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We need US leadership on water security to combat COVID-19 globally

We need US leadership on water security to combat COVID-19 globally
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Water is essential for curtailing COVID-19, for climate adaptation and for economic growth — all of which the U.S. president, cabinet and Congress have committed to tackling. Global water security is the one issue pivotal to initial and sustainable progress on all these fronts and assertive U.S. political leadership is long overdue.

The water connection to COVID-19 is clear as a clean pair of hands. Vaccine or not, the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, nor is it the last infectious disease epidemic. Sustainable access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) helps prevent the spread of dozens of costly and deadly diseases. Far beyond the day when billions of people will have finally received a COVID-19 vaccine, the simple and cost-effective act of washing one’s hands with water and soap will remain out of reach and key to preventing the spread of COVID-19, cholera, Ebola, sepsis, antibiotic resistance and some 20 Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Handwashing is the best defense where personal protective equipment is sorely lacking and social distancing is challenging across Africa, Asia and Latin America. But 2 billion people across middle- and low-income countries cannot wash their hands at home, school and unbelievably, in healthcare facilities. The benefits of getting ahead of the next disease outbreak clearly accrue both to developing countries and back here in the United States.

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Less obvious may be the impact of a changing climate, often realized through too much water and not enough. As the U.S. government carves out a stronger leadership role it is well-advised to do so in ways that contribute to developing countries’ efforts to adapt to erratic climate conditions through water policy.

Sustainably designed and implemented water programs are essentially climate change adaptation programs as well. The consequences of a changing climate hit the poorest families, communities, and countries across the developing world hardest, and that impact is worsening. By increasing the resilience of families and communities, the health and economic returns from those water programs will be clear immediately and for years after the ribbon cutting.

Water security also gets us ahead of a multitude of threats of national and global proportions, including:

  • preventing infectious diseases from becoming outbreaks
  • preventing overuse of antibiotics, leading to deadly antibiotic resistance
  • preventing droughts from becoming famines that also increase refugee flows and instability
  • preventing violent extremist organizations from gaining strongholds by weaponizing water, a tactic successfully deployed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and Boko Haram in and around Nigeria

Water security clearly merits inclusion in the U.S. National Security Strategy, typically drafted in the first year of the U.S. president’s term, because a lack of water poses national security threats and because water security offers preventive solutions. This is a pivotal year in which the U.S. government has a number of important opportunities to coordinate its policies, programs, and budgets to elevate and better resource vital global water security efforts.

In November 2020, the U.S. National Intelligence Council transmitted a Memorandum on Global Water Security to Capitol Hill, outlining many of the threats posed by water scarcity. Water security has strong bipartisan support, and Congress can and should increase the funding levels and provide heightened oversight for global water security efforts. The recently launched Congressional International Water and Sanitation Caucus offers an important new education and oversight mechanism.

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As mandated by the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2014, the National Security Council will begin drafting the next Global Water Strategy this year. Over a dozen federal agencies are part of this strategy; many of whose efforts could be better coordinated by the potentially powerful but underutilized Interagency Water Working Group led by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID.

USAID needs to continue to strengthen the links between its water and health teams. And if USAID and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can partner more effectively on WASH and global health programming, this would significantly increase the impact on global health and emphasize the “silent P” in CDC: Prevention.

We have to stop with inadequate and temporary fixes of one incoming water-related or water-magnified crisis after another. We’ve got to minimize the risk of the next crises while stopping the bleeding from the current ones. Heightened U.S. government leadership on global water security provides just such an opportunity, and the incoming administration is well-positioned to lead on this crucial global challenge.

John Oldfield is a principal at Global Water 2020, a non-partisan, three-year advocacy and facilitation initiative designed to accelerate progress toward water access and security for all people in developing countries.