Unprecedented drought pushing millions into starvation in the Horn of Africa. Rising conflict over shrinking natural resources. Surging cholera caseloads across the world. What do all of these things have in common? Water.
As UN Secretary General António Guterres so aptly stated recently, “Water is humanity’s lifeblood, from the food we eat to the ecosystems and biodiversity that enrich our world to the prosperity that sustains nations, to the economic engines of agriculture, manufacturing and energy generation to our health, hygiene and survival itself.”
That is why USAID leads efforts internationally to increase access to safe drinking water and sanitation services for millions around the world, and to advance social equity in water resource management under the U.S. Global Water Strategy. Water also features prominently in USAID’s efforts to advance agriculture-led growth, resilience, and nutrition under the U.S. Global Food Security Strategy; and it is central to the Agency’s efforts to address the climate crisis under the USAID Climate Strategy.
From March 22-24, water experts and advocates came together at the United Nations 2023 Water Conference to mobilize international cooperation and new financial commitments to reach water and sanitation access for all by 2030.
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland led the U.S. government delegation. Senior leadership from eight U.S. government departments and agencies comprised the delegation and USAID Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator and Global Water Coordinator Maura Barry, pictured fourth from right, led the USAID delegation. / Photo Credit: U.S. Mission to the United Nations.
Follow along as I and USAID Global Water Coordinator, and Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator Maura Barry take a deep dive into what happened at UN Water and why it matters.
Dina: Tell me about UN Water. What was your key takeaway?
Maura: It was a busy three days, but one thing that stuck with me was the shared urgency of addressing the water crisis. Nearly 9,000 people from around the world showed up, including over 100 U.S. government delegates.
It was a critical moment for U.S. leadership as well. Last year, Vice President Harris launched the White House Action Plan on Global Water Security and soon after the U.S. government released the revised Global Water Strategy. UN Water was our opportunity to show up in a big way and explain how we are following through on our commitments to increase access to climate-resilient water and sanitation services, and to strengthen the sustainable management of water supplies.
Last year, USAID announced a three-year, $1.2 billion commitment to increase water and sanitation access around the world and last week, I announced a commitment to allocate $700 million of that to USAID’s 22 Global Water Strategy high priority countries. These are places where our investments will make the greatest impact on addressing global water and sanitation needs. We also announced important investments to increase water security in fragile contexts, improve the collection and use of water and sanitation data, support menstrual health and hygiene, and promote innovation at the intersection of water, food, and energy.
Food security and water security go hand-in-hand. USAID announces new investments in climate-resilient agriculture under the Water and Energy for Food Grand Challenge at the UN 20203 Water Conference. / Photo Credit: Natalie Rose Gill, USAID.
Maura: But, there’s still so much to be done. To reach Sustainable development Goal 6 – clean water and sanitation for all – by 2030, we need at least a trillion more dollars invested in water, sanitation, and hygiene each year. We must urgently coalesce around the international community and our partners to do more to mobilize finance and strengthen governance systems that are necessary to accelerate and sustain progress.
Dina: I see some similarities with the global food security crisis. Farmers are facing unprecedented challenges to grow their crops and provide for their families and communities. Without water, there are no crops. We must collectively double-down on getting improved technologies and techniques into the hands of the farmers so they can do more with less. We frequently talk about the need to urgently coalesce partners around increased financing. One way is by developing private sector partnerships like we are doing right now with two solar technology companies in Senegal under Feed the Future. Private sector collaboration has enabled the installation of more than 100 solar water pumping kits on farming plots cultivated by women farmers and resulting in record agricultural yields. Were private sector partnerships a theme at UN Water?
Maura: Definitely. Industry is the largest user of freshwater resources globally and agriculture accounts for 90% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals each year. Private sector partners came to the conference ready to commit to improving water resources management and engaging local stakeholders in the water basins where their companies operate. With climate change, the world’s water supply is already dwindling, so it’s vital for all sectors to reduce and make their water use more efficient.
Dina: That’s sobering. I know that with food security, the current crisis is closely intertwined with the global climate crisis – and together the two are significantly disrupting our food system and taking a toll on marginalized and vulnerable communities. Earlier this year, I was in Ethiopia where I saw how investments in the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation are helping marginalized communities tap into new technologies that enable them to continue to produce food and grow fodder for livestock – so central to their livelihoods – despite severe drought affecting parts of the country.
Maura: Marginalized people and vulnerable communities and populations often have a harder time accessing safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene products, and under the Global Water Strategy we’re working to reach people and populations in hard to reach places.
Dina: Equity is certainly a central part to the Global Food Security Strategy and the work Feed the Future is doing. It’s clear that USAID’s water and food strategies must work hand in hand to meet the challenges of the day.
Maura: For USAID, the timing of the conference was fortuitous. Last week, Administrator Power released the Agency’s new policy framework, which outlines the Agency’s vision for development that lasts beyond the cycle of a program. The idea of sustainability drives USAID’s water investments. At UN Water, we affirmed our commitment to accelerating and sustaining access to water and sanitation after the end of a USAID project by mobilizing finance, strengthening governance and the enabling environment, and reaching all people everywhere with water and sanitation. There’s a long way to go, but after UN Water, I know that our partnerships and international cooperation can get us there.
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Dina Esposito is the Assistant to the Administrator for the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security (RFS) at USAID, Feed the Future Deputy Coordinator for Development, and the Agency’s Global Food Crisis Coordinator.
Maura Barry is the Senior Deputy Assistant to the Administrator in the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security at USAID and USAID Global Water Coordinator.