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At the nexus of global environmental change, security, development, and health
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April 05, 2019 05:35 AM PDT

The overarching goal of the U.S. Global Water Strategy is to create a more water secure world, said Ambassador Marcia Bernicat, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Oceans, and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State at a recent Wilson Center event. “Simply put,” she said, “a world where people have the water they need, where they need it, when they need it, without living in fear of floods or droughts.”

In honor of World Water Day 2019, Ambassador Bernicat took a look back at the challenges and objectives included in the U.S. Global Water Strategy, which was released in November 2017.

Three Main Challenges

“We addressed three major challenges in that strategy,” said Ambassador Bernicat. The first challenge is that a significant portion of the population in many countries still lacks access to safe drinking water and sanitation, she said. Nearly two billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water and nearly four billion lack access to safely managed sanitation services. “This is not only a threat to human health,” she said, “but a factor in migration, civil unrest, and terrorist recruitment.”

Second, the U.S. Global Water Strategy sets out to tackle rising levels of water insecurity around the globe. By 2030, according to projections, more than half of the world’s population will be living in water stressed conditions. “Many countries will not have enough water to meet domestic, industrial, and environmental water needs,” said Ambassador Bernicat. “These countries are fundamentally water insecure and risk increased fragility or failure.”

The third challenge concerns the possibility of conflict over water. “More than 270 water basins worldwide are shared by two or more countries,” said Ambassador Bernicat. “As water resources become scarce and variable, tensions over shared waters are likely to grow, increasing the potential for conflict at the local and regional level.”

Four Strategic Objectives

To answer these challenges, the U.S. Global Water Strategy provides four strategic objectives:
1) to promote sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation services along with the adoption of key hygiene behaviors,
2) to encourage the sound management and protection of freshwater resources,
3) to reduce conflict by promoting cooperation on shared waters, and
4) to strengthen water sector governance, finance, and institutions.

“To achieve these objectives, the United States is building capacity, investing in infrastructure, promoting science, technology, innovation and information, mobilizing financial resources, engaging diplomatically, and strengthening partnerships, intergovernmental organizations, and the international community,” said Ambassador Bernicat.

The Importance of Interagency Cooperation

The U.S. Global Water Strategy relies heavily on an interagency approach to address these global water challenges. More than 20 U.S. government agencies work on water in more than 60 countries. “This is not a problem that the United States will solve alone. It is through partnerships where we can leverage our respective strengths where we will be most successful,” she said. “And that is the message for today.”

Because the problems matter, they are worth tackling head on, said Ambassador Bernicat. “I am convinced that working together, we can achieve a more water secure future.”

March 28, 2019 02:16 PM PDT

Three big trends are coming, said Ken Conca, Professor at American University’s School for International Service at a recent Wilson Center event that explored the future of water. “We’ll be storing a lot more water,” he said. “We’ll be recycling a lot more water. And we’ll be thinking much more systematically and foundationally about flood risk.”

To meet the water challenges of the next 30 to 50 years, water storage will become increasingly important to smooth out extremes, to buffer against shortages, and to replace natural storage that we’re losing as snowpack and ice melt begin to vanish in a greenhouse world, he said. Water recycling will become a tool to enhance the water supply and reduce the energy and conservation costs of our current inefficient water system.

Inefficient Use of Water

For example, Conca said that we clean water to world class drinking standards and use a large amount of energy to pump it to your toilet. If your toilet is more than 20 years old, with two flushes of that to make a few ounces of urine go away, you have just flushed away what the World Health Organization says is the daily survivable minimum of water for immediate personal use. “That is not a smart system, and that is going to start to change,” he added.

Conca also predicted that more attention will go to combatting flood risk, particularly the “double-exposure” that coastal communities face. On the one hand, they’re exposed not only to intensifying storms from the sea and higher sea levels. On the other, they are vulnerable to the danger of flash flooding from heavy rains, like those from Hurricane Harvey that stalled over and inundated Houston.
While climate change is obviously one of the drivers behind these adaptation trends, it isn’t the only one, he said. Other drivers include the shifting dynamics of water economics and a variety of new actors, such as the Department of Defense, which are taking actions to manage their exposure to risk and making much needed updates to existing water infrastructure. “That’s one of the really key points,” he said. “We have to get the infrastructure decisions right.” Longevity poses a planning challenge, given that new water infrastructure may need to survive more than a hundred years.

