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Coming Together for Water for the World

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In the rich world diarrhea might seem relatively harmless. In Sub-Saharan Africa it is the leading killer of children. Worldwide diarrheal diseases kill 4,000 children under five years old every day. There is a pressing need to tackle this crisis.

However, in these times of hard economic choices, finding common political ground can be difficult. Whether it's the financial and monetary crisis facing much of Europe, or slow economic growth in the U.S., many rich countries are reassessing their commitments and priorities. This poses a real risk to hundreds of millions of the world's poorest people who have seen some improvement in their lives over recent years.

That is why it was heartening to learn of the strong support in the U.S. Congress for the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2012 (Senate Bill 641 and House Bill 3658). This piece of legislation represents the kind of common sense approach that is worth supporting -- even more so in these difficult economic times.

With your running faucet and working toilet, you might not realize that there is an ongoing global water and sanitation crisis which impacts hundreds of millions of people around the world every day. Two statistics stand out: roughly 1 out of every 8 people (884 million) live without access to safe drinking water and nearly 2 in 5 (2.6 billion people) live without access to basic sanitation. Indeed these millions of people have to live every day with the risk of diarrhea and other water-borne illnesses.

Moreover, the lack of sanitation leads to contaminated soil and water, which causes a cycle of disease, poverty, and in some cases violence as people feel forced to compete with one another over increasingly scarce resources. Women and girls are often put in unsafe situations while collecting water or seeking a place to meet their needs.

The lack of these basic services can debilitate poor communities with negative consequences on people's health, education, dignity, and livelihoods. Women and girls often spend hours looking for and collecting water every day. According to a new UNICEF and WHO report, in many Sub-Saharan Africa countries, more than a quarter of the population takes longer than 30 minutes round-trip to collect water, and sometimes much longer than that. This is time not spent in school or adding to the economic well-being of their families and communities.

In short, the best intentioned development efforts fail if the basic necessity of clean water and sanitation is not met. Water, sanitation and hygiene (commonly referred to as "WASH") form an essential chain in overcoming poverty and building a resilient society.

This brings us back to why this bill before Congress is so exciting and potentially transformative for millions. Investing in WASH not only helps fulfill our moral obligation and is a critical investment in building stronger communities. It is also a highly efficient investment as well; $8 is returned in saved health care costs and increased economic productivity for every $1 spent.

The United States, through the State Department and USAID, is already doing good work in the WASH sector. The Water for the World Act would build on this strong foundation with an aim to achieve four primary objectives:

  • Get aid programs to work better together, so that health, education, women's empowerment, and economic productivity benefits of WASH can best be leveraged with the same amount of money;
  • Improve analysis before investing, so that the poorest communities are being reached. This approach reflects evidence that the poorest people benefit the most from receiving WASH services;
  • Safeguard the political will and ensure that existing capability is maintained and given the opportunity to grow;
  • Apply internationally-recognized principles of aid effectiveness by supporting partnerships with governments and communities in countries receiving aid and advance plans for improving monitoring and evaluation and other best practices.

In this time of tight budgets, it is important to note that the Water for the World Act doesn't request an increase in funding, but rather improves the effectiveness, transparency and accountability of existing U.S. international aid programs.

The bill recognizes that the U.S. is already doing critical lifesaving work in partnership with other governments and NGOs around the world. It also seeks to ensure that the U.S. continues to apply lessons learned to make the greatest possible impact on human lives.

The Water for the World Act would lead to an efficient use of resources. The fact that this bill was introduced with bi-partisan support in both the U.S. House and Senate gives great hope that it will pass into legislation. If so, it would contribute to improving the lives and livelihoods of millions of people around the world.

As difficult as many of the challenges are facing us today, we have no choice but to find common ground in order to effectively deal with them. Members of the U.S. Congress have just shown us that this is still possible.