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USAID Water and Development Strategy, 2013-2018

Editor’s Note: Today marks the launch of USAID’s first water and development strategy. The strategy addresses global WASH needs and how the organization plans to approach water programming with an emphasis on sustainability by improving health outcomes and managing water for agriculture over the next five years. Read the strategy document here and join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #WaterStrategy. In this guest blog, authored by John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates, John examines the USAID strategy closely. A version of this post originally appeared here.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launches its first-ever five-year water strategy today. We’ve all been waiting a long time for this, so some initial and mostly positive reactions follow. 

First of all, congratulations to USAID and its many partners for getting this out the door. Any such strategy involves a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, particularly so for an issue as wide-ranging and multidisciplinary as water challenges across the globe. So congratulations to USAID (Chris Holmes, John Pasch, many others). A great number of nonprofits, Hill allies, and concerned citizens deserve kudos for their involvement and support as well over the past couple of years. 

What I like about USAID’s water strategy

  • It focuses on safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), and does so in a way that also elevates and institutionalizes Integrated Water Resource Management and water for agriculture. The strategy also strongly positions water as foundational to sustainable progress across many other vital development challenges including health, food, education, HIV, gender equality, and climate change. I also welcome its increased emphasis on sanitation, especially since USAID joined the Sanitation and Water for All Partnership in 2012. “In countries that are off track to meet the [Millennium Development Goal] for sanitation, and where diarrheal disease and under-nutrition are prevalent, Missions must add sanitation as a key element of their water, health, and nutrition activities.” That’s some strong language. Inadequate sanitation — water contaminated with human feces — is what really kills and sickens kids, not simple water scarcity. Those millions of kids are dying because of waterborne illness, not simple thirst, and USAID’s renewed emphasis on sanitation positions the agency to save and improve kids’ lives across the globe.
  • The strategy draws much of its philosophy from USAID Forward, the agency’s attempt to transform itself and develop new models for development. The water strategy provides a refreshed vision of what USAID could/should look like in action across the board, with its focus on decentralized decision-making and ownership, local capacity strengthening, behavior change, and stronger monitoring and evaluation. This is perhaps the most important part of the strategy, and will hopefully be a big part of its implementation: the document leans forward into the sort of foreign assistance we should be supporting — less focused on direct service provision, and more focused on strengthening local capacity so that communities and countries will no longer require foreign assistance.
  • There are hints in the strategy of stronger monitoring and evaluation, and even language which indicates USAID will do so “beyond the typical USAID Program Cycle and... enable reasonable support to issues that arise post implementation.” This is good news, and I am all ears as to how this will be implemented. I know Susan DavisIRCSustainableWASH.orgWASH AdvocatesWater For People, and many others have ideas.
  • Integral to the strategy are a number of smart, flexible approaches to solving development challenges — approaches which also provide USAID much-needed leverage for its work: innovative financing (e.g. through USAID’s Development Credit Authority), policy reform, strengthening enabling environments, strengthening and building local capacity (e.g. through USAID’s Development Grants Program), and more opportunities for real partnerships like those with Rotary International and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • Priority countries, selectivity, and focus: the three tiers of countries make sense (with concerns noted below), as do the different levels of involvement envisioned in disparate countries and regions. Fewer countries (again, with concerns noted below) could provide increased opportunities for meaningful impact at scale, up to and including 100% coverage of WASH within certain discrete geographies (e.g. municipalities, provinces, even countries). This would obviate the debates about how to reach the poorest of the poor, gender focus, outlying farmers, distant huts, and so on. 100% is 100%, as inspired by Water For People’s Everyone Forever.

Perhaps most importantly, this strikes me as a learning strategy, a living document which has the potential to vastly improve USAID’s water programming in ways unforeseen at its launch. One example of something to be learned by the agency is how to differentiate between programming which focuses on first-timeaccess to WASH and that which focuses on improved access, a distinction sometimes lost in D.C. but vitally important in the developing world. Another opportunity is to figure out how to best make sure that projects continue to function as intended long after the program has technically ended. 

