LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The United States’ first water development strategy is a key step towards putting water at the heart of the country’s aid spending, campaigners said, but they urged lawmakers to make sure money goes to the poorest communities.
The five-year strategy sets out two objectives: to improve health through the provision of sustainable water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and to manage water to enhance food security.
Despite progress in improving access to water and sanitation globally, more than 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion people do not have access to sanitation. Due to increasing water scarcity, it is predicted that two thirds of the world’s population will be living in conditions of severe water stress by 2025.
“Ensuring the availability of safe water to sustain natural systems and human life is integral to the success of the development objectives, foreign policy goals and national security interests of the United States,” said the long-awaited strategy, officially launched this week by Rajiv Shah, the head of USAID, the U.S. development agency.
It aims to provide at least 10 million people with sustainable access to improved water supply and six million with better sanitation, recognising the vital role water plays in ensuring health and economic wellbeing.
The strategy acknowledges the interdependence between food security and sustainable water management and makes it a priority to invest in programmes aimed at using water more efficiently in rain-fed areas and in agricultural irrigation.
It also stresses that due to the heavy burden borne by women and girls in providing water and from a lack of access to sanitation, programmes must meet their specific needs.
Campaigners praised the strategy as a fundamental shift towards a new model of development – defined by public and private partnerships, use of new technology and emphasis on long-term results.
“The strategy opens doors to better helping communities to help themselves, and to saving lives by establishing water, sanitation and hygiene as strategic U.S. foreign aid objectives towards advancing health and development,” said David Winder, chief executive of WaterAid America.
“WaterAid is pleased to see an increased emphasis on sanitation solutions that can be brought to scale, and the strong focus on gender equality and women’s empowerment,” added Winder, in a written reply to questions from Thomson Reuters Foundation.
USAID spent about $452 million per year on water-related projects between 2003 and 2011, with most of it ($318 million) going to water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programmes in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2012, this involved 62 countries and regions.
Faced with budget constraints, USAID said it would concentrate its resources on fewer countries, which will be selected according to three criteria, one of them being strategic importance. It will likely focus on countries with a high number of people without access to safe water and where there are children under five dying of diarrhoea – one of the largest killers due to dirty water.
But campaigners urged a greater emphasis on poor countries.
“I remain concerned that there is little in the strategy to prevent the vast majority of resources from going to a small handful of strategic priority countries that may or may not suffer from water and sanitation scarcity,” said John Oldfield, chief executive of WASH Advocates, a Washington-based group that campaigns on water and sanitation issues.
“The strategy needs to be implemented in a clearly ‘pro-poor’ fashion. I would have preferred that a clear, specific and high percentage of funds be explicitly directed to countries and communities where water and sanitation coverage is the lowest in the world,” he added.
Oldfield also called the numbers - to get safe drinking water to 10 million people within the next five years - "under-ambitious" and urged USAID to strengthen local organisations to solve their own challenges.
WaterAid’s Winder, who called the strategy an “excellent step in the right direction” said the next phase will come in the shape of new legislation being implemented through the “Water for the World Act”, due to be introduced as early as next month.
“Water for the World will offer the opportunity to ensure that the people who are truly most in need are the ones who benefit most from U.S.-funded water and sanitation initiatives, and will require improved transparency on how US taxpayer dollars are invested in water and sanitation,” said Winder.
Ned Breslin, chief executive of Water for People, praised the strategy for allowing more flexibility and creativity in developing water strategies.
“Its emphasis on monitoring results over time is most welcome as understanding impact over time is crucial to better programming and improvement in the future,” Breslin said in a written reply to questions about the strategy.
“The emphasis on health outcomes is understandable and the evidence is clear – if water flows, people defecate in hygienic toilets and hands are washed then health impact will occur. If, on the other hand, water systems break, toilets are dirty or not used, and hands are not washed, then we know for a fact that investments in infrastructure will not lead to health improvements.”