Politics stops at the water’s edge, or at least at water. The most conservative and the most liberal members of Congress, House and Senate, authorizers and appropriators, have come together in repeated support of global water security. Now the long-anticipated U.S. Global Water Strategy has been released, bringing together the full and coordinated strength of 16 U.S. government agencies and private partners. Smart indeed.
Water imbalances — too little, too much, too dirty — are on the rise across the globe, as are the associated risks: water-accelerated conflicts such as Syria and Yemen, dozens of water and sanitation-related infectious diseases like cholera, and the next droughts becoming the next destabilizing famines. However, our ability to project when and where these threats will arise has never been stronger, thanks in part to the U.S. intelligence community. Solutions to all of these challenges are also known, and merit the attention and seriousness of this new U.S. Global Water Strategy, mandated by the 2014 Water for the World Act.
Safe drinking water across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America is important in its own right. But water security across the globe is also key to the national security interests of the U.S. and our allies. In the next decade, some 2.9 billion people in 48 countries will face water shortages, which could pose a major threat to global security, according to a United Nations report. “Water terrorism,” say U.S. intelligence agencies, is a major threat that won’t be won on the battlefield. To prevent water from becoming weaponized, diplomacy and development to increase water security are required.
In a nutshell, the Global Water Strategy provides not just a better coordinated whole-of-government approach, but in fact, a whole-of-U.S. approach, that offers opportunities to be more catalytic, leverage donors in the global water sector, and give U.S. taxpayers a much bigger foreign policy bang for their limited bucks. Its objectives include a prioritization of poverty-focused and cost-effective safe drinking water and sanitation solutions, protecting water resources, promoting water cooperation, and strengthening governance and financing. It includes 16 U.S. agency-specific plans, and 13 plans for priority countries; each plan provides strong guidance over the next five years.
Led by the U.S. Department of State and USAID, the coordinated approach outlined in the Strategy is a meaningful step in the right direction, if implemented properly — with ongoing oversight and funding from Congress and hopefully with overarching support from the White House.
Congress must play a leading role. House and Senate foreign affairs committees and the armed services committees must continue to provide oversight, and integrate global water security into their deliberations about global security threats and leadership opportunities for the U.S. government.
Implementation of this Global Water Strategy requires funding, and congressional appropriators on the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee — and other subcommittees, e.g. Labor/Health & Human Services, Commerce, Justice & Science, and Defense — would be wise to provide funding to support the important global water work of agencies far beyond State and USAID, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and more.
The intelligence committees in the Senate and House should request an updated National Intelligence Estimate on global water security and Congress should insist that global water security be properly incorporated into President Trump’s forthcoming National Security Strategy.The return on taxpayer dollars invested in the global water sector has always been high; this first-ever Global Water Strategy makes it likely that will be the case well into the future — a safer future.
John Oldfield is a principal at Global Water 2020, an advocacy initiative in Washington, D.C. dedicated to accelerating progress toward global water security. He previously led Water 2017 and WASH Advocates