provisions, new rules on land use – are highly contentious, particularly when implemented with a sense of urgency or when lacking democratic procedures of legitimization. It is essential that U.S. engagements to improve water access, water management, and water cooperation, which may increase in response to climate change, all be done in a conflict-sensitive manner.

USAID’s Water and Conflict Toolkit provides an excellent project- and program-level screening tool to make sure that efforts are conflict-sensitive. The same logic of conflict-sensitivity screening must be applied to non-project initiatives, including efforts to promote legal and financial reforms in national water sectors, support for public-private partnerships, and the funding streams of intergovernmental organizations in which the United States has a voting share.

Ken Conca is a Wilson Center fellow and professor of international relations at the School of International Service, American University.

Sources: Global Witness, U.S. Department of State.

Photo Credit: A USAID-sponsored water treatment system in Kasekulo, Uganda, has helped reduce illness, courtesy of USAID.