Areas on which I look forward to continuing to work with USAID

  • The numbers are under-ambitious: a five year strategy to get safe drinking water to only 10 million people and sanitation to only 6 million? In FY11 alone, the figures were 3.8 million people (water) and 1.9 million people (sanitation). I fully expect USAID to blow these numbers out of the water, both by providing more services, and by strengthening the capacity of local organizations across the globe to solve their own challenges.
  • The strategy does a great job of segmenting its approach into “transformative impact,” “leveraged impact,” and “strategic priority” countries. I get the distinctions, but I remain concerned that there is little in the strategy to prevent the vast majority of resources from going to a small handful of strategic priority countries that may or may not suffer from water and sanitation scarcity. I would have preferred that a clear, specific, and high percentage of funds be explicitly directed to countries and communities where water and sanitation coverage is the lowest in the world, and I look forward to continuing to work with USAID and the Hill on that front. Diplomacy and security concerns often trump development, and the strategy could have leaned further forward into this debate. An added benefit is that a more pro-poor approach to the implementation of the water strategy would more closely align it with the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005, which focuses clearly and explicitly on the world’s poorest countries.
  • On a related note, I’m all for selectivity and focus leading to a smaller number of program countries for the water strategy. Dissipation is the enemy, but cutting from 62 countries to perhaps a couple dozen countries overnight is drastic, and will leave dozens of WASH-poor countries — with strong enabling environments (viz. “opportunity to succeed”) — high and dry. Country selection based on need and ‘opportunity to succeed’ requires very careful management. And a continuing omission is that, outside of Haiti, no country in the Western Hemisphere is a priority country for the Water for the Poor Act implementation. There are vast pockets of need in Latin America and the Caribbean, and I hope USAID takes this into account.
  • With the exception of one key paragraph on page 15, the two Strategic Objectives (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene and Water and Food Security) are inadequately linked. I would have liked to see the nexus of water, sanitation, and nutrition/food security highlighted. The problem is clear: repeated bouts of waterborne diarrheal disease lead to physical stunting and poor cognitive development of kids all around Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The solution is more integrated programming: making sure that children and families have safe drinking water with which to consume their food so that it is properly digested. I know USAID understands this and am surprised this linkage is not more prominent in the strategy. There are other solutions which would tackle concomitantly both Strategic Objectives (rainwater harvesting comes to mind) which aren’t included at all. 

What’s next?

Once the strategy is formally launched, USAID and its many partners across the U.S. and the globe have five years to make this work. The implementation phase of the strategy will build on many of the successes outlined above, and provide further guidance on the strategy’s shortcomings. The implementation of this strategy needs to closely align with the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005 and maintain and increase USAID’s focus on its core mission, “the eradication of extreme poverty and its most devastating corollaries, including widespread hunger and preventable child death.”  

Shortly after the strategy is launched, we can expect implementation guidance to better explain how to implement projects aligned with the strategy. That implementation guidance will very much color how the strategy will roll out over the coming years, the number of lives it will positively impact, and the return the U.S. taxpayer gets on his/her dollar. 

I intend to make sure that the right people in both developed and developing countries are aware and supportive, to the extent possible, of this strategy, and are positioned as allies for USAID as it works through the next five years. I envision better donor coordination, and I envision increased demand and supply for water assistance across the globe. I envision USAID reaching out to its philanthropic partners to leverage the taxpayer dollar, and I see millions of lives saved and improved. 

Congratulations again to USAID — looking forward to the implementation phase.

Editor’s Note: This infographic illustrates the projected impact of the world's shrinking freshwater resources on the world’s population by 2025. It was created by Seametrics, a manufacturer of water flow meter technology that measures and conserves water. It originally appeared on the Seametrics blog. 

Editor’s Note: In this post, Susan Davis reflects on the theme of World Water Day water and food security and the implications it has for all of us. Susan is the executive director of Improve International, an organization focused on promoting and facilitating independent evaluations of WASH programs to help the sector improve. She has more than 13 years of experience in international development and has evaluated WASH and other programs in 15 developing countries. A version of this post originally appeared here.

Water for People and Animals; La Guajira, Colombia

Credit: Aguayuda / Sabrina Zimmerman

I was in DC last week for World Water Day celebrations, which focused on this year’s theme Water & Food Security. (The UN celebrated the first World Water Day on March 22 1993, and each year selects a theme highlighting an aspect of freshwater. Read about past themes here.) I took advantage of the beautiful weather to see the early blooming cherry blossoms and visit the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. One of MLK’s quotes from 1964 caught my eye: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

“Food security exists when all people at all times have both physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs for an active and healthy life” (1996 World Food Summit). Sadly, 48 years after MLK’s Norway speech, Water and Food Security is still a relevant theme as world headlines continue to warn of drought, malnutrition, famine, and exponentially increasing populations. While one day a year might not seem like enough to make a difference in such enormous problems, World Water Day has become a prompt for governments, foundations, charitable organizations, and individuals to come together at a variety of events around the world to raise awareness, discuss solutions, and make serious commitments.

Many of us drink a glass or two of water with each of our three meals. But how many of us think about the intimate relationship between water and food?

