In this country we take safe drinking water for granted. We might think of it briefly when traveling to Mexico or another country where traveler’s diarrhea is a risk. But most of us have the luxury of leaving that country, coming home to a place where sanitation infrastructure is reliable, where we are given warnings if our water may be contaminated and water quality is regularly monitored. The people who reside in those countries we leave behind have to live every day with the risk of diarrhea and other water-borne illnesses. They do not become immune, as is the conventional wisdom. Rather, many spend a large part of their lives sick. In fact, many of them die. Diarrheal disease kills 4,000 children under five years old every day. It is the leading killer of kids in sub-Saharan Africa.
This element of the global water crisis is rarely talked about. Not a topic for polite company, I suppose. Something so basic it doesn’t dawn on us that people still live without it. But 2.6 billion people live without sanitation—even just a basic pit latrine, let alone our lovely, clean flush toilets. Lack of sanitation leads to contaminated soil and water, which creates a cycle of disease, poverty, and even violence. Add that to 900 million people without safe drinking water, and we have a very serious crisis indeed.
In 2005, Congress passed a piece of legislation called the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act. This law makes water, sanitation and hygiene education (known as “WASH”) a foreign policy priority, and describes the types of programs USAID and the State Department should be supporting to ensure that the poorest people in the world are reached. For six years this law has worked well. Working through non-governmental organizations, community-based organizations, and local government, USAID provided improved sanitation to 2.9 billion people and safe drinking water to 2.8 billion people in fiscal year 2010 alone. And because WASH is one of the most efficient international development investments available—$8 are returned in saved health care costs and increased economic productivity for every $1 spent—all this was accomplished with relatively little money.
Yet, for all this great work and positive benefit for poor people around the world, we can always do better. That’s why a bipartisan group of Representatives, led by Congressmen Blumenauer (D-OR) and Poe (R-TX) recently introduced the Water for the World Act of 2012. They are joining Senators Durbin (D-IL) and Corker (R-TN) in seeking improvements to current U.S. investment in WASH. While the House and Senate bills take slightly different approaches, their objectives are the same:
- Increase integration of programs, so that the broad health, education, women’s empowerment, and economic productivity benefits of WASH can best be leveraged with the same amount of money;
- Improve analysis before investing, so the poorest communities are being reached, recognizing that evidence shows that the poorest people benefit the most from receiving WASH services; and
- Protect the leadership already in place in USAID and the State Department, to ensure that WASH remains a political priority.
As a basic human need that impacts nearly every area of a person’s life, WASH is often viewed as a hallmark program of any development effort. It is thrilling to know that, even during a time when there is little progress to report out of Washington, Members of Congress still believe in this societal good. The Water for the World Act not only shows that WASH is an effective and efficient use of taxpayer dollars, but that U.S. leadership can still save lives when action is taken. Foreign aid may be on the chopping block, but if we make enough noise about this bill, we might just keep the debate alive.