USAID Acting Administrator Gloria Steele at the Event on "Water Security, Sanitation, and Hygiene in a World Combatting COVID-19"

Speeches Shim

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

March 23, 2021

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR STEELE: Thank you, Congressman Blumenauer. Good morning, everyone. I am privileged to be here with you today, and I'm privileged to be with you Congressman Blumenauer, for your commitment to a world where everyone has access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene.

I would also like to thank Senator Durbin and Representatives LaHood, Meng, and Walorski for their partnership and dedication to these critical issues. I am delighted to be here to celebrate World Water Day with all of you.

Thanks to your bipartisan leadership, the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2014 continues to guide USAID’s water and sanitation investments around the world, especially in our 18 high-priority countries. The International Water and Sanitation Caucus, in particular, is a very valuable platform to continue advancing the goals and ambitions of the Water for the World Act.

As all of you know, reliable access to safe water and sanitation saves lives, promotes economic growth, and transforms communities. USAID’s investments in this sector ensure that our partner countries can keep their economies functioning and their citizens healthy. Never has this been more important than now, as we battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ending the pandemic is one of the Biden Administration’s highest priorities. We know that hand washing is one of the simplest ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But in many countries around the world, people have no running water in their homes or close by, no basic hand washing facilities, and no access to proper sanitation.

The work that USAID is doing is helping countries provide reliable access to water and sanitation services, and to properly manage their water resources.

Since 2008, USAID has helped nearly 56 million people gain access to safe drinking water, and we have helped 38 million gain access to better sanitation.

Although we have made significant progress, one-third of the global population still lacks access to safe drinking water, and over half lacks access to sanitation. By 2025, nearly two-thirds of the global population may face water scarcity. It is estimated that 90 percent of problems arising from climate change are related to water, such as droughts, floods, and water contamination. And COVID-19 has worsened access to water significantly.

Water utilities in low- and middle-income countries are experiencing severe financial strain due to economic disruptions arising from the pandemic. USAID conducted a survey to try to better understand these impacts. The survey found that as many as 300 million people may be at risk of losing access to water in sub-Saharan Africa alone. One in three people across the five sub-Saharan African countries we surveyed faced new challenges to accessing water as a result of the pandemic.

Our investments are not only essential in their own right, but they also contribute to better education outcomes, improved economic growth, and more. For example, when water is more accessible, families and communities spend less time and effort looking for it. Around the world, women and girls spend an inordinate amount of time each day collecting water, which exposes them to potential violence and limits their ability to go to school or access economic opportunities.

Water drives job creation and economic prosperity for everyone. Without water, food cannot grow and business operations, including energy production, will be severely constrained. In fact, estimates indicate that three out of every four jobs worldwide are ultimately linked to water.

As we look ahead, USAID will continue to help households, communities, and countries become more resilient to shocks and stressors of all kinds. We will help safeguard the water needed for handwashing, and we will continue supporting governments to better manage water allocation and quality, so it remains available for agriculture and industry, as well as for drinking and washing.

At the same time, we will continue to address harmful gender roles and norms that compel women and girls to spend a significant amount of their time collecting water.

We will also continue to engage and leverage the private sector to help close enormous financing gaps in water and sanitation, so that we can ensure that services and high-quality standards are maintained, and so that everyone, especially the poor, have access to these services.

Thank you very much, and I look forward to our discussion.

CONGRESSMAN BLUMENAUER: Thank you, Administrator Steele. We appreciate your comments. It's been quite a year, as we've been in the throes of the coronavirus and we now have vaccines. What role does WASH have now that we're starting to deal with the deployment of the vaccine?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR STEELE: That's a good question. While we know that the pace and progress of vaccine development and distribution has been phenomenal, and that the U.S. Government is a proud contributor to COVAX, making vaccines available to other countries, especially the poor countries, [inaudible] COVID-19 continues to spread. Access to water services could be very, very important. We know that handwashing reduces the risk of transmitting viruses and this is true for COVID-19, in particular.

So we have been engaging in behavior change. But behavior change alone is not going to be important if water is not available, and that's where Water for the World investments come into play. USAID has also played an important role in convening the interagency with the U.S. Government and other donors to underscore the importance of handwashing. We're making water available for this purpose. And even as the pandemic continues, we know that significant impacts, economic impacts in particular, have been experienced. And we know that water is an important cornerstone of rebuilding the global economy. And so there is the health impact of it and the economic impact where water plays an important part. And so WASH will continue to be an important aspect of our development assistance.