Unintended Consequences

Unintended social and ecological consequences of infrastructure decisions could also have a large effect on “the peace and conflict dimensions that we will have to pay attention to as well,” he said. Disputes may arise when big dam projects do not consider environmental or human rights consequences, when livelihoods and profits are altered by the use of recycled water, and when flood protection affects property values and the way of life in historic neighborhoods and communities.

While in aggregate, the big trends may look like positive adaptations that will increase resilience and further risk management, Conca pointed to a downside. They are laden with tremendous potential for injustice, for inequality, for contentiousness, and for conflict, violent or otherwise. “I’d like to stress that it’s not enough to capture the macro-benefits to society of these broad adjustments that we know are coming and that we know make sense writ large,” he said. “We have to manage the micro-considerations. Who wins? Who loses? Whose voice? How do we spot the unintended consequences? How do we spot the second-order effects?”

Water Project Micro-effects

For many people, the second-order and unintended effects are the real story, Conca says. “As we get climate smart, we also have to get conflict smart and equity smart.” To do so competitively, we must put more time into decision-making and consider the micro-effects of water infrastructure projects. If these effects are over-looked, production based on the principles of economies of scale appears to be the most cost effective strategy in designing water infrastructure.

For example, building one big pile of concrete and generating 1,000 megawatts in one project is much more efficient than 10 projects generating 100 megawatts each or 1,000 projects that produce one megawatt each. However, with factors such as changing land and water prices, updated environmental regulations, and a variety of social considerations, economies of scale eventually may turn into “diseconomies” of scale.

Economies of Flexibility

“We don’t know what the future is going to entail,” Conca said. “There is a value that we can price in delaying a decision until you have more information,” he said, and in the ability to change your mind. These advantages form a cost efficient “economy of flexibility” by adapting and adjusting water infrastructure decisions to a variety of ever-changing challenges. These “economies of flexibility” eventually outweigh economies of scale in the long-term future of water infrastructure.

February 22, 2019 08:03 AM PST

“One of the interesting things about dealing with water and sanitation issues is that in many ways it’s a crosscutting issue,” said Sam Huston, Chief of Party at Tetra Tech’s USAID-supported Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene Financing (WASH-FIN) Project. Practitioners often must deal with multiple challenges that are usually much broader than their specific focus, he noted during an interview for this week’s Water Stories podcast.

Over the past two decades, Huston has engaged with local communities on water utility reform programming in low-intensity post-conflict and potentially new conflict environments. For much of 10 years, Huston worked in and out of South Sudan and for 4 of those years worked on a water peacebuilding program, The Water for Recovery and Peace Program.

The challenges one faces when trying to jump-start a water utility in a post-conflict environment can be considerable. A country may have no power grid. Or the supply chains for diesel fuel needed to run backup or primary generators do not exist. “You’re soon involved in not just jump-starting a utility,” said Huston, “but all kinds of logistical challenges around securing what would be readily available on the market in a fully functioning economy.”

To move a water utility toward autonomy, practical interventions may be needed to get it fully operational. This might involve changes in a water utility’s record keeping systems. Is the accounting system computerized? Is the customer database up to date? Are utility managers thinking about how they can improve collection from customers? How transparent are accounting and billing systems? Non-flashy interventions related to core systems can collectively move the utility to a position where it is able to cover more and more of their operational costs, said Huston, “so that they can operate in an autonomous way.”

To stabilize a utility, it is critical to figure out how “to ring fence these utilities after the capital investments have been made so that they’re able to operate on a sustainable basis and they’re not directly dependent on the political cycle for funding to maintain operations,” Huston said. Water utilities are not going to perform consistently if they rely on external financing to cover day-to-day operations. If you need to knock on the door of the Ministry of Finance every other day to fill up your generators and to run your water pumps, you’re not going to be providing water on a very reliable basis, he said.

The pathway out of fragility for a utility is ultimately a transition plan from being dependent on the public purse for operations to moving to a situation where you depend only on customer fees and user tariffs to fund day-to-day operations, Huston said. Water utilities need to come up with a viable business plan and work within their systems to recover costs so they can become operational. “It sounds easy,” he said, “but it’s a really long hard slog.”

