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Jonathan Greenblatt

Jonathan Greenblatt

Posted April 16, 2009 | 05:12 AM (EST)

Let The Clean Waters Flow


Since January 20, the American people have been drinking from a fire hose. We are deluged with progress on issues that once seemed intractable - restarting the economy, safeguarding the environment, universalizing access to health care, and reasserting our good name abroad. As President Obama rounds the bend on his first 100 days, there feels like no limit tn the good that can be achieved.

In this vein, the Administration should start to blaze new trails on even the most difficult topics. The unique personal narrative of President Obama has earned the trust of billions of people around the world, particularly among the dispossessed and downtrodden in all parts of the world. He can honor this mandate by moving ahead to tackle an issue of universal concern - global water.

As we approach March 22, World Water Day , the Administration has an historic opportunity to break new ground on a longstanding humanitarian crisis. The worldwide scarcity of clean water and sanitation access is among the most pressing challenges of our time. Even in the US, we have some familiarity with decreasing water resources. But the pressure on communities in developing countries is far more brutal and deadly.

More than one billion people presently lack drinking water. Almost 2.5 billion suffer without access to sanitation services. According to the World Health Organization, a child dies every fourteen seconds from the ills that result from these conditions. Beyond the immediate death toll, individuals, families and communities are impacted through concentric circles of suffering. Imagine tens of billions of hours of squandered productivity, widening political and military conflicts over scarce resources and painful migration patterns that spread disease and poverty across continents.

There has been progress in recent years. The UN Millennium Development Goals raised the profile of this issue. More recently, media-centric initiatives such as Jay-Z's Water for Life film, Charity Water, and Blue Planet Run all have captured public attention. But perhaps only for the cliché 15 minutes. We now need a more sustained approach - and the White House should step forward to prioritize water among its short list of global development priorities.

In our recessionary environment, we need to seek approaches beyond simply more funding. Imagine a White House Conference on Global Water that promoted new models of innovation and policy with the potential to surface new ideas and showcase smart models to address the global calamity. The participation of congressional leaders, corporate executives and nonprofit activists would signal a welcome bi-partisan and cross-sector approach to policy.

Such an event could showcase numerous examples of water-related social entrepreneurship - such as the water-related micro-finance initiative pioneered by Water Partners, the micro-enterprise model of KickStart or thePlayPumps program generously supported by the Case Foundation. Any of these inventive programs would benefit enormously from the scale that a bit of government help, even non-financial aid, might enable. Our soft power would change rapidly if USAID supported these types of innovations or just followed the lead of actors like Acumen Fund or Ashoka to pursue socially-focused, market-driven models to address local water needs.

The Fortune 500 also has a role to play. Social entrepreneurs always could benefit from corporate partnerships that deliver distribution and marketing. Big business also proactively could address their commitment to the fast-growing concept of 'water neutrality' and share ideas on how they might conserve resources in the global communities where they operate. As part of such a discussion, imagine if the President were to ask such corporations to consider measuring their "water footprint" in their annual reports. Such a simple request could create a constructive buzz in corporate boardrooms across the US and around the world.

There would be widespread ripples if the Administration re-calibrated its development program based on the water-related needs of the Bottom Billion. The handful of congressmen, such as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) , who have been committed to the issue might pick up the baton and propose new legislation to support an emerging international clean water agenda. Multilateral groups might be inspired to rethink their own plans and priorities. The knock-on efforts are almost limitless.

At a time when the world seeks US leadership, the bully pulpit provides a powerful platform - and small actions can yield large rewards. In his inaugural address, President Obama promised "the people of poor nations... that we would pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow." Now is the time to transform those words into deeds.

By starting with water, the President has an opportunity to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people - simply by turning the tap.