Water Issues in the QDDR

With more than 80 percent of the global burden of disease related to water, sanitation, and hygiene, and with water scarcity projected to affect 1.8 billion people by 2025, many in the water community have been wondering what the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review will reveal regarding plans for diplomatic engagement and development assistance on global water challenges. Now that the report, Leading Through Civilian Power, is out, the answer seems to be: Not much. Ever since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s World Water Day speech at National Geographic this past March (the first on water given by a sitting secretary of state in recent memory), hopes have been high that the Obama administration would find a way to raise the political profile of water—as it has for global health and food security through presidential initiatives. While the 200-plus-page QDDR report offers a fair amount of detail regarding the Global Health Initiative, Feed the Future, and the Global Climate Initiative, it provides little insight regarding a strategy to address global water issues.

Here is what it does reveal:

Governance and sustainability will continue to be areas of emphasis where water is concerned
. On at least two occasions, the report identifies examples of successes in water programming to advance public health and create “significant improvement in the lives of millions in development countries” as a prelude to raising concerns about the sustainability of current U.S. diplomatic and programming efforts. It notes that the success of these and similar assistance programs, such as those focused on providing vaccines, have at times “come at a cost” and had the “unintended effect of relieving our partner governments of responsibility for funding” basic services. The report emphasizes new ways of working with development partners to ensure local buy-in and the sustainability of program goals as well as improvements in donor coordination.

Scientific and technical innovation will be an important component of USAID’s approach to water
. In discussing USAID’s planned program on Grand Challenges and Prizes for Development, the report mentions the effort to develop “simple, cost-effective ways to provide clean water” as an example of the kind of work that may be rewarded through global competitions.

Water programming and diplomacy will be critical to security and stabilization endeavors
. While the report mentions, but does not dwell on, the potential that conflict over water could lead to instability and security challenges, it does note that helping fragile states strengthen the will to provide basic services and “re-establishing basic services for health, water and sanitation” in refugee camps and post-conflict settings will be strong areas of focus.

Work on water within the Department of State may move from one undersecretary to another
. The report calls for internal shuffling and re-organization at the Department of State, leading to two reconfigured positions: an Undersecretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment and an Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. In this scenario, it would seem that the Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and Science, which is currently within the portfolio of the Undersecretary for Democracy and Global Affairs and where diplomatic work on water is carried out through the Environmental Policy Office, could be relocated in the new Undersecretariat for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment. This may facilitate cooperative work on water and climate change and the water-energy nexus, but it will be important to ensure communication on water and health issues, if the offices focused on health are consolidated elsewhere in the department.

Overall, there was little reference to water in the report’s discussion of three major activities—the Global Health Initiative, the Global Climate Change Initiative, and Feed the Future—yet it is clear that water quality, supply, and availability will be integral to the success of each of those endeavors. With discussion about the importance of strengthening in-house capacities at USAID with respect to water and sanitation, among other issues, perhaps internal capacity building exercises and the incorporation of new personnel with experience in multiple sectors will create opportunities for better integrating work on water into these high-profile activities.

In the meantime, those in the water community will continue to wait for more detail and an overarching strategy on the United States’ diplomatic and development approaches to global water issues.

Katherine E. Bliss is deputy director and senior fellow with the CSIS Global Health Policy Center. She is also senior fellow with the CSIS Americas Program and directs the CSIS Global Water Policy Project.

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Katherine E. Bliss
Senior Fellow and Director, Immunizations and Health Systems Resilience, Global Health Policy Center