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Safe Drinking Water: A New Cause that Needs Continued Support

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By the looks of it, a new cause has been born: bringing access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene to those on the planet who still lack it.

In the past few weeks Cirque du Soleil’s founder flew to outer space; superstars, led by Jessica Biel, pledged to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro; and Matt Damon told his story in Parade Magazine…all to raise awareness of safe drinking water and sanitation.

It’s not just celebrity buzz that’s making the news. Two important reports have been released: one from UNICEF/WHO outlining a 7-point plan for preventing and treating diarrhea and another from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that details opportunities for enhancing US leadership on drinking water and sanitation within global health programs.

Wait there’s more: water played a huge role at the Clinton Global Initiative, garnering over $5 million in new commitments from members; Water.org launched a new campaign on women and water called “Woman Can’t Do Anything;” Water For People began a $45 million partnership to address water and sanitation in peri-urban areas of Malawi; and Global Water Challenge announced a partnership with The Dow Live Earth Run for Water.

The question is: Will this"buzz" result in substantially more people getting access to water and sanitation? Will children's lives be saved?

With over 2 million people dying of preventable illnesses linked to lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene every year, it is critical that the response to this crisis be as large as the need. At present this is not the case—the response is abysmally below the need. Let’s take a look.

Annually about $6 billion in development aid goes to water and sanitation programs globally, but $18 billion is the estimated amount required each year to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target for water and sanitation. This is a significant gap that only a coordinated global strategy can address.

The U.S. is not the global leader that it needs to be on this issue. It trails Japan and Germany in development aid to water and sanitation issues, spending only about $432 million in 2007 according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). By contrast, Japan spent $1.9 billion and Germany $593 million.

Efforts have been made to increase U.S. leadership but they have not been successful yet. The most notable push is from Senator Durbin and 24 other senators (a quarter of the Senate) who are hoping to pass legislation (S.624) that aims to reach 100 million people with first-time access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2015. Water and sanitation organizations suggest that the U.S. government contribution should be $1.5 billion per year.

There is not yet a Presidential Water Initiative nor is the water and sanitation cause squarely embedded in other pillars of the Obama administration’s development agenda, such as food security, climate change or global health. Something is missing.

There is an enormous opportunity with this recent “buzz” to build a community of global citizens who can trigger the political will necessary to raise the level of resources to an amount that will adequately address the water and sanitation crisis. After all, we have the solutions today; we are just not applying them.

But this will not happen by itself. It will take leadership to join these multiple efforts into an effective and lasting advocacy movement. It will also require innovation to develop new programmatic and business models to meet the scale of this crisis.

This is all possible and even more so now that the issue is getting the attention it rightfully deserves. But the water and sanitation cause was born of many parents, so to speak, who haven’t yet formed a PTA. More collaboration in the water and sanitation sector will ensure that the cause doesn’t fizzle out but rather matures and addresses the need.