January 30, 2019 07:42 PM PST

“The Jordan River has been the lifeblood of the Levant,” says Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli co-director of EcoPeace Middle East, in this week’s Water Stories podcast. The river’s importance offers a unique platform for multi-level conflict resolution and environmental conservation efforts
in a region wracked by conflict.

Following the 1993 Oslo Accords, “there was a sense of euphoria; we all thought that peace was about to break out completely,” says Bromberg, who helped found EcoPeace Middle East in 1994. “And the goal for creating the organization was the fear that the environment was not on the peace agenda, that fear that peace was going to lead to unsustainable development.”

When violence broke out once again, the bonds between the Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian members kept EcoPeace together. “We came to see…the model we had created in how to work together was actually a model for peace,” says Bromberg.

EcoPeace’s Good Water Neighbors program brings together residents of Palestinian, Israeli, and Jordanian communities to focus on their shared water sources, such as the heavily polluted Jordan River. “Communities came to see…that the only way to promote economic development in my community was to work with the other side, to develop relations and to move forward on a common agenda,” says Bromberg.

“We’ve found that youth are often braver than any other level of community interaction. From their perspective, if we need to work with the other side in order to solve this problem, then why aren’t we doing that?” he asks. For example, city mayors were persuaded to engage in water clean-up projects only after students requested it.

“I don’t want to paint a rosy picture: there is a lot of work still to do. But we have 100 years of conflict, and in just 10 focused years of peacebuilding [and] of advocacy, we’ve been able, through this multi-level intervention, change mindsets. Ministers and authorities that just several years ago were continuing to tell us that we’re dreamers, that we’re naive, that we’re wasting our time—today, some of them are the biggest advocates.”

January 24, 2019 09:25 AM PST

“Almost everyone of reproductive age—about 4.3 billion people—will not have access to at least one essential or reproductive health intervention over the course of their lives,” said Patricia Da Silva, Associate Director, International Planned Parenthood Federation United Nations Liaison Office. She spoke at a recent Wilson Center event showcasing recommendations from the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission report, “Accelerate progress--sexual and reproductive health and rights for all,” on how to advance sexual and reproductive health from a human rights perspective.

The Commission presents a “comprehensive, evidence-based, and integrated vision of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) that recognizes that improving health depends on rights,” said Da Silva. Guaranteeing that all people, regardless of who they are or where they live, have access to “affordable, essential, and attainable” sexual and reproductive health services is a core pillar of the Commission.

Countries tend to focus on certain components of SRHR, such as improving access to contraception, HIV prevention, and maternal and newborn health services, but the Commission includes often neglected components of sexual and reproductive health, such as “abortion, infertility treatment, LGBTQI friendly services, youth friendly services, comprehensive sexuality education, as well as the prevention, detection, and management of gender-based violence,” said Da Silva.

Some key recommendations from the Commission include providing access to safe abortion services for all women, supporting changes in policies that enable all people to understand, protect, and fulfill their sexual and reproductive health and rights, ensuring universal access to an integrated package of sexual and reproductive health services, with a particular focus on reaching vulnerable populations, and finally, addressing sexual and gender-based violence through policy changes and prevention programs.

Existing gaps in access to sexual and reproductive health can create consequences not only for individuals and communities, but also for national economies around the world, said Da Silva. Investing in and ensuring access to reproductive services for all, primarily contraception, and high-quality maternal and newborn health services would result in a net savings of 6.9 billion dollars. “Spending money now, making corrective policy actions now, can save huge economic benefits for the future,” said Da Silva.

“The rights-based roadmap approach proposed by the Commission…it is the way to accelerate progress for SRHR. It is the way to achieve sustainable and equal development for all. And ladies and gentlemen, colleagues, the time is now.”

January 18, 2019 10:56 AM PST

“When we start talking about water in the context of security, we’re immediately drawn to a conversation about conflict. And that’s often framed in terms of scarcity of water and a real zero-sum game around water, where scarcity begets grievances, which beget instability and conflict,” says Ken Conca, Professor at American University’s School of International Service, in this week’s Water Stories podcast. Of the world’s 276 transboundary water basins, fewer than half are governed by an agreement or accord that allocates use of the shared water between countries—and less than a quarter of these accords include all the riparian states in a basin.

