HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Monday, August 8, 2011

American Interests and Global Water Resources

Addressing water quality and quantity issues throughout the world is critical to achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. According to the U.N.World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) fact page, the availability of accessible, adequate supplies of clean water play a key role in achieving all eight goals. Some of the links between water and the goals are obvious: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, improving health, reducing mortality, fighting disease, and achieving environmental sustainability, which are a large proportion of the goals, require the availability of water for sanitation, growing crops, and maintaining ecosystems. But even achieving universal primary education and promoting gender equality, goals 2 and 3, rely on water availability: WWAP indicates that children, often girls, are frequently prevented from attending school because they are in charge of collecting domestic water at home, plus there is often a lack of separate toilet facilities at schools.

The United States has a critical role to play in improving international water resource management. A recent presentation to the Universities Council on Water Resources (UCOWR) and National Institutes for Water Resources (NIWR) by the Director of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Institute for Water Resources, Robert Pietrowsky, available here, describes how the U.S. is accepting this role. Mr. Pietrowsky made a compelling case for the importance of improving water management, pointing out that:

  • About one out of six, ~ 1 billion people, lack access to safe water;
  • 80% of diseases are carried by water;
  • Over 90% of deaths from diarrheal diseases in developing world are children under 5 yrs old;
  • A child dies every 20 seconds from waterborne disease;
  • 3-5 million people dying annually from this, with $125 billion in workday losses/yr;
  • Millions of women and children spend several hours per day collecting water from distant, often polluted sources;
  • In just one day, more than 200 million hours of women’s time is consumed collecting water for domestic use;
  • 443 million school days are lost each year due to water-related illness.

One of the most encouraging revelations in the presentation is that the U.S. Government is committed to increasing its role in improving world water resources. Much of this is due to the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act signed into law in 2005, which makes access to safe water and sanitation for developing countries a specific policy objective of U.S. foreign assistance programs. And, following commitments made in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech on World Water Day 2011, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is preparing a new water strategy based upon

  • Strengthening institutional and human capacity;
  • Mobilizing financial support;
  • Advancing science and technology & sharing U.S. expertise;
  • Building partnerships that deliver meaningful results on the ground; and
  • Identifying priority countries and key approaches for achieving U.S. government objectives.

Finally, Mr. Pietrowsky also pointed that the U.S. National Military Strategy offers more justification to address world water needs, since it identified water scarcity as an increasing threat to governance, and water shortage, floods, and natural disasters caused by climate change are also causes of destabilized governments and thus threats to national security. These all justify U.S. involvement in promoting and supporting effective integrated water resource management in other countries. To respond to that need, The IWR has set up an International Center for Integrated Water Resource Management, a consortium operating under the auspices of UNESCO, to address water security and other water-related challenges by regional and global action.

Teaching international environmental law is often depressing when it comes time to cover the role that the US plays in international environmental agreements, since we have refused to become parties to so many of them. For example, the Senate has not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Kyoto Protocol to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change or the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Congress has not even passed a climate change bill that would begin to fulfill some of the commitments it made under the UNFCCC, to which the U.S. is a party. However, many U.S. agencies are quietly playing their role in helping to address global environmental problems, and it is good news that the Army Corps of Engineers is taking a lead role in helping improve global water resources.


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