Partnership in Water Security

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
National Press Club
Washington, DC
April 14, 2011

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you this afternoon. I want to especially thank Don Marx, President of the Rotary Club of Washington DC, for organizing this Water Summit. And a special acknowledgment to the distinguished Ambassadors who join us today, as well as the business leaders and NGO partners who are present.

Clean, fresh water is the world’s most essential commodity, and yet we take it for granted. I doubt many of us stared at our kitchen faucet in awe and gratitude this morning as we were making tea or coffee. And yet, the resource that runs freely for us kills some 5,000 children every day—due to dirty water and inadequate sanitation and hygiene.

So let me begin by thanking the Rotarians for your commitment to overcoming one of the defining challenges of our time. Given your track record with overcoming polio, I am particularly pleased to have you as a partner.

Today, one-third of the world’s population lives in water-stressed conditions that affect socio-economic development. By 2025, as much as two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under moderate to high water stress.

The United States understands the imminent need to increase global water security. Our understanding begins with the realization that the water challenge is fundamentally an issue of management – not scarcity. Even the driest region can achieve water security.

So we have set an ambitious agenda that includes building political will, strengthening capacity, mobilizing resources, advancing science and technology, and developing partnerships that can deliver meaningful results on the ground.

In March of last year—on World Water Day—Secretary Clinton outlined this agenda, calling water security a global imperative for US foreign policy. She also called for a renewed commitment from the full spectrum of US government agencies—including NASA, the Export-Import Bank, OPIC, and more—all of which continue to prioritize this work in their own programs and policies.

And just last month, on World Water Day 2011, Secretary Clinton and World Bank President Robert Zoellick signed an unprecedented MOU, connecting almost 20 US government agencies and multiple assets of the Bank. This MOU will allow us to share knowledge and expertise at the national and local levels, deepening our efficiency and creating more impact where it is needed most. And we will see more innovative water investments, such as the $240 million multi-donor package orchestrated by the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the World Bank in Mozambique.

From the moment that Secretary Clinton asked me to take on water security, we understood that our success would be contingent on the quality of our partnerships. So I thought this afternoon I could share with you a bit about how we’ve formed those partnerships, and some of the guiding principles that I find most important.

I am consistently encouraged by the number of experts drawn to this issue. In fact, on water issues, cooperation and partnership seems to be the rule, rather than the exception.

But, if our current budget environment teaches us anything, it is that partnership is all the more important. We should take this opportunity to leverage one another’s existing resources—creating efficiency, reaching scale, and creating sustainable impact on our shared goals.

We have seen how water projects can unite engineers, health experts, educators, and political leaders. And we have seen countries come together to settle disputes and arrive at joint solutions to their water problems.

Rotary itself has been an important partner for the US government. The Rotary International/USAID International H2O Collaboration implements water, sanitation, and hygiene projects in the Dominican Republic, Ghana, and Philippines, with more countries to come after pilots are streamlined and perfected.

With the State Department, Rotary is highlighting the importance of adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene education in schools.

As many of you know, more than half of all primary schools in developing countries do not have adequate water facilities and nearly two-thirds lack adequate sanitation. Even where facilities exist, they are often in poor condition—leading to increased risk of disease and decreased school attendance by young girls.

So, together with the Millennium Water Alliance, Global Water Challenge, and the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation , State and Rotary are working with US Ambassadors abroad to generate local political will and bring better facilities to schools.

As we in the public and nonprofit sectors double down on our commitments to water security for the good of humanity, the private sector is likewise stepping up to the plate. The era of cheap and easy access to water for companies is coming to an end. Businesses – especially those in agriculture, beverages, mining and energy—rely on water to grow and remain financially competitive. And as water scarcity affects the lowest rungs on their value chains, smart companies are beginning to make smart investments in water security.

To support this growing trend, the US Government is exploring innovative ways to make private investments in water financially feasible for companies. USAID’s Development Credit Authority, ExIm Bank and OPIC have made water a priority, even while multilateral development banks are greatly increasing their water lending to governments.

Of course, not all partnerships are created equal. It is crucial that we integrate key principles to guide our cooperation on water security—two of which I want to underscore today. The first is working locally. While water is a global challenge, most solutions are local. Those of us in this room—no matter how well-meaning—will not be the heroes of this story. It will be the villagers of Africa, the engineers of the Middle East, and the teachers of Asia. And about those villagers, engineers, and teachers, I will say this: with all due respect to the gentlemen in the room, it will likely be the women among them leading the way.

Which brings me to my second guiding principle of partnership—we must prioritize the role of women, as agents of change and implementers of solutions. They are the small farmers who make the daily agricultural decisions that make or break water and food scarcity. They are the mothers feeding their babies, the teachers educating their children, and the health workers teaching better sanitation practices. So in order to achieve water security, we must be sure that women are at the core of our efforts.

Now, before I close, I want to take this opportunity to share one more important message, since we are gathered at none other than the National Press Club. To our colleagues in the media: You may not think of this – but you are our water partners too. Please, take the time to educate yourselves about water scarcity. Help give voice to the quiet desperation of millions of people. Tell the story of our thirsty world, of our disappearing wetlands and the loss of biodiversity. Use your gift of communication to tell the story in such a way that people care and take action.

With that, I thank you for inviting me to be here today, and thanks to the amazing work of Rotarians all over the world dedicated to addressing water issues. I look forward to our continued partnership.