Webcast Recap

"Water is crucial for life, but it is not crucial for policymaking," stated U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), the primary House of Representatives author of the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush on December 1, 2005. Honoring the late Democratic senator from Illinois who was an early advocate of worldwide access to safe water, the Act enhances the role of global water and sanitation programs in U.S. foreign policy by authorizing the provision of foreign aid for promoting these efforts, and also by directing the secretary of state to create a comprehensive strategy for the development of international programs that increase safe water and sanitation access.

Hitting Close to Home

Six of the seven fastest growing states in America are water stressed. Major metropolitan areas like Sacramento and New York City still lack water meters. Drawing on his experiences working with constituents, Blumenauer said he had "yet to visit a community that isn't concerned about storm water, sanitation, safe drinking water, issues of equity, and long-term supply." Emphasizing the importance of assessing the costs and consequences of water consumption and investments in water and sanitation infrastructures, he noted that choices of water allocation and management can have "a profound impact on the environment and the economy."

Although the Water for the Poor Act focuses on international water and sanitation programs, Blumenauer emphasized how lessons drawn from developing, funding, and implementing the legislation could also help strengthen water and sanitation practices in the United States. "We must lose no opportunity to drive home why struggling to provide access to safe drinking water and deal with sanitation is a critical national and international problem," he said.

Linking Water and Development

Global lack of access to safe water and sanitation is the "preventable tragedy of our time," Blumenauer said. "It is the poor who pay the price." Twin challenges confront the world's poor, who must spend a large percentage of their income to procure often unsanitary water and also face pollution and health risks from lack of adequate sanitation services. Furthermore, limited access to water often leads to extensive time spent traveling in search of the precious resource. "Who knows the price that is being paid by millions of people who are leaving their village to go in search of safe drinking water?" he said. In developing countries, girls commonly forego education to devote more time and effort to securing water. Consequently, the search for water in developing nations is "the picture of lost opportunity," said Blumenauer.

The Water for the Poor Act specifically addresses linkages among water security, effective sanitation programs, and development efforts. According to Blumenauer, a primary goal is to lay foundations for low-tech, high-impact interventions, which would then be supplemented by long-term projects to build capacity in target communities. The bill's passage heightened awareness about the need for investments in water and sanitation programs as a crucial component of sustainable development. Blumenauer also noted that the bill's framework presents an "opportunity to coordinate with other public and privately funded initiatives."

Implementation: Next Steps and Future Challenges

Outlining next steps for implementation of the Water for the Poor Act, Blumenauer noted that by June 1, 2006, the Department of State must coordinate with myriad federal agencies to create a "comprehensive, comprehensible strategy." The Act then calls for this strategy to be refined and extended to complement the United States' commitment to meeting the 2015 targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). A second key step will involve alignment of water and sanitation initiatives undertaken by federal agencies and other key stakeholders. Blumenauer expressed confidence that this alignment process can help resolve remaining differences about prioritization and resource allocation.

A further component of implementation will be to design a strategy that takes into account specific concerns relevant to water, sanitation, and development linkages. Following the presentation, one audience member highlighted how a 2001 report from the Water and Sanitation Program revealed the importance of sensitivity to gender and poverty within development projects. The discussion also focused on the importance of enhancing water and sanitation capacity in urban areas, which are often the drivers of population growth and centers for health risks. But urban areas also present an opportunity to "capitalize on the expenditures, on the infrastructure that's there," Blumenauer said.

Looking Forward Toward Cooperation

To meet the targets set by the MDGs, "230,000 people a day have to get access to safe drinking water...400,000 people a day have to get access to safe sanitation. And we're behind schedule," said Blumenauer, adding that, despite any hurdles, "it is within our capacity to cut these numbers in half by 2015." To extend the efforts embodied in the Water for the Poor Act, Blumenauer called on policymakers, donors, and members of the non-governmental community to "harness the energy, extend the story, [and] look creatively" in future endeavors.

While Blumenauer emphasized the continued need for new Congressional leadership on global water and sanitation issues, he praised fellow Members for their bipartisan efforts to design and pass the Water for the Poor Act. Thanks in large measure to the leadership of the co-sponsors of the Senate version, Majority Leader Bill Frist and Minority Leader Harry Reid, the bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent. The hallmark piece of legislation can serve as "a model that will make a difference in terms of how the political process works," said Blumenauer. Further, water and sanitation can serve as the focal point around which to build future collaborative efforts. Global lack of access to water and sanitation is "all within our power to stop," concluded Blumenauer, "and the solutions are not ideological."

Drafted by Crystal Chase.