Remarks by USAID Global Water Coordinator Christian Holmes at the International Water Forum

Friday, September 16, 2011
Meeting Global Water Needs: Challenges and Solutions


Speaking on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development, it is a privilege to be at this important event addressing the need for building a global awareness and crafting an education campaign aimed at global water needs. I look forward to the discussion by the distinguished panelists on potential solutions to the myriad of water issues facing developed and developing countries alike.

In my comments, I plan to help set the stage for the panel on global water issues by briefly outlining some of the key challenges we face. I will also discuss the overall approach which the United States Government is undertaking to meeting these challenges. In addition, our conference organizer, Jim Thebaut, has also asked me to provide some thoughts on, as he put it, “… why should people in developed countries care about the water crisis in the developing world.”

Before progressing further on what is a vast subject, let me first begin with an anecdote.

Earlier this week, the national television news carried a story about a man being rescued by a group of people. A car had run over a motorcyclist, car and motorcycle burst into flames, and the motorcyclist was trapped under the car. The news clip showed how one individual walked up to the burning wreckage and tried to lift up the entire car. Subsequently a number of people joined in, lifted the car up, and pulled the severely injured man to safety.

I was fascinated by the story, not just because of the good news, but also because as I watched the story, my mind flashed to other acts of courage. This news story has a great deal relevance to our challenge to build global awareness and education. The story appeals to the deep interest the public has in crises which they can relate to, the courage of one individual inspiring others to be equally courageous, success, the saving of a life, and recognition of such courage and impact.

In the water sector, many of the organizations represented in this room today do just that every day-- demonstrate courage, operate in dangerous conditions, inspire and mobilize others and save lives. Yet, rarely do such stories make it to the evening news.

I realize we're not concerned today with a spot news campaign, per se, but we are concerned with how we educate others to the threats which more than 1 billion people face on this planet due to inadequate water supply and quality and to the need to meet those threats. The story, I believe, that we want to convey again and again -- -- through a wide range of media -- -- is the plight which our fellow human beings face, the successful steps to be taken to meet the plight, the impact of not reaching out to our brothers and sisters, and what not only organizations but also individuals can do to reduce water related suffering.

So, let me first turn to the plight and solutions and then share with you some thoughts on how to engage others in the developed world to address this plight.

Water challenges and solutions:

The Obama Administration recognizes that development is vital to U.S. national security and is a strategic, economic, and moral imperative for the United States. And as Secretary Clinton has said, water security is a matter of economic security, human security and national security.

Collectively, the United States, developing countries, other donors, NGOs, philanthropic organizations and other stakeholders face these realities:

  • By 2025, as much as two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water stress - conditions where water has become an impediment to socio-economic development.
  • Over 800 million people around the world lack access to an improved water source, and 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation. Lack of access to water, sanitation, and hygiene causes an estimated 2.1 million deaths every year.
  • As demands for water increase, tensions over scarce water resources are likely to rise – both within and among countries. More than 260 river basins, home to over 40% of the world’s population, are shared by two or more countries.
  • Women and children are disproportionately affected by water and sanitation challenges. They usually bear the primary responsibility for meeting the water needs of the family, foregoing other economic and educational opportunities.
  • Compounding these problems will be the challenge of climate change. While the conditions will vary depending on the region, some regions will likely get water and some regions will get drier. Floods and droughts will become more frequent and severe.
  • As we are seeing today, the worst drought in over half a century in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia has left over 12.7 million people in need of emergency assistance.


Regarding our approach to meeting these challenges, the goal of U.S. efforts is to increase water security: Ensuring that we have the water we need, where we need it, when we need it – in a reliable and sustainable manner – to meet human, livelihood, ecosystem and production needs while reducing the risks from extreme hydrological events.

Water does not stand by itself as an Administration initiative but as a key issue to be integrated across our diplomatic and development efforts to achieve Administration priorities on health, economic growth, food security, climate change, and peace and security.

