Confirming that water is a critical component in achieving U.S. development goals, President George W. Bush signed into law yesterday The Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005, which honors the late Democratic senator from Illinois who was an early advocate of worldwide access to safe water.

The bill authorizes the president to provide aid to promote affordable and equitable access to water around the world, and calls for the United States and 185 other nations to fulfill their joint commitment to one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG): to halve the percentage of people without access to safe water or sanitation by 2015. This marks the first time an MDG has been written into American law.

Authored by Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and co-sponsored by 101 bipartisan members of the House, the bill (H.R. 1973) earned broad bipartisan support, easily passing through the House on Nov. 7 and Senate on Nov. 17.

"This bill is a critical first step in the bipartisan efforts to fight poverty, protect the environment, promote national security, and save lives through clean water and sanitation," Blumenauer said in a statement shortly after the bill's passage in the Senate.

A lack of clean water and sanitation is the leading cause of preventable death in the developing world. The overwhelming bipartisan support for the bill, as well as the expediency with which it was passed, shows Congress' support for halting these unnecessary deaths, as well as making clean water and sanitation key objectives in the United States' foreign policy agenda. Similar legislation (S.492) was introduced into the Senate by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) earlier this year but was dropped in favor the Water for the Poor Act.

"Clean water is absolutely critical in leading to improved hygiene and health outcomes, and can serve as a currency for peace," Frist said in a release. "I'm proud of this legislation, and look forward to working with colleagues from both chambers to ensure access to clean water is a major U.S. foreign policy objective."

In June, the House International Relations Committee heard testimony on water issues from an expert panel made up of representatives from UN agencies, USAID, the U.S. Department of State, and other NGOs. ECSP Director Geoff Dabelko was among the experts to testify, and praised the Water for the Poor Act. "The time is right for the United States to act on water and sanitation while it is a low-cost and high-return investment on foreign assistance," Dabelko told the panel. "It is critical to act now before the negative security impacts become more apparent, and while the benefits are still within reach."

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