We need a great deal of water to grow and process our food, whether it’s plant or animal. Without water we can’t grow most food sources; and without safe water we can lose many of the vital nutrients from that food. This connection is driving concerns about the world’s food supply, particularly with increasing water scarcity and changing weather patterns, but is especially critical and pressing for people in developing countries. According to the Food Security Information for Action Practical Guides, investment in water is a key part of the strategy for addressing food security problems.

While the water-food connection sounds simple, there are many complicating issues. To understand how to help, we must explore what this means on the individual, community, and global levels.

At the individual level

Nutrition is a delicate issue for many in the developing world, especially children under five. Mothers need these children to hold onto every last calorie. Yet drinking unsafe water can lead to diarrhea, which leads to malnutrition, which can lead to diarrhea, completing the vicious cycle. Eating food contaminated by unwashed hands can also contribute, ironically, to malnutrition. A study by Luby, et al. found that children living in households where food preparers washed their hands with just water before handling food were less likely to have diarrhea than children living in households where food preparers did not wash their hands at all. This suggests that hand-washing, even without using soap, promotes health. The implication for WASH project planning is that hygiene promotion is absolutely critical, with a focus on incremental changes in behavior over time: washing with water is good, washing with soap is even better.

Women and girls are usually tasked with fetching water for their families. The water is heavy, and they may have to walk up to 6 kilometers per day, sometimes in rugged terrains. It’s estimated that, around the world, women and girls spend 200 million hours each day collecting water. Subsistence farmers or others on the edge of food insecurity shouldn’t need to use precious calories just to fetch water. Various studies show the longer it takes to fetch water, the less water people are likely to bring home and consume (see chart). If families have only a very small amount of water, they will often prioritize it for drinking and cooking, not for washing hands or watering gardens. Thus, WASH project planners need to consider the convenience of water points to help stop the cycle of malnutrition.

Chart of Water Collection Amount and Time

Data source: WHO & UNICEF 2005 Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation

At the community level

In my supermarket, I can find fruit and vegetables from many countries, no matter the season. But for people living on less than $2 a day, especially in rural areas, food and water can only be obtained seasonally and locally. This leads to very limited diets, both in quantity and nutritional quality. One of the under-appreciated benefits of a water supply system is that families can use the additional water to maintain small gardens and to hydrate animals. As a result, they gain access to varied food sources, which can improve nutrition and relieve some of the dependence on a single food source. Furthermore, families might be able to supplement their incomes by growing and selling coffee, rice, or meat, which often require water for processing as well. This is why planning for water systems (capacity and distribution) should consider multiple uses of water beyond drinking. (The Multiple Use Water Services Group just published guidelines here.) Using household meters and charging fees based on the amount of water used can both encourage conservation and help identify leaks quickly.

More and more WASH implementing organizations are also thinking about how to help farmers — subsistence and commercial — avoid polluting the water sources they depend on with pesticides. Other efforts are focusing on helping farmers grow more “crop per drop” — for example, iDE’s drip irrigation — or grow drought resistant crops. Watershed protection programs also encourage communities to keep trees and plant new ones to prevent topsoil from going into streams and rivers. To ensure a sufficient and safe source of water over time, WASH project planners should consider including integrated water resource management (IWRM) (like the Global Water Initiative has) or partnering with a group familiar with the practice. According to Steph Ogden (who was the IWRM fellow with Water for People last year), organizations doing IWRM best are small, local organizations based around a watershed (large or small), such as the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization. Steph says, “They’re looking out for water access, environmental sustainability, sanitation, livelihoods of their own neighbors in the watershed region with a real understanding of how they’re all (and all of those components are) connected.” Other resources on the topic include the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC), or International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

On the global level

Inexorably, the world’s population is growing. It is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Those people will need to eat food and drink safe water, on the order of 100 percent more globally by 2050. Meat consumption (which uses a great deal of water) is increasing in population-dense countries like China. Besides the 2-4 liters of drinking water per person, it takes 2,000-5,000 liters of water to produce one person’s daily food. “To secure food for everybody, we first need to secure water,” says the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN. The implications for all of us as individuals might be eating less meat.

Almost half a century after MLK envisioned food security, The Stockholm Statement calls on leadership at all levels of government that will participate at the Rio+20 Summit to commit to achieving “universal provisioning of safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and modern energy services by the year 2030″ and to adopt intervening targets to increase efficiency in the management of water, energy, and food. Audacious? You bet! And since we all eat, drink, and use energy, each one of us has a part to play.

For more information and educational materials, see the UN World Water Day site.

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