Water Security and the U.S. Global Water Strategy

Improving water security directly contributes to socio-economic empowerment for women. These Nepalese women received training to increase their income and improve water management as part of the USAID Education for Income Generation Project. Photo credit: George Figdor/Winrock International

This blog originally appeared in the Sustainable Water Partnership newsletter and is also available on SWP’s website.  

On November 1, in what otherwise might have been a typical congressional hearing, Republican Congressman Charles Dent looked toward his former colleague, newly installed USAID Administrator Mark Green, and posed an interesting question: “Water scarcity is known as a threat multiplier… What more will USAID do under your leadership to get rid of water related security threats, be they conflict, disease, or famine due to water scarcity?”

Dent’s insightful observation that water scarcity is a threat multiplier is a prescient one, and it’s an area that Green is poised to deliver action on. His response touched on several possible solutions to water problems, from engaging with the private sector to integrating water concerns into USAID’s work in food security.

As this exchange indicates, water security is a cross-sectoral goal, aims to provide sufficient and reliable water not just to support public health, but also to bolster livelihoods, economic activities and political stability. This integrated understanding of water security has grown in recent years, culminating in the funding of water security programs like the Sustainable Water Partnership (SWP).

In 2012, the Global Water Security Paper produced by the Director of National Intelligence argued that over the next 10 years, water problems “will risk instability and state failure [and] increase regional tensions,” as well as “hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth.” In other words, water problems don’t end with water—they present myriad new challenges for seemingly separate sectors.

This understanding has also made its way into policy. In 2005, the U.S. acknowledged the importance of access to safe water by passing the Water for the Poor Act, thus making Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH)—reliable access to safe drinking water and sanitation to improve public health—a U.S. foreign policy priority. Following this lead, the Water for the World Act of 2014 mandated the submission of a single government-wide Global Water Strategy to Congress by 2017.

So, on November 15 of this year, the first-ever U.S. Government Global Water Strategy was posted to the attention of the public, stating, among other things, “Our vision is a water secure world, where people have sustainable supplies of water of sufficient quantity and quality to meet human, economic, and ecosystem needs while managing risks from floods and droughts.” The strategy not only supports WASH, but also recognizes other water-related needs: water for food, energy, socio-economic growth, and political stability.

There are several reasons to celebrate this landmark document. It acknowledges that the current water crisis not only increases poverty and disease, but also undermines economic growth, fosters food and energy insecurity, causes civil unrest, exacerbates migration pressures, aids terrorist recruitment, and can lead to state failure. Having acknowledged water security as a cross-sectoral theme, the strategy also presents water as an opportunity to advance core democratic values around equality, transparency, accountability, women’s empowerment, and community organization. In other words, the strategy recognizes that water is a means of strengthening governance, civil society engagement, and resilience at all levels.

The strategy focuses on four objectives:

  1. Promote sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation services, and the adoption of key hygiene practices;
  2. Encourage the sound management and protection of water resources;
  3. Reduce conflict by promoting cooperation on shared waters; and
  4. Strengthen water sector governance, financing, and institutions.

These objectives are water-sector specific, but acknowledging water security as a cross-sectoral development theme should translate to even more activities. For example, water should be utilized as a prime entry point for governance and stabilization programs. Furthermore, it is crucial to realize that improving water security directly contributes to socio-economic empowerment for women, which in turn contributes to population control and overall socio-economic stability. Water access is critical for developing and supporting livelihood activities for women, such as gardening and livestock farming.

Therefore, food and energy security activities, and even more general economic growth efforts, should be required to incorporate water security as a fundamental component.

It will be intriguing to watch the implementation of this Global Water Strategy. What is certain is that the U.S. has an opportunity to lead the way in better managing this vital resource. Accordingly, federal agencies, resources, and capacities should be mobilized with the understanding that water is essential to all aspects of life on Earth, and thus to all sectors of socio-economic development.

SWP, one of USAID’s flagship water security programs, is carrying out a first step in this process. With the help of our consortium of partners, we promote and implement sustainable water security improvement approaches in Cambodia, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, and Tanzania.

Water security is national security, and with proper planning and action can build resilience and self-reliance the world over. We look forward to working with leaders like Administrator Green and Congressman Dent to promote this American priority.

By Eric Viala, Director of USAID’s Sustainable Water Partnership