African women collecting <br>muddy waters. Photo <br>courtesy of the <a href="" target="_blank">Student <br>Movement for Real Change</a>.
African women collecting
muddy waters. Photo
courtesy of the Student
Movement for Real Change

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: It's Like Oil, But Different

Jun 18, 2008

Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain are missing a monumental opportunity to save millions of lives and radically change the course of world history. Global warming, the oil crisis, and HIV/AIDS are finally receiving serious attention, and yet we continue to avoid an issue that perennially threatens the lives of children. The issue could not be more basic, more important, or more ignored: The issue is water.

More than 1 billion people, almost 20 percent of the global population, lack access to clean drinking water. Two billion more lack access to basic sanitation. Nearly 2 million children around the world will die this year from water-related illnesses, and with populations in the poorest regions growing faster than in industrialized areas we can expect this number to increase. Meanwhile, the United States has little to say on global or domestic water policy.

Fortune magazine reports that the global water crisis will be as serious in the twenty-first century as oil crises were in the twentieth century, potentially leading to warfare. So it should come as a shock that water is not on the lips of the presidential candidates.

Obama denounced the rising oceans associated with climate change in the speech where he claimed his status as the presumptive Democratic nominee, but he did not mention the lack of taps for people in the developing world to access a decent glass of water. Similarly, while McCain has moved away from the Republican Party's traditional aversion to the issue of global warming, he mostly discusses the environmental component and not the human effects.

The water crisis is not on the presidential agenda because there is no easy solution. Water is not free. The UNDP Human Development Report estimates that an additional $4 billion will have to be spent on clean water and sanitation projects each year for the next seven years to reach the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without access to safe water by 2015. This is a conservative estimate. The British Department for International Development predicts that an additional $9.5 billion needs to be invested each year until 2015, while the World Health Organization believes an additional $11.3 billion needs to be spent on water projects each year for the next seven years.

It is not only green activists and liberals who have taken an interest in the global water crisis. Goldman Sachs recently held a conference on the world's "top five risks" at which it deemed the water shortage to be as lethal in the twenty-first century as terrorism and the relentless exhaustion of energy reserves. Goldman Sachs also points out that the water industry is worth $425 billion.

Depending on the region of the world, the economic benefits from water investments can range from $3 to $34 for each dollar invested. There would be a total payback to the aggregate economy of $84 billion from the $11.3 billion per year that WHO estimates is needed. So, it is well worth it for governments to jump on board.

Water does occasionally make it onto the agenda in the U.S. Senate. In 2007, USAID spent $250 million on water and sanitation projects. $100 million of it was spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only $70 million was offered to "non-emergency" countries and, of that, $10 million was offered to Sub-Saharan Africa, the most impoverished region. In 2005, the Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act was passed and signed into law, with $300 million designated in 2008 to improve access to clean water. The government has promised to allocate $125 million of that sum specifically to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Nearly 4,900 children around the world will die today from a water-related illness, and the tragedy seems to be largely ignored in Washington. This is both catastrophic for those who cannot access sanitary drinking water and symptomatic of the constant policy and market failures that undermine livelihoods everywhere. The food crisis alone has pushed more than 400 million people back toward the extreme poverty line. Water solutions could help everyone grow crops and avert a colossal, silent massacre.

It is in the United States' self-interest to work toward a more stable global community, one in which people don't have to scrape by to access drinking water, dragging a dry jerrycan behind.

But the candidates have not yet tackled this issue, and it is not likely that they will. For the voiceless children of today this is a crisis of massive proportions. With oil prices above $130 per barrel, Americans are finally feeling the squeeze of a natural resource disaster. It behooves all of us to be more prescient this time, and float water to the top of the agenda.

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