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WATER: Stakeholders press Obama on foreign aid (Thursday, March 19, 2009)

 

Katherine Boyle, E&E reporter

 

Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Coca-Cola Co. Chairman Neville Isdell yesterday joined a chorus of stakeholders pressing Congress and the Obama administration to tackle water and sanitation issues in developing countries.

The United States pledged to help the United Nations halve by 2015 the proportion of the world's population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, a U.N. Millenium Development Goal, Frist noted.

Though the United Nations is on track to meet the safe drinking water target, it is unlikely to meet the sanitation goal. About 2.5 billion people worldwide lack access to improved sanitation, while about 1.4 billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water.

"Our government's commitment remains far below what is necessary if we are to meet these goals," Frist said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum. "The United States has got to establish a national strategy for water."

The international community has demonstrated an inability to effectively combat the problem without U.S. aid, Frist said. The Tennessee Republican described the circumstances in the developing world as dire, saying one child dies every 15 seconds of waterborne disease.

He also discussed the billions of work hours lost each year because women must fetch water from faraway sources and said that sometimes even that water is unsafe for use.

"These [issues] really have huge implications for economic development," Frist added.

Frist's call for action followed the introduction of water legislation by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) earlier this week. The bill would boost the U.S. government's ability to respond to water crises around the world by creating new staff positions focused on water within the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department.

Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.) have introduced similar legislation in the House.

The Senate bill, which is co-sponsored by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), also aims to provide 100 million people around the world with sustainable access to clean water and sanitation by 2015 by helping to implement the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005.

That initiative received $300 million in funding for safe water programs in developing countries in the fiscal 2009 omnibus spending bill signed by Obama earlier this month (E&ENews PM <http://www.eenews.net/eenewspm/2009/03/17/archive/9> , March 17).

Advocates were unsuccessful in pushing for more funding in the appropriation. "That money is such a drop in the bucket," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Food & Water Watch. "We're hoping there will be new leadership on these issues, and foreign aid will help provide basic services like water for people and be distributed to the people who need it most."

Frist said he had not yet read Durbin's legislation but that based on what he had heard about it, he generally supported its goals. He predicted the United States would see major changes in foreign aid under President Obama.

The legislation dovetails with a declaration by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, co-chaired by Frist and Isdell, emphasizing the need to make drinking water and sanitation issues an administration centerpiece. It called for the creation of new government positions focusing on the water problems plaguing developing nations and additional public-private partnerships.

 

Business benefits

 

Isdell addressed business concerns about safe water issues. His company, Coca-Cola, ramped up support for water initiatives in 2004 amid allegations that the company had depleted and polluted groundwater supplies near one of its plants in India (Greenwire <http://www.eenews.net/Greenwire/2008/10/14/archive/2> , Oct. 14, 2008).

Isdell said businesses need to reduce their own water footprint, make a positive impact on the developing world and help shape public policy.

"You understand why the Coca-Cola Co. cares about water," he said. "It's the key ingredient in our beverages, and it's essential to the health of the communities we serve."

About 85 percent of Coca-Cola facilities presently return water to the ecosystem at a level that supports the community and aquatic life, Isdell said. By the end of 2010, he added, that number would reach 100 percent.

"Each piece of society has a role to play," Isdell said. "Business, government and civil society."

He and Frist both emphasized the interconnections among water, health, energy, security and agriculture.

 

Doubling foreign aid?

 

Increased funding is one significant change in the United States' foreign aid policy that could be on the horizon. President Obama's fiscal 2010 budget proposal would put the United States on the path to doubling foreign aid over several years, according to the White House, and set off a flurry of lobbying efforts by international advocacy groups.

Next year, the White House plan would provide $51.7 billion for the State Department and other international programs in fiscal 2010, a more than $10 billion increase from the $40.9 billion allocated in fiscal 2008. It is not clear how much of the money would go toward international development projects, but aid organizations are angling for cash for pet projects.

Water nonprofit groups are suggesting that clean water projects would provide the most bang for the government's buck in a time of economic crisis, noting that each dollar invested in water projects provides an $8 investment return in terms of economic benefits.

"We're very much worried about the economic recession," said Paul Faeth, president of the nonprofit Global Water Challenge. "It's not clear where government aid is going to go. Last summer, food prices went up, and it increased hunger. [The crisis] affects the same thing with water."

John Oldfield, executive vice president of Water Advocates, a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to boosting U.S. efforts to improve sanitation abroad, suggested more aid could mean more water funding.

"We don't want to encourage the United States to invest in water and sanitation at the cost of other projects," Oldfield said. But he noted that waterborne diseases kill six times as many people as the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, and said water issues deserve attention. Waterborne diseases are also more likely to prove fatal for people with HIV or other immune system-compromising diseases.