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An Ignored Buffett Investment

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With last week's news about more sanctions on Iran, the fires in California, and the start of the World Series, it's no surprise that there was scant coverage of Howard G. Buffet's $150 million commitment to alleviate the water crisis in East and West Africa and Central America. (Howard is the eldest son of the second richest man in the world, multi-billionaire Warren Buffet who is also known for donating ~$30 billion to the Gates Foundation) The oversight is a shame.

Not only is the value of this initiative greater than the U.S. government's current annual level of funding for specific water supply and sanitation projects -- though this could change if next year's foreign appropriations bill gets passed -- it also represents a unique long-term approach by a donor to complex development issues, an approach that many international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) hope will be adopted by other donors.

This grant will allow seven leading international NGOs to comprehensively tackle the water and sanitation problem, enabling them to:

* study the impact of their projects and find the most effective ways of providing water and sanitation;
* work with communities on a long-term basis to develop sound projects that have a meaningful impact on health, education, environment and economic development;
* and support the development of good policy with the involvement of local, regional, and national government.

Poor sanitation will also be addressed by Buffett's grant. Though the Scrubs writers understand the centrality of "poo," sanitation is often not addressed in community water projects. An astounding 40% of people on the planet still do not have adequate sanitation facilities and the effects of poor sanitation are staggering. For example, nearly two million children die of diarrhea each year, a disease associated with poor sanitation.

Buffett's project aims to build capacity to address the difficulties of providing water and sanitation with a unique ten-year financial commitment. Overall, this program recognizes that expecting measurable results in one to two years -- or in the short-term -- isn't realistic and sets the stage for a paradigm shift -- to a longer time frame -- in water and sanitation relief and development work -- a shift that is hoped to improve health and save lives.

That water does not feature as a major issue in our national security debate is another problem. Our media continually forget to acknowledge that our national security will be jeopardized for as long as people around the world lack access to water and sanitation.

If tomorrow morning you turned on the shower tap to find a trickle of rusty water, you would surely deal with the problem. And if your water company told you that there would be no more clean water, you would band together with your neighbors -- and even fight -- to get it back. You can die quickly without water or with dirty water. About five million folks around the world prove it each year by dying of water-related diseases. Seriously, how can we expect to forge alliances in a complex geo-political environment when average citizens around the world struggle to get a clean glass of water to drink?

Water has the potential to be a tool for peace. For centuries, cultures have been able to work out agreements about sharing water. Water is where we need to start our discussions about security.

No matter who is reporting and who is deciding, water needs to be talked about more.

Editorial boards are in the business of influencing decision makers. When they leave the global drinking water and sanitation crisis out of the picture they fail to tell the full story of what our options are to improve national and global security. U.S. government, business, and philanthropic leaders must do more to provide safe drinking water. That the gift of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation didn't generate more buzz discredits our media. The media need to follow Mr. Buffett's lead and not only put water and sanitation in the headlines, but keep them there until our leaders do more about the water and sanitation challenge.