“But when we step back, I think the larger frame is really one of uncertainty and of managing risks, and in that context, I think the good news is that there are a lot of cooperative opportunities,” says Conca.

Today, “we have a very weakly developed and patchwork body of international law. When you look at the content of that international law, we find that most of those agreements are actually fairly static, inflexible water-sharing agreements,” he says.

Conca points to some potential models for cooperation and collaboration: For example, the 1997 United Nations Watercourses Convention codifies several key principles that basin agreements should include to be equitable and effective: environmental protection, information sharing, and notice of infrastructure development, among others. “On one level it provides a very good framework,” he says, but “it doesn’t deal with a lot of the challenges of adaptation and resilience we face. So the challenge in international water law is really to create more flexible accords first.”

“We need to start doing the kinds of climate vulnerability assessments that the Paris Accords envisioned at the basin level,” he says, pointing out that national-level adaptation assessments don’t address shared water courses or dynamic flows across borders. “It’s critically important we start doing that sort of analysis.”

“We need to think less about allocating a fixed pie of water and more about expanding that pie through sensible and cooperative management,” says Conca.

January 10, 2019 07:43 AM PST

“You cannot separate water and health,” says Doris Kaberia in this week’s Water Stories podcast. “People need safe drinking water for them to be healthy.” Kaberia works with Millennium Water Alliance, a coalition of international NGOs working on water sanitation and hygiene around the world, where she manages a Kenyan water program.

RAPID (Resilient Arid Lands Partnership for Integrated Development) “brings public-private sector partners…and governments together to manage water resources, particularly in the northern part of Kenya where water is really scarce.”
“There has to be calculation of water demand,” she says. “You match resource and the water demand. Otherwise there is always competition for water.” This holistic view is helping Kenya manage water resources for its more than 40 million citizens.

“We not only addressed the water-related shocks, but it was really integrated with health,” she says. RAPID improved water sanitation and hygiene conditions in northern Kenya, enabling health facilities to operate by ensuring they had clean water.

Public-private partnerships have proven valuable in Kaberia’s work. She says, however, that building partnerships was difficult, because “the way the development practitioners think, and the way private sector thinks, and the way governments think is totally different.” But if “you look at companies and industries, you will realize that most of the industries also need water for their manufacturing, for cooling of machines,” so you can connect with them on the shared needs. Kenya RAPID works with Coca-Cola, IBM, and Davis & Shirtliff, among others, to improve the sustainability of their interventions as they pursue their water development goals.

This interview was originally recorded in October 2016.

December 13, 2018 01:30 PM PST

We realized “there was a need for a toolkit on water,” says Sandra Ruckstuhl in this week’s Water Stories podcast, “with a focus of conflict and conflict mitigation, but also peacebuilding.” Ruckstuhl, a consultant for the World Bank who has researched water programs in Yemen and the Middle East, helped the Wilson Center produce USAID’s Water and Conflict toolkit, which documents examples of successful development interventions focused on water and peacebuilding.

“We have lots of assumed peaceful outcomes from projects, but very little of it has been measured and documented,” says Ruckstuhl. “We would do a real service to the field if we really started documenting and measuring this kind of information so we can inform better and better practice in this area.”

Ruskstuhl and her team worked to ensure that the toolkit could be used by practitioners without professional training or formal education in conflict studies. “When we are talking about peacebuilding,” Ruckstuhl says, “we are boiling it down to collaborative governance—and that also is transferrable to different sectors.”

“When we are designing and implementing some development investment, we’re injecting ourselves into a system,” in which water management, health, food, and other public services are interconnected. Ruckstuhl calls for more incentives that would push practitioners to foster cross-sector connections, which would allow different sectors to work together more collaboratively.

Project designers must consider all the stakeholders involved, including governance institutions, which in many circumstances are dominated by men. “The constructive role women can play in the household, in these governance institutions, in the decision-making for things like water allocation…that knowledge and that capacity of women can be missed,” says Ruckstuhl. Integrating gender concerns more effectively would contribute to more equitable water management, so she proposes educating communities on the value of including women in projects focused on water and conflict.