To achieve this goal, the United States is working to:

  • Improve hygiene and increase access to safe drinking water and sanitation;
  • Improve water resources management;
  • Increase the productivity of water; and
  • Mitigate tensions associated with shared waters.


  • Capacity building, institutional strengthening and policy/regulatory reform;
  • Diplomatic engagement;
  • Direct investments to meet immediate needs, build infrastructure, and mobilize local capital; and
  • Investments in science and technology.

In so doing, we seek to implement the Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act, which addresses meeting water and sanitation needs throughout the developing world. In that regard, during the period from FY 2003 through 2010, USAID provided either first-time access or improved access to drinking water supply to more than 50 million people, and USAID provided either first-time or improved sanitation to over 39 million people. Thus, over the past 8 years, USAID has, on average, provided almost ten (10) million people per year with access to either drinking water or sanitation.

Africa remains one of the world’s most pressing development challenges. Through President Obama’s three major development initiatives-- Feed the Future, the Global Health Initiative, and Global Climate Change Initiative-- we seek to meet long term development needs while also working to mitigate future humanitarian shocks. Feed the Future aims to address hunger and unlock the enormous potential of African agriculture as a driver of prosperity; the Global Health Initiative is saving millions of lives while building sustainable health systems; and the Global Climate Change Initiative is helping to address the potentially dire consequences of climate change on African ecosystems, food production, and economic development through assistance programs in climate change adaptation, clean energy, and sustainable land management. Working with the Adaptation Partnership, a global effort including over 20 developed and developing countries, we are collaborating with our African partners to bring together practitioners and policy-makers to address adaptation challenges ranging from access to climate services, to climate-smart agriculture and sustainable protection of marine areas. This year, the Apps4Africa program will host three African regional competitions to develop innovative ways to address local climate change challenges through the use of mobile technology. The United States recognizes that climate change is an urgent environmental, economic, and security issue, and we are committed to working with African countries to help adapt to a changing climate.

Our water programs play a critical role in Africa not only in meeting water supply and sanitation needs but also in enhancing our food, climate change, health and conflict mitigation efforts. For example, in Somalia, thousands have benefited from community water projects that have not only mitigated humanitarian needs but also prevented conflicts over resources; 47,000 students and their families have directly benefited from rehabilitated or newly constructed wells and boreholes near schools, and 41,000 have benefited from community water projects.

Elsewhere in the world, commitments to sustain water security include:

  • In Indonesia, USAID has begun a five-year, $34 million water, sanitation, and hygiene project to reach more than 2 million of Indonesia’s urban poor.
  • USAID is opening a new office for the Pacific region (in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea) to manage $21 million for climate change assistance programs, including water security. For example, a project in Kiribati will improve the ability of communities in the outer islands to address the impact of climate change and variability on water resources – one of nine key areas identified by the government of Kiribati as an urgent and immediate need.
  • USAID launched a project in Haiti to teach women about sanitation and hygiene so they could better take care of their households. And we are also supporting another project in India to provide slum dwellers in eight states with municipal water and sanitation systems.
  • The Millennium Challenge Corporation signed a $275 million compact in October with Jordan, one of the five most water-deprived countries in the world, to improve water supply and waste water treatment.
  • In the Philippines, Japan and the United States have worked together to establish a water revolving fund to leverage private investment to improve water and sanitation for more than 100,000 people in 36 villages.
  • To promote science and technology, we are supporting innovation in many places. To give just one example: USAID is working with NASA to use satellite images to monitor and forecast ecological changes in the Himalayas, including the monitoring of glacial melt.

Building Global Awareness:

Now, to turn to Jim's question, “why should people in developed countries care about the water crisis in the developing world”, let me suggest four key steps which we should all consider to build global awareness, develop and implement solutions.

