Water makes smart politics and policy
March 22, 2023, marks World Water Day with the world is in the middle of a global water crisis. Our most precious resource is being depleted, polluted, and mismanaged. Seven hundred children under five die every day from diarrhea because they lack access to clean water and sanitation. In many countries women and girls must travel for miles to collect water, putting themselves at risk of gender-based violence.
The challenges are severe, even in America. Remember the plight of Jackson, Miss., and Flint, Mich. Around the world nearly 2.2 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water and 3.6 billion lack adequate sanitation. When these basic needs go unfulfilled, people are forced to drink contaminated water. They prepare food, deliver babies, and administer health care without the ability to properly clean and sanitize. They live without the dignity of a toilet.
I know from 20 years of leadership on water that we can solve this crisis with the right focus, attention and resources.
Some landmark accomplishments include passing two of my bipartisan bills, the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor and Water for the World Acts, into law. These bills made water, sanitation, and hygiene (“WASH”) aid an objective of U.S. foreign assistance and dedicated a regular source of public funding for projects in high-need priority countries. U.S. investment is responsible for nearly 60 million people gaining access to safe drinking water and nearly 45 million gaining access to sustainable sanitation. We forged lasting partnerships with civic and faith organizations, schools, non-government organizations, and the private sector. Their commitment to help remains strong.
Every pillar of global security improves when people have access to WASH, which prevents a range of medical emergencies from malnutrition, stunting, maternal and infant mortality to innumerable infections that drastically undermine global health security and economic development.
These investments are extremely economically efficient: each dollar yields a $21 return in a more resilient future. Increasing WASH access adds over $60 billion to the world economy annually while helping countries move from aid to trade partners. In fact, low-income countries with adequate WASH access experience annual per capita GDP growth of 3.7 percent, compared to 0.1 percent annual growth among those without adequate WASH.
Despite remarkable progress, it’s not enough. That is why I co-founded the Congressional Global Water Security Caucus with Reps. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.), Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), and the late Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) to maintain a focus on water and sanitation on Capitol Hill. Our efforts are proudly bipartisan, and proof that not everything Congress does has to be intensely polarized.
Our Caucus is particularly concerned with the role water can play in escalating global conflict. There are nearly 286 river basins that cross national borders, yet remarkably few are governed by a formal resource-sharing agreement. Scarce water resources present opportunities for extremists to destabilize regions and gain leverage by holding water hostage or poisoning drinking sources to sicken entire communities. Severe droughts spur migration, both within and between countries, that weaken already-fragile governments and exacerbate the global refugee crisis.
WASH is one of the best ways for the U.S. to practice diplomacy, advance multiple global security goals, and prove our commitment to basic humanitarian values. It is no coincidence that the American people consistently rank water among the most popular foreign assistance categories. It is in our best interest to get this right and end the water and sanitation crisis, a commitment the world made in 2015 when we adopted universal WASH access as a Sustainable Development Goal.
As the world comes together around water this week at the UN Water Conference, let’s use this global focus to recommit ourselves to accelerating progress. Together we can make a safer world by treating water security as the human right that it is.
Earl Blumenauer represents Oregon’s 3rd District and is a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Trade. He co-founded the Global Water Security Caucus in 2020 to provide focused oversight and advocacy around water and sanitation issues.
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