March 23, 2010

World Water Day

Yesterday, countries around the world celebrated World Water Day. This is a day to celebrate the progress we have made protecting this most important resource and to reflect on the many challenges we still face in providing clean, safe water to the world’s poor.
 
I was heartened to see that Secretary of State Clinton spoke at the National Geographic World Water Day event on Monday. She and others at the Department of State and USAID are doing a great job stepping up U.S. leadership on issues of clean water and sanitation.
 
Last year alone, American development assistance helped more than 4 million people access an improved water source for the first time. While we’re proud of this help, we recognize that much more needs to be done. 
 
Today, nearly one billion people still lack access to safe drinking-water, and more than two billion still lack basic sanitation. Lack of access to stable supplies of water is reaching critical proportions, particularly for agricultural purposes.  And the problem will only worsen with rapid urbanization worldwide. Experts suggest that another 1.2 billion people will lack access to clean water and sanitation within 20 years.
 
The overall economic loss in Africa alone due to lack of access to safe water and basic sanitation is estimated at $28.4 billion a year. In many poor nations, women and girls walk two or three hours or more each way, every day, to collect water that is often dirty and unsafe.  The U.N. estimates that women and girls in Sub-Saharan Africa spend a total of 40 billion working hours each year collecting water.  That is equivalent to all of the hours worked in France in a year. Clearly, the world needs to do more to help with such a basic human need. 
 
That is why Senator Corker and I introduced the Paul Simon Water for the World Act – a bill that would strengthen America’s ability to provide clean water and sanitation to 100 million of the world’s poor over the next six years. 
 
I am pleased that the bill is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agenda and thank Senators Kerry, Lugar, Corker and so many others for their support on this effort.  I look forward to the bill’ consideration from the Foreign Relations Committee and urge my colleagues to support passage of the bill once it’s been reported.  
 
The Simon Water for the World bill would put the United States in the forefront of providing poor people around the world with a most fundamental need – water.  This is not an effort to create vast new programs, but to focus our foreign assistance efforts on a comprehensive, strategic series of investments related to water and sanitation. These are simple, common-sense steps that will make a real difference in people’s lives.
 
Our legislation would make the US a leader in meeting key Millennium Development Goals for drinking water and sanitation, which is to reduce by half the proportion of people without safe water and sanitation by 2015. The bill targets aid to areas with the greatest need. It helps build the capacity of poor nations to meet their own water and sanitation challenges. 
 
The Water for the World Act also supports research on clean water technologies and regional partnerships to find solutions to shared water challenges. The bill provides technical assistance -- best practices, credit authorities, and training -- to help countries expand access to clean water and sanitation. Our development experts will design the assistance based on local needs.
 
The bill would also strengthen the capacity of USAID and the State Department to implement development assistance efforts related to water and ramp up US developmental and diplomatic leadership.
 
I know that these steps do make a difference. On a recent trip to east Africa, I saw American development assistance in Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Sudan and had an opportunity to look at a number of global health programs including clean water and sanitation.

 
One program in Ethiopia was provided by a nongovernmental organization called AMREF in the Kechene slum area of the capital of Addis Ababa.  The 380 people living in the Kechene area have basically had to carry in water for years because there was no running water. But because of an AMREF project, they were able to build 22 water kiosks in the country and one in this slum area. It seems like something so simple, but it has changed their lives. They now have a source of safe drinking water.
 
Very near the small lean-tos they live in, they have two showers, toilet facilities, and a source of clean drinking water – none of which they had before. The small fee that is charged by the residents who maintain it helps keep it clean and functional. 
 
The residents couldn’t help but beam with pride as we took a look at a most basic yet critical source of community pride. Disease is down, threats to women who otherwise would have to walk great distances to obtain water are down, and the community even has a small source of income and employment. These are the kinds of simple self-sustaining projects the US should be supporting for the world’s poor.    
 
Water scarcity can also be a source of conflict and economic calamity. Last year millions in the horn of Africa suffered from famine because of droughts.  Without reliable supplies of water, farmers struggle to grow crops, and areas once abundant with water are slowly becoming barren. 
 
I was reminded of these challenges talking to a government minister in Sudan. When I asked about the impact of climate change in his country, he immediately wanted to take me to the Nile to show how the river had shrunk in volume. Can you imagine -- the Nile River – which sustains a land where historic civilizations emerged is now shrinking? 
 
Helping other nations is in our national interest. Some say that now is not the time to invest in poor nations half a world away, when our economy is in crisis and so many Americans are hurting. That view is understandable. Recovering from this recession and rebuilding our economy for the long-term must be, and is, our government’s top priority. But investing in clean water for the world is a smart strategy that will make our foreign assistance dollars achieve more – something we need in these hard economic times.

 
We know what the solutions are and we know they are cost effective. For every dollar invested in water and sanitation, eight dollars are returned in increased productivity and decreased health care costs. And just imagine how bringing such a basic need to the world’s poor will impact America’s image – particularly at a time when we are in a battle of ideas in many parts of the world.  
 
The Water for the World Act builds on the similarly-named landmark legislation -- the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act -- that at long last made safe drinking water and sanitation a priority of U.S. foreign development assistance.
 
I owe my passion on water to my predecessor and long time mentor the late Senator Paul Simon. Paul Simon was a prolific author and visionary. He wrote books on a variety of compelling issues; and solving the global water crisis was his last great campaign. He knew the United States had the ability to be a leader on this issue.
 
Two years after Paul Simon died the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act was signed into law in December 2005. The Act has made a big difference to the world’s poor, but we can do more. I can think of no better way to honor a man who did so much for so many, than to commit ourselves to achieving this vision and the ideals of the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act.
 
Water is one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. No other issue is more important to human health, peace and security than access to sustainable supplies of water. As we celebrate World Water Day this week, let’s renew our commitment to making sure the world’s poor have access to this most basic human need.  
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