November 30, 2018 05:41 AM PST

“Countries—even countries that don’t like each other much—have, and continue to have, conversations over water resources, even when they won’t about other issues,” says Aaron Wolf, Director of Water Conflict Management and Transformation at Oregon State University, in this week’s Water Stories podcast.

Wolf’s research shows that water stress—instead of spurring wars between countries—can actually bring them to the negotiating table. “Water creates horrible suffering, human destruction, ecosystem degradation, and very, very little political violence,” says Wolf.

Tensions can rise, however, when an upstream country wants to build infrastructure (such as a hydroelectric dam) that would impact the people downstream. “It is not that the dam itself that causes the problem; it is the dam in the absence of an agreement about how to mitigate the impacts of the dam,” says Wolf.

Many treaties do not account for greater variability in flow arising from droughts or floods—both of which will be exacerbated by climate change. In the Middle East, “there are droughts that were so bad that the Israel-Jordan water agreement had nothing in text to deal with that. Fortunately, their relationship was solid enough that they could adapt based on their personal relations,” says Wolf.

To identify these gaps, Wolf and his team developed the Basin at Risk project, which provides a quantitative, global-scale exploration of the relationship between freshwater resources and conflict, as well as indicators to measure cross border tension. “With those verified indicators, we were able to look at basins in the next three to five years. Fortunately, most of those are no longer at risk precisely because the global community did what it does best—they help with the institutions, they help build the river basin organizations, and the treaties, and so on,” says Wolf.

November 07, 2018 01:49 PM PST

“We need to mainstream young people into the decision-making process,” said Senator Nikoli Edwards, age 25, of Trinidad and Tobago at a recent Wilson Center event on engaging youth to protect their sexual and reproductive health and rights. “Where it’s not a matter of, ‘let’s bring a young person into the room as an afterthought,’ but it should be written that a young person has to be a part of the discussion or has to be contributing in a significant way.”

As a young person, “your expectations have been heightened, you have been encouraged to do all of this great work, but where are the institutions, where are the support mechanisms, where are the opportunities?” asked Edwards. The panelists unanimously agreed that high expectations for young people to serve and agitate for change have not been met with endless opportunities to engage.

Although many organizations have celebrated young peoples’ input, they still need to be more intentional about how they engage youth, said Cate Lane, Senior Technical Adviser at Pathfinder. Oftentimes, “we engage young people, we solicit their input, we ask them to tell us what they need and what they want,” she said. “We rev them up. They’re excited, and then we’re like, ‘thanks so much for your input,’ now we’re going to go implement our project.”

“When we are talking about youth participation, we should think about the diversity of young people,” said Dr. Ilya Zhukov, Global Focal Point for Comprehensive Sexuality Education at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Bringing key populations of young people, including LGBTQ+, HIV positive, and disabled youth, to name a few, together with decision-makers can ensure that health programming is informed by those it is meant to serve.

“When your opinion and your thoughts are influencing real documents that will then influence your education—that is a real thing,” said Lada Nuzhna, Youth Representative at Teenergizer!. Exchanges between young people and organizations working to promote adolescent health and rights should be a two-way street. “We need to see this not as a one-way street of us soliciting information from them, but as an opportunity for them to develop skills, networks, to gain access to things that they wouldn’t normally gain access to,” said Lane.

Adolescence is a dynamic period in life that can pose challenges to the longevity of youth project engagement. “If we engage young people, we can’t expect that they are going to be with us for the next five years because they are in school, they’re working, getting married,” said Lane. However, mechanisms such as youth advisory boards and councils could enable organizations to consult periodically with young people to ensure programs are responsive to their needs.

Experts agreed that a system to bring youth into the conversation on a regular basis is necessary to cultivate meaningful youth engagement, in addition to allocating resources—financial and human—to ensure that adolescent sexual and reproductive health programming is effective and responsive. “We should bring young people to the table and involve them not only in discussion but in the development and implementation of programs,” said Zhukov.

Governments, leaders of organizations and policymakers should continue to think about how to meaningfully engage with young people as partners. “I think it’s something we have to tackle,” said Lane. “There has to be this sense of partnership, where we meet each other in the middle.”

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