1. The first step is to convey three messages. These are:

  • The absence of water is a threat to the global family, there is a health, economic and personal security imperative to do something now. We need to convey that we are all part of each other, interwoven, existing within the same system, and that when one person suffers, we all suffer.
  • The shortage of water has the potential to cause us all to suffer: water shortages exacerbate conflict, destabilize both countries and regions. Water shortages imperil the production of food which leads not only to malnutrition and starvation but also severely impacts commerce, local, national and international economies. Water shortages pose a particular threat to women who drop out of schools to help their families locate and carry water. In that search, which often takes them miles away from their communities, they face the prospect of assault, rape and death.
  • Just like the individual and group of people who lifted the car, individuals and organizations on a daily basis demonstrate courage and achieve impact in meeting the water needs of millions of people.

2. The second step is to unleash the power of systems and partnerships.

  • All of us in this room know that to meet global water and sanitation needs, as well as related food needs, nothing happens in a vacuum—we operate and deliver services within systems, and, one way or another, we are linked.
  • Understanding the overall system in which we operate so as to provide life improving and saving services is a huge challenge in its own right. Operating within a successful system also entails sharing with each other the policies and knowledge that guide us, how policies, knowledge and practical experience come together, are linked to the overall local, national and regional systems in which we operate. If we do this, then we become more effective in making such critical linkages as that between community development of sustainable water resources and the empowerment and protection of women and children in search of water.
  • A key element in making any system work is partnerships. At USAID, we are committed to supporting and entering into a wide range of partnerships to address the entire spectrum of water-related development needs. As one example, the Coca-Cola Company (TCCC) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have created a unique partnership to address community water needs in developing countries around the world. Through the “Water and Development Alliance” (WADA), local USAID Missions and Coca-Cola system partners collaborate to contribute to protecting and improving the sustainability of watersheds, increasing access to water supply and sanitation services, and enhancing productive uses of water for hundreds of thousands of the world’s poor.
  • Over the last year, while we continue to support such partnerships, we have also engaged on a new generation of partnerships targeted at asking and answering the tough questions which impede development. In this regard, to support promising new approaches in the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) sector, USAID, with co-funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is announcing WASH for Life. Over the next four years, the $17 million partnership will use USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) program to identify, test, and help scale evidence-based approaches for cost-effective and sustained services in developing countries. WASH for Life is particularly interested in interventions that operate in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, India, Kenya, and Nigeria; seeking to address issues in the sanitation and hygiene sectors in particular; and target beneficiaries earning under $2 a day.

3. The third step is to evaluate and implement what works.

  • Since our objective is to leverage scarce dollars to help the greatest number of people most effectively, it is paramount that we know what works so that we can improve our performance in communicating success or failure to the public. Towards that end, this year USAID launched this year a new monitoring and evaluation policy with the objective to more rigorously and credibly document our programs’ effectiveness. In this regard, we require that evaluation teams be led by outside experts and that no implementing partner be solely responsible for evaluating its own activities. We will be transparent, registering all evaluations and disclosing findings as widely as possible, with standard summaries available on the website in a searchable form.

4. The fourth step is to apply information systems so as to enhance our ability both to understand and respond to both present and future situations.

  • For example, early warning systems such as the USAID-supported Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) predicted drought in Africa and allowed donors to take quick action before the worst conditions set in. In those areas that were expected to be hit the hardest, USAID helped households with “commercial de-stocking”—selling off some livestock while the prices were still high, which helped families bring in enough income to feed themselves and their remaining livestock. USAID also pre-positioned significant amounts of food and non-food commodities and worked to rehabilitate wells before the worst drought conditions, preventing the need to launch expensive water trucking efforts in those regions.

In conclusion, I close with this brief observation: The challenge is not just to clearly understand and convey solutions and messages, it's also to apply the necessary leadership, communication approaches and passion to bring all this together to truly make a difference. I am firmly convinced we can meet that challenge.

International Water Forum, United Nations

Last updated: November 07, 2016

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