About nine months ago, the United States Agency for International Development released its first-ever Strategic Plan for Water and Development. In my last post, I talked about a need for a dialogue on water issues, and within the development world, this document was a milestone. Beyond balancing water demand to ensure food security, sound water and sanitation policies will be crucial to meeting public health and national security priorities. Water is playing a larger role in energy, conflict, climate change, biodiversity, ecosystems, and economic growth. These objectives are at the heart of this plan to revitalize the way we approach these issues in the international development community.

The figures are telling. While significant strides have been made in both water and sanitation-related issues, many parts of the world still lag far behind international standards. Sub-Saharan Africa in particular is a nexus of both failing infrastructure and massive population growth projections. According to a 2013 WHO/UNICEF water progress report, 768 million people still rely on unimproved drinking-water sources as of 2011.

Drinking Water Coverage

Sub-Saharan Africa continues to pose the greatest challenges for improved water access issues.

Sanitation Coverage

Despite massive efforts, we will miss the 2015 MDG target for sanitation by nearly half a billion people.

Things are not all gloom and doom, however. The new USAID plan defines very specific development guidelines for achieving its primary goals of:

  1. Improving global public health outcomes by utilizing sustainable water management, sanitation, and hygiene strategies.
  2. Managing water for agriculture sustainably to increase productivity and food security.

The plan includes prioritizing country-level interventions by impact potential:

  • Transformative Impact – Countries in transition which can radically alter policy to leverage development resources. Have base infrastructure and the social environment for big changes.
  • Leveraged Impact – Countries which lack basic infrastructure and offer the potential for big gains with small investments. Small targeted grants will be key here.
  • Strategic Impact – Countries which have been identified by the intelligence community to be of national interest. Water and regional security are intimately intertwined here.

In implementing these interventions, there are also a number of key guidelines presented for managers:

  • Support host country ownership of water assets
  • Build in sustainability from the start
  • Apply integrated development approaches
  • Leverage local solution-holders and partnerships
  • Promote gender equity in water issues
  • Fully utilize the best science and technology available
  • Measure and evaluate intervention impact
  • Achieve resilience

Overall, I think this represents a major push toward the leadership we need on water, sanitation and hygiene (“WASH”) issues. From an increased focus on sanitation to some of the language on climate change and local ownership, to a very real effort to include monitoring and evaluation on projects, the document acknowledges the complexity of the issues in this sector. It is, however, only a first step. Anyone working in development will tell you that strategic plans often play out differently in the field than on paper, and some of the finer details will probably be lost in actual implementation. Additionally, as other bloggers have noted, the target numbers are lower than they probably could be, which will be disappointing for those countries who just barely miss the cutoffs for prioritization. Nevertheless, I think it is a well thought out document and a great first step. At just under a year into the initiative, there are many exciting projects on the line. It will be interesting to hear how they all turn out in the years to come!

In closing, I’ll leave you Senator Dick Durbin’s remarks at the launch of this initiative:

For people who say America can’t afford to invest in clean water for the world, I would point out that experts in the Pentagon and elsewhere have called the world water shortage a real and growing threat to America’s own security.  In fact, you only had to read New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s devastating piece this weekend about how drought and water mismanagement contributed to Syria’s bloody civil war to understand this serious point…The way to douse the flames of global poverty and disease and conflict is not more fire, it is clean water.

Beyond this strategy being fantastic for humanitarian and economic reasons, we can not forget that water issues will continue to underpin American national security interests for decades to come. The lessons in Thomas Friedman’s piece are just as relevant today as they were when they were written. So the next time someone tells you that development work isn’t in America’s national interest, just point them this way!