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U.S. Government Global Water Strategy 2017: A welcome case of ‘America first’

18 January, 2018
Sabine Blumstein and Benjamin Pohl, adelphi

2017-07-10 Water week side event.jpg

Water Scarcity at IDP Camps in North Darfur | Photo credits: Albert González Farran - United Nations Photos/Flickr.com [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

In November 2017, the U.S. government released its first ever Global Water Strategy – to our knowledge also the first of its kind globally. The opening page cites President Trump claiming that ‘[w]ater may be the most important issue we face for the next generation’. This priority may surprise observers of the current U.S. administration.

Yet it should be added that the Strategy harks back to a requirement of the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2014, a re-legislation intended to strengthen the implementation of the 2005 Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act.

The relevance of global water security

Global access to WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, is critical for global welfare. The Global Water Strategy recognizes this by underlining that “safe water and sanitation are fundamental to solving challenges to human health, economic development, and peace and security”. Unfortunately, the Strategy makes no mention of the SDGs (or other international policy processes), most likely for domestic political reasons. Yet it indirectly strengthens the case for U.S. investment into pursuing such processes by demonstrating the relevance of global water security for U.S. national security. The Global Water Strategy thus implicitly links SDG 6 with even a narrow interpretation of U.S. self-interest. It thereby echoes repeated warnings from the U.S. security community, which emphasized that global water crises are likely to have security implications for the U.S. – a topic whose worldwide resonance was recently explored by the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace in its report A Matter of Survival.    

The Global Water Strategy in detail

In detail, the Strategy outlines four interrelated objectives which “should be viewed as complementary pillars that together contribute to improving water security at the national and regional level.”

  1. Promote sustainable access to safe drinking water services, and the adoption of key hygiene behaviours;
  2. Encourage the sound management and protection of freshwater resources;
  3. Reduce conflict by promoting cooperation on shared waters;
  4. Strengthen water sector governance, financing, and institutions.

These objectives are accompanied by a short section on the U.S. government’s strategic approach which describes tools and approaches for achieving the four Strategy objectives. These include:

  • provision of technical assistance;
  • investments in sustainable infrastructure and services;
  • promotion of science, technology, innovation and information;
  • mobilization of local and international (private) financial resources;
  • diplomatic engagement to raise priority of water issues and encourage cooperation; and
  • strengthening partnerships. 

Subsequently, the Strategy identifies 13 high priority countries and regions based on the Water for the World Act of 2014. These include, amongst others, Afghanistan, Haiti, the West Bank/Gaza, Jordan as well as a number of African countries. These countries were reportedly selected based on their level of need, willingness and capability to work with U.S. partners, opportunities to leverage U.S. support with the private sector and other donor partners and the likelihood that aid will improve health, education and economic opportunities available to women and girls.

The document finally summarizes the contributions of 16 different U.S. government agencies and departments (see also the graphic below). The Department of State, for instance, is expected to “provide a platform […] for coordinating interagency efforts on water, sanitation, and hygiene issues internationally, and ensure that U.S. departments and agencies have timely and authoritative information on emerging trends and threats.” NASA will continue to provide satellite data to track environmental change, engage in remote sensing monitoring of inland water bodies and support capacity development activities. The most detailed contribution is outlined for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which also developed its own agency-specific strategy.

Unfortunately, the Strategy misses the chance to outline potential synergies (as well as possible trade-offs) between these different agencies’ contributions towards reaching global water resources security.

Source: Global Water Strategy, p. 12

Assessing the Global Water Strategy

The Global Water Strategy makes a strong and coherent case for the importance of global water security, usefully pushing the boundaries of the rather WASH-focused Water for the World Act to elevate questions of governance and transboundary cooperation. Building taps and sanitation facilities is certainly important, but it is a task that many actors can undertake. Far fewer actors are able to tackle the underlying, deeply political and societal questions of improving water governance to ensure that water supply and wastewater disposal activities are also managed in the long-term. It is at that strategic level that the U.S. government will often be able to add most value. In this respect, the Strategy’s attempt to align the activities of around 20 different federal agencies under one joint, strategic approach is particularly useful, and arguably worthy of emulation elsewhere.                                         

Whether the U.S. government will collectively be able to live up to the aspiration of strategic vision and coherence is, of course, a different question. On the plus side, the Strategy contains numerous agency implementation plans (even though these were not required by the Water for the World Act) and has a coordination mechanism in place through the Interagency Water Working Group. This level of cooperation is not only progress for the U.S. government, but also a benchmark that most other governments have not yet achieved.

Yet there are aspects of the Strategy that undermine the strategic vision it sets out.  As several experts noted in a set of comments on the New Security Beat, the Strategy studiously avoids references to climate change, a key driver of water challenges in many regions, and it lacks information on the methods for prioritization and funding. Although the Strategy’s Annex B mentions a number of criteria for priority country selection, there is no transparency as to why certain countries are included (e.g. why Indonesia but not Pakistan?). And whereas there might be good reasons for these choices (as well as for not disclosing them), a presumption of strategic decision-making is hard to square with the degree of aid volatility that the country plans betray.

While water security requires consistent and long-term engagement, the President’s funding requests differ markedly from previous allocations. Not only has overall funding declined, despite the President’s rhetorical acknowledgement of water’s significance, its cross-country distribution is also changing in less than intuitive ways. For example, whereas Indonesia’s allocation is slated to rise modestly from 6.1 to 7 million USD from financial years 2017 to 2018, Afghanistan’s is slashed from 10 to 5.7 million, Ethiopia’s from 15.3 to 6.3 million and Liberia’s from 12.9 to 2.5 million. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that politics, e.g. a lack of interest in Africa, may have trumped sound policy. Such politics are all the more questionable because greater water security in host countries is an important lever for better managing migration.  

Presidential politics aside, the country plans remain very much focused on WASH activities and rarely reflect the holistic and strategic approach embraced in the Strategy’s introductory vision. In all likelihood this reflects a path dependency of USAID’s earlier engagement. There are very good reasons for focusing on WASH activities (they are very important for beneficiaries), but there are also not so good ones: while easy to define, measure and justify and hence good for evaluations and domestic political consumption, they may not make the most of the U.S. government’s potential to influence recipient countries for more long-term changes in the water sector.  

Conclusion

Yet, all these criticisms aside, the Global Water Strategy is a commendable achievement. At the very least, it sets out a sensible, coherent and shared vision for the entire U.S government. This is all the more important in the current context of a partly dysfunctional administration because a presidentially endorsed strategy empowers individual officials to request resources and support for a globally important challenge. Moreover, the existence of an Interagency Working Group at the very least facilitates systematic information exchange and may, in time and under the right circumstances, also enable