WASHINGTON, D.C., — When the United States Congress broke into their month-long recess on August 1, the House of Representative’s Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing on the impact of U.S. water programs on global health. The subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations came together late in the day to hear testimony from both government and non-profit officials on the successes of our overseas initiatives. The topics of discussion ranged from well drilling to resource management to the safety of women and girls—but ultimately every witness reiterated the same opinion: access to clean water is one of the most important issues facing the world today.
That morning, during the House’s general session, Congressmen Judge Ted Poe (R-TX) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act 2013. This new piece of legislation builds on the success of the bipartisan Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005 by making clean water America’s most important development initiative. The 2005 law made access to safe drinking water and sanitation a specific policy objective of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Program. The Water for the World Act will seek to assist over 100 million people globally by providing first time access to clean water and sanitation programs within the first six years of implementation. This new bill framed the discussions of the subcommittee hearing, as witnesses testified on the success of U.S. water programs since 2005 and what America can do in the future.
Though not a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Representative Blumenauer did attend the subcommittee hearing in support of the bill. Blumenauer co-sponsored the 2005 legislation and initially introduced the Water for the World Act in 2009. In his opening statement, Blumenauer remarked that, “We’ve all heard that politics stops at the water’s edge—but in this case, politics stops with water.” He emphasized the importance of clean drinking water to communities and specifically addressed how strengthening access can protect young women and girls. Subcommittee Chairman Christopher Smith (R-NJ) also noted that 780 million people worldwide currently lack access to drinking water and as a result, diarrheal diseases remain the leading cause of death in children.
The hearing was split into two separate panel discussions; first to testify were Christian Holmes, Global Water Coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and Dr. Aaron A. Salzberg, Special Coordinator for Water Resources at the U.S. State Department. Dr. Salzberg opened by laying out the State Department’s five-step strategy plan for their water programs, which have helped 46 million people gain access to water since 2006.
They first plan to build capacity for clean water and sanitation in a country by providing the tools needed for success. They engage diplomatically with locals so that nations can handle their water needs domestically. Next, the State Department uses funds provided by Congress to invest in infrastructure. They have also invested in science and technology, incentivizing innovation to encourage locals to find sustainable solutions for their problems. Finally, they build partnerships, working with over 20 U.S. non-profit organizations focused on water issues.
Because water issues are often viewed as issues of national security, many countries have begun to think of access to water as their national right. This has resulted in numerous conflicts worldwide. In his testimony, Dr. Salzberg stated that “water security at home and abroad is becoming the greatest challenge of our time.”
Holmes spoke next, testifying on the success of the Water for the Poor Act and how USAID funding for water programs is being spent. Since 2006, $2.4 billion has been spent on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs in 62 countries, with $848 million going directly to Africa. He talked about the importance of self-governance within the countries where WASH is operating, explaining that one goal of USAID water programs is to strengthen the utilities of these nations so that they can have the capacity to pay for their own clean water programs. In the long-term, they will need to able to cover unforeseen losses related to their water supply, such as water being stolen or faulty piping. Locals also need to learn the importance of resource management, since wells will eventually run dry.
This rapid depletion of ground water complicates the location and sustainability of community wells. Before drilling, USAID must first ensure there is an adequate water supply. They also must be careful where they place wells, since location can determine who controls the access which can cause conflict amongst groups. This, in part, is dealt with by supporting responsible community organizations that can take care of the wells—a system that in turn protects women by shortening their exposure while hauling water, decreasing their risk of rape.
When asked about the importance of evaluating the programs, Holmes responded, “It’s one thing to say you gave water to 10,000 people; it’s another to say what happened to those people over a ten year time [period].”
The second panel was comprised of representatives from non-profit groups. John Oldfield, Chief Executive Officer of WASH Advocates, spoke first. He was followed by Malcolm Morris from the Millennium Water Alliance and Buey Ray Tut, a South Sudan native who moved to the U.S. as a child and founded the non-profit Aqua Africa. Each man testified to the importance of America’s involvement in global water programs.
Oldfield spoke on how imperative it is that locals be able to meet their own initiatives. He explained that we need to leave behind more than wells and latrines, but the capacity for communities to self-sustain. Morris built on that statement, noting how water programs teach communities grassroots democracy. Tut discussed the importance of resource management and teaching communities how to support themselves.
The three non-profit representatives were in agreement that the U.S. cannot sustain these nations long-term, but should help them develop the ability to continue WASH programs after Americans leave. Echoing the running theme from throughout the hearing in his closing statement, Tut said “water policy going forward isn’t important, it’s critical.”
The Water for the World Act was successfully passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 19 with strong bipartisan support, and has been sent to the House Foreign Affairs Committee to determine if the bill will move past the committee stage. If the House Foreign Affairs Committee passes the act, the bill will go to the House and Senate floor for a vote.
If you would like to watch the testimonies, video recordings from the hearing are available at http://foreignaffairs.house.gov/hearing/subcommittee-hearing-impact-us-water-programs-global-health.
– Allana Welch