The fourth World Water Forum opened Thursday in Mexico City. Organizers say the aim of the weeklong meeting is to working to increase access to clean water and sanitation in developing nations.
The United States is taking a major step toward this goal. A recently enacted law boosts U.S. funding to promote clean water and sanitation projects worldwide. Congress initiated the measure, where a bipartisan coalition passed it late last year. Lawmakers and clean water advocates are now waiting to see how the Bush administration will implement it to help reduce the millions of deaths worldwide attributed to dirty water and lack of sanitation.
Six years ago, United Nations member states set a goal of reducing the number of people lacking clean water and sanitation by half. It is one of several so-called Millennium Development Goals to be met by 2015. That aim is now part of U.S. law -- the Clean Water Act signed by President Bush in December.
Earl Blumenauer is the Democratic Party lawmaker who guided the measure through the U.S. House of Representatives with three Republican Party colleagues last year. He says it amends the fundamental law guiding U.S. foreign aid. “It's the first time that the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations have found their way to be codified in U.S. law, and I think that's very important for people all around the world. What it does for the first time is to establish providing safe drinking water and sanitation as a cornerstone of our foreign aid program.”
Representative Blumenauer and his colleagues had an easier job getting the measure approved than do most sponsors of congressional legislation. The Clean Water Act passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives with bipartisan support and Senate passage was unanimous.
Bi-partisan U.S. Support
Environmental policy expert Geoffrey Dabelko at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington says the law received the kind of broad political backing that is rare in the U.S. capital.
"Certainly not in U.S. foreign assistance, the bipartisan character is not always there. In fact, this is really in many ways, an exception. But you had a tremendous convergence of parties from different sides, whether they be the faith-based community, the development community, the environmental community, the health, and even the education communities coming behind water and sanitation because it is so critical to all those different sectors," says Dabelko.
The message these different communities sent Congress is that about one-sixth of humanity, more than one-billion people, lack safe water and two-and-one-half billion are without sanitation. Lawmakers also heard that nearly half of all people in the developing world suffer diseases like cholera and diarrhea as a direct result, contributing to the deaths of millions of children under the age of five each year.
"The two-to-four million children who die every year largely from diarrhea and dirty water will be the beneficiaries of this legislation because we can hopefully prevent some of those deaths," says Dabelko.
Dabelko himself testified during congressional hearings on the measure that shortages of clean water in developing nations threaten American and global security, mainly because of competition for the resource between rivals like India and Pakistan who share water basins.
Before the Clean Water Act passed, the United States spent 500 million dollars on water projects for just four countries in 2004 -- Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt -- plus the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Only seven million dollars went to all of sub-Saharan Africa, where critics of the old policy like Geoffrey Dabelko argue that water assistance is needed most. "One thing that struck me about the political discussion that went on around this bill was the startled looks of amazement on the faces of the congressmen when they heard that a relatively small proportion of our water-based foreign assistance was devoted to sub-Saharan Africa," says Dabelko.
Congressman Earl Blumenauer says the new law will readjust U.S. priorities. It is expected to double funding for African, Asian and Latin American water projects. "What this legislation does is focus our priorities on where the need is greatest," says Blumenauer. "It has already succeeded in raising the awareness of the need so that Congress actually doubled the overall amount of money going for water assistance. So I think it has started us in the right direction."
Congressman Blumenauer says the U.S. funding is still not sufficient. He points out that it is less than Americans spend on cosmetic surgery or Europeans pay for perfume.
But a water and sanitation expert for the non-governmental organization Catholic Relief Services, Dennis Warner, says the increased U.S. money will influence other donors, especially if the Bush administration consults widely with private experts on how to spend it where it will do the most good, "Traditionally, the private sector is always competitive within itself. Non-governmental organizations rarely cooperate in any meaningful way because they have their own agenda. If we can bring these herds of almost like cats together on a common set of objectives, this will give a signal to the United Nations, to the European Community, to the other donor organizations that are interested here," according to Warner.
Congress has given the U.S. State Department until June 1st to develop a plan that complies with the Clean Water Act's guidelines.
Dennis Warner is hoping for the best, "If we can take advantage of this act and use it to its fullest potential, we can bring about very great changes throughout the developing world."
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.