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Water Issues Becoming Increasingly Important in US Foreign Policy

  • Serena Parker

Concerns over the price and availability of oil are in the international spotlight far more than the dangers from scarce clean drinking water and access to sanitation. But as we hear from Serena Parker, in this segment of VOA's series on global water issues, the matter is making its way toward the top of U.S. foreign policy priorities.

By the end of the next decade almost half the world's population will live in countries that are water stressed, meaning they will not have enough water to meet the demands of their populations.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, isn't sure if the world is paying enough attention to this looming problem.

"Unlike disappearing rainforests, which you can see being burned or cut down, falling water tables are happening but we often discover them only when the well goes dry," he explained.

The western and southwestern United States face water scarcities that will only worsen over the next decade. Lester Brown says the problem is even more critical in much of the developing world, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and northern China.

"We're beginning to see now for the first time in many countries water refugees - we see them in Iran, in Afghanistan, in parts of Pakistan, in northwest China, for example, whole villages, hundreds of them sometimes, being abandoned because the water is gone," he said.

According to most analysts, water is going to play a much greater role in shaping our future than people realize.

Erik Peterson is director of the global strategic institute at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization in Washington. He says the United States would be well advised to make water a priority in its foreign policy.

"There is a very, very critical dimension to all these global water problems here at home," he noted. "The first is that it's in our national interest to see stability and security and economic development in key areas of the world and water is a big factor in dealing with that whole set of challenges.

Beyond that, there's the whole issue of broader resource integrity," he added, "environmental and ecological protection across the world. Water is by definition a transnational phenomenon and we have to deal with it in a transnational way. And finally, there's the humanitarian dimension from the standpoint of the U.S. Here's an area in which we can establish a contribution, I believe, a very constructive way of engagement with key regions and countries across the world."

In early March, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Republican from the state of Tennessee, introduced legislation that he said would make access to clean water and sanitation, sound water management, and improved hygiene a top priority of U.S. foreign policy.

"It becomes a major policy goal. It's not today, but it is and it should be and with this legislation it will be," Senator Frist said.

Currently, the United States spends around $325 million a year on programs in the developing world that broaden access to clean water and sanitation. That is just one aspect of U.S. foreign policy on water. The other three major areas are financing and infrastructure development, national level planning, and resolving transnational water issues.

Jonathan Margolis, the U.S. State Department's special representative for sustainable development says the United States spends a lot of time and money on national level planning, particularly integrated water resources management.

"It's a technical term but let me tell you what it means," he explained. "It means that you're trying to get all of the parties, all of the stakeholders that have a stake in the use of water, at the table when discussions and decisions are reached about how water resources will be used in their community or in their country."

According to Mr. Margolis, this management style illustrates how institutions need to be responsible to their constituents. An integrated water resource management system can serve as a model of joint decision-making on the part of the government, private and civil sectors that often is lacking in the developing world.

"From where I sit at least, what you end up with as a result is things like transparency, accountability and participatory decision-making which I would call the hallmarks of good governance in general and the hallmarks of water governance in particular," he said.

"The truth is that money the U.S. spends on water supply and sanitation projects is going to be money well spent," added Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California and a leading water expert. "It will serve our national interests. It will improve health worldwide. It'll reduce the risk of political conflict over water. I see it as a win-win situation."

Mr. Gleick argues that one way for the United States to play a more effective role in resolving the world's water crisis is to create a national water commission that would not only examine U.S. water problems but international ones.

To date, there has been some resistance to Mr. Gleick's idea. However, if the legislation introduced by Senator Frist becomes law, the U.S. government would have 180 days to develop a national strategy to assess current U.S. domestic and foreign policy on water.

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