CONGRESSMAN BLUMENAUER: Where have we seen the biggest impact from COVID in the WASH space? What vulnerabilities have been uncovered with this global pandemic?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR STEELE: I think one of the most important impacts are — well, at two levels. One is the impact that it has made on the water utilities service sector, especially the smaller water utilities.

As economies have collapsed or become weakened and jobs have been lost in many countries, households have not been able to pay the cost of accessing water. But the governments have asked water utilities to continue providing service. And so this has really put them in a crunch. They are not getting paid, and in some countries the government has not been able to provide the subsidies they need to continue to be able to operate. And so one of the things that WASH has done is to provide temporary grants to some of the [inaudible].

We have done this, for example, in Mozambique, where we have worked with a water utility to support their ability to continue operating and at the same time in helping them to manage resources that they have. And then, of course, at the household level we have seen how significantly impacted they have been. Loss of jobs have made it difficult for them to access water. And we are very concerned about this. We want to make sure that we do not lose the progress that we have made in improving access to water. We need to continue to build upon that progress despite the disruption that we are facing these days. And that is a commitment that we have, is to continue to make sure that households and countries continue to have access to water and sanitation despite the economic impact [inaudible].

CONGRESSMAN BLUMENAUER: Great. And what about the impact on women and girls?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR STEELE: Unfortunately, as with many crises, women and girls have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. As the major collectors of water they've had — when water has become more scarce, which is true worldwide, they've had to walk farther and use up most of their time, more of their time collecting water. And then, of course, there is the possibility of gender-based violence. According to the International Rescue Committee, IRC, they found that 31 percent of women and girls have reported harassment and sexual violence on their way to a water site; and 21 percent have reported harassment at the site itself. And so the impacts on women and girls have been even more significant because of the fact they make — because of the lack of access to water and they've had to use more of their time away from their jobs or from taking care of their family, looking for water. And we need to make sure that we continue to protect them from violence as they do so.

CONGRESSMAN BLUMENAUER: I know it's early days for this Administration, but the response to COVID and the longer term impacts are so critical. Congress has acted on the need for a more international response. How are you thinking about WASH moving forward given the recent actions of Congress?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR STEELE: The pandemic has underscored the importance of our commitment to working even harder in the area of water and sanitation. We need to ensure that the policies are right, governance is good, utilities are managed efficiently and effectively. We need to work with countries to be able to attract more investments in water utilities, in making water and sanitation more accessible.

We need to make sure that donors and governments invest in the right policies and actions to make the water infrastructure and sanitation infrastructure more resilient. We need to work with governments to make sure they're in a position to provide short-term subsidies when necessary as it is during this time. And we need to promote innovation and use the digital platform — it's very important and very useful at this time. We're trying to minimize person-to-person contact in order to fight the pandemic and the spread of the virus. And so in some countries, we have worked on digital payments such as in Niger, Nigeria, and Haiti, and we need to continue working on innovating and making this happen in all other countries.

CONGRESSMAN BLUMENAUER: In the future, water stress will continue to be a major threat. How will USAID address the increasing risk to freshwater resources, such as those caused by unsustainable agriculture, infrastructure development, and the increasing impact of climate change?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR STEELE: Climate change is a very important priority of the Biden Administration, and we're really gearing up and making sure that our programs and our strategies support countries in mitigating the impact of climate change, because we know that climate change will exacerbate existing challenges to water security and probably create even more. We know that 90 percent of disasters arise from climate change, that arise from water change, and climate change are related to water. These are droughts, flooding, water pollution, for example. And so what we're going to do is to make sure that we work to improve the resilience of infrastructure in water and sanitation. This would involve working with governments and other donors and investing in climate-resilient infrastructure. We just launched a partnership with the Government of India, for example, in promoting investments in climate-resilient infrastructure, including in water.

And then also we are working with countries to improve the way that they manage water resources. And one of the other things that's really important for us to do is to improve communities' access to sanitation. The lack of access to sanitation has contributed significantly to water pollution and we need to be able to address that in the countries where we work.

And of course, you mentioned agriculture. Agriculture is one of the major users of water. And we are relooking and revisiting our food security strategy, food system strategy to make sure that water is used, managed, and managed more effectively and to ensure that agriculture does not contribute to water insecurity.

CONGRESSMAN BLUMENAUER: Thank you. Thank you very much for being with us. Thank you for the important work at USAID. And we look forward to our continued partnership.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR STEELE: Likewise, we look forward to our partnership with you. And thank you so much for your support of our programs and for your continued support on water and sanitation.

Last updated: June 01, 2022

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