Twenty years ago today, the first World Water Day was observed. Since then, March 22 has served as an annual reminder of the critical importance of water, something that is fundamental to all of our lives. Seriously, nearly 60% of our bodies are made up water, with our brains and lungs composed of 70% and almost 90% water. Therefore, it is quite literally a crime against humanity that 2 million children die each year from preventable diarrheal diseases caused by poor water quality.
The fact of the matter is that nearly 800 million people are without regular access to clean water, with about 2.5 million living without modern sanitation. Meaning, around 30% of the world’s population are at risk of becoming sick or dying from preventable diseases. Plus, reliable access to safe water is becoming increasingly scare, fueling competition for resources.
It’s not all dark skies and rain clouds – OK, wait…bad analogy. What I meant to say is that while more needs to be done, significant progress has been made. Take for example UN Millennium Development Goal 7.C, for which the global target of “halving the proportion of people without access to improved sources of water” was met five years ahead of schedule.
Less Water = Greater GDP Loss
India, Ghana, and Cambodia experience annual losses of 6.4%, 5.2%, and 7.2% of GDP, respectively. Look at it another way, and over 40% of people lacking improved access to drinking water live in sub-Saharan Africa, where the average GDP loss is roughly equal to the amount of bilateral aid it receives.
This trend clearly doesn’t align with our current budget environment, nor should it. It does, however, explain why the Obama Administration, through USAID, has taken steps to build upon the 2005 Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act (WfP Act) and the Bush Administration’s “A Framework for Action,” which identified “linkages between water and health, economic growth, humanitarian objectives, democracy, and security goals of the larger U.S. foreign assistance strategy.”
The Flipside – More Water = More Money
In addition to being the right thing to do, expanding access to safe drinking water impacts the global economy – and America’s prosperity. How? First, there is a “positive correlation between increased national income and the proportion of population with access to improved water supply,” according to the World Health Organization.
How does addressing water and sanitation in other countries create conditions that benefit the American economy, you ask? Well, by addressing water and sanitation (alongside global health, education, and more), development and diplomacy programs foster healthier societies, create enabling environments for economic growth, and open foreign markets to American goods.
So I guess it’s a good thing that USAID appointed the first Global Water Coordinator a couple of years ago to serve as the senior representative responsible for coordinating the implementation of key water policy initiatives. USAID is taking a more integrated approach to water and sanitation by weaving the issue throughout its agriculture, global health, and climate work, but we are eagerly awaiting its forthcoming water strategy.
We’ve still got a long way to go, but it’s encouraging to know that the U.S. Government is focused on improving the quality of water and sanitation all over the world – and that they are working to ensure our tax dollars are being spent more effectively (see the new USAID Forward Progress Report).
The Bottom Line
Far too many children continue to die from diseases that could be prevented by something as simple as greater access to soap and water for hand-washing. This small step can almost halve the incidence of diarrhea and save the lives millions of children in the process (and is something I hope to no longer take for granted).
Today, in cities all across the world, men and women of all ages are participating in activities to support greater access to better water. How will you highlight an issue that makes up the very core of us all?
A list of official events for 2013, the International Year of Water Cooperation, can be found here.