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US Congress Boosts Sanitation Programs for World’s Poor

Efforts to provide access to clean water and sanitation for millions of people is getting a huge boost through new legislation that was passed by the U.S. Congress.

Ending the year on a high note for supporters, the Senator Paul Simon Water For The World Act was passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, a bipartisan effort that has been years in the making through the leadership of U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer and Representative Ted Poe.

The bill strengthens existing water, sanitation and hygiene programs known by the acronym, WASH. It is now ready for signing by President Obama.

The director of policy and advocacy for the non-profit WaterAid America, Lisa Schechtman, said bringing the bill into reality has been a six-year effort, and providing clean water and sanitation on a long-term basis to people in poor rural areas has been challenging.

She pointed out that over the years investments in safe drinking water programs have not been sustainable.

“And by that, I mean there wasn’t sufficient attention given in making sure that wells and hand pumps don’t break down, that local communities have the knowledge and the capacity to maintain them on their own without external intervention,” Schechtman said.

She added there was a “huge lack of political will” to fund projects for sanitation and toilets that go hand in hand with safe drinking water programs.

She emphasized the bill will help lawmakers see that lack of clean water is a real issue that must be brought to the forefront of international relations. In addition it will help spotlight the safety risks women and girls endure in poor rural regions in collecting water for their families.

“I think regardless of whether it passes the Senate,” Schechtman said (in an interview prior to the Senate passing the bill), “one of the most important things that we’ve learned is that water, sanitation and hygiene, really are an issue that U.S. government officials -- and particularly members of Congress -- can come to appreciate and understand as critical to U.S. foreign policy.”

She highlighted one of the biggest benefits of the bill is that it will help ensure that U.S. government investments in water and sanitation are being invested in the communities that need water and sanitation the most.

“So, whether that’s because they have very high rates of preventable childhood deaths from water and sanitation related causes like diarrhea or pneumonia, or whether it’s because they have very high rates of open defecation, it will help to really focus these dollars -- and the technical support and partnership from the U.S. government-- to make sure that the impact is felt by the people who really need that type of partnership from the U.S. government,” Schechtman said.