Remarks at Town Hall Meeting on Water

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
Dean Acheson Auditorium
Washington, DC
March 30, 2010

Thank you all for joining us today for our Town Hall on Water. Thanks also to my friend and colleague, Pat Kennedy, for joining me and helping to put this event together.

On World Water Day, Secretary Clinton delivered an unprecedented speech at National Geographic. She said that water, like the air we breathe, is vital - and not only in our everyday lives, but in our foreign policy as well.

Water can bring extreme challenges. Floods, droughts and inadequate access to water and sanitation affects millions of people each year. As water becomes increasingly scarce, it can be a catalyst for conflict among and within nations. Experts predict that by 2025, nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries will be water-stressed due to climate change and population growth and that 2.4 billion people will face absolute water scarcity.

However, good policy can also lead to peace and sustainable development. So when we address the important initiatives that this Administration is taking on - from global health and food security to women’s empowerment and climate change adaptation - we must make sure that water is a part of the equation.

Indeed, water one of the great diplomatic and development opportunities of our time.

In her speech, Secretary Clinton outlined "five streams of action" that will henceforth define our new approach to international water issues:

First, we will help build capacity at the local, national, and regional levels. We are encouraging local and country-led water and sanitation plans.

Through USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, we are support governance reforms and capacity building that can better address water issues. We will strengthen our local and regional diplomacy and technical assistance in for a such as the African Ministers Council on Water and the soon-to-be established Center of Excellence on Water in the Middle East.

Second, we will elevate and better coordinate our diplomatic efforts. We need to make water and sanitation a global priority. Countries themselves must take responsibility for meeting the needs of their people – this should include access to basic services like safe water to drink and sanitation. We should increase our efforts to ensure countries include water and sanitation issues in national development plans and strategies and that the international community strengthens its engagement.

Third, we will help mobilize financial resources. In addition to direct funding of infrastructure, our development agencies are working to strengthen capital markets and provide credit enhancements with the goal of mobilizing resources inside developing countries. The leveraging potential can be as high as 20 to 30 to one.

Fourth, science and technology is a major piece of our strategy. For instance, research has created new methods for disinfecting and storing drinking water, waste water treatment, desalinization, predicting floods and droughts, and improving the productivity of water for food and economic growth. We need to work to incentivize the development of new technologies and to scale-up the use of proven approaches.

Fifth, we will broaden the scope of our partnerships. We are focusing on our strengths while leveraging our efforts with the good work of others. Just as we are reaching across the U.S. Government, we also need to incorporate relationships with NGOs and nonprofits, who are vital implementers and advocates, and the private sector, which contributes great technical expertise and capital to face water challenges.

Secretary Clinton has charged USAID Administrator Raj Shah and me with leading our work on this issue.

This Town Hall Meeting is the first in a series of efforts to elevate water awareness during this Administration.

The Office of Global Partnership Initiatives (GPI) under Ambassador Bagley recent held the first of several meetings with potential partners.

U/S McHale has been very active in developing education exchange and web-based programs to heighten the profile of water.

The OES Water Team, working under Special Coordinator for Water Aaron Salzberg, continues to coordinate the Department’s efforts.

I will be traveling to the Middle East in April and a major focus of that trip will be water. I have also been asked to lead a US government delegation to Pakistan this summer to discuss water issues.

Water is not a new issue. As Secretary Clinton told us on World Water Day, "The water that we use today has been circulating through the earth since time began. It must sustain humanity for as long as we live on this earth."

But to recognize water as a global imperative, to lift it up as one of the most pressing foreign policy challenges in our 21st century world - this is new.

Before I close, I just want to say a word about the film that we will be showing after we answer some questions. Some of you may know Kenna, the grammy-nominated musician from Ethiopia. Kenna’s uncle died as a young boy from water-borne disease, and many in his immediate family have suffered from similar circumstances. As an up-and-coming star in Hollywood and New York, Kenna saw the opportunity to use his celebrity for the greater good. So he recruited other big names that you may know - Jessica Biel, Emile Hirsh, all of these people that my children know much better than me.

And together that climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, and then made this documentary. So I recommend you stay to watch at least part of it - and then also reflect on how you, too, can raise awareness about water. Even its as small as conserving water while you are brushing your teeth tonight - every bit counts.

So with that, I’ll turn it over to Under Secretary Kennedy.