Civil society groups are expressing excitement over the scope and strength of the new strategy, dubbing it a “major advance.”
But many are also calling on lawmakers to ensure that, during the coming implementation phase, US aid is targeted primarily at the poorest communities in developing and middle-income countries.
“Achieving water security for regions, nations, and individuals is one of the greatest development challenges confronting the world today,” the new Water and Development Strategy, released on Tuesday by USAID, the country’s main foreign aid arm, states.
“By its nature, as a basic and essential resource, water considerations cut across nearly every aspect of USAID programming.”
Yet because of this cross-cutting nature, the new document covers both the human and agricultural uses of water, the new strategy was a very long time coming, requiring input and agreement from a vast number of government agencies and stakeholders.
“It is kind of astounding that this is the US government’s first such strategy, though it is something that many groups have long been advocating for,” Alanna Imbach, media officer with WaterAid America, a global advocacy and implementing group, told IPS.
“For many years in development work, water, sanitation and hygiene have been a bit forgotten. Instead, significant focus has been placed on education, maternal health and nutrition, overlooking the fact that water and sanitation are foundational building blocks for all of those other elements. So it’s now urgent that we get this right first and then the others will fall into place.”
Indeed, the ongoing impact of these issues remains incredibly wide. In developing countries, some 5,000 children are estimated to die every day from water-borne diseases, overwhelmingly from diarrhea due to bad drinking water, poor sanitation and inadequate hygiene.
Every year, around 2.5 billion such cases are recorded among young children alone, and the knock-on effects are vast.
“We know that every dollar we invest in clean water and basic sanitation yields eight dollars in benefits,” Dick Durbin, a US senator who has championed related legislation, said on Tuesday at the public unveiling of the new strategy. “People are healthier, kids stay in school, food is safer, AIDS drugs and other critical health treatments are able to work.”
In fact, international recognition of this centrality has led to some initial global success: the Millennium Development Goal to halve the proportion of those without access to clean drinking water was met in 2010, five years early.
Yet another MDG to similarly cut the number of those without access to basic sanitation remains outstanding, and the United Nations says the world will not likely achieve this goal by 2015.
According to USAID, some 40 percent of the world continues to use unsafe toilets, when they have toilets at all.
Advocates say it is critical that the new USAID strategy will attempt simultaneously to tackle both water and sanitation-related issues.
Setting out a plan for the next five years, the aim is to provide at least 10 million people with “sustainable access” to an improved water supply and six million people with access to improved sanitation during that period.
Notably, the plan puts into action new USAID guidance to emphasize local ownership and sustainability of US-funded aid projects, while offering greatly expanded flexibility on how that funding is to be used.
“What’s great about this strategy is that it opens up space for creative programming in water development,” Ned Breslin, chief of Water For People, a humanitarian group, told IPS.”It’s a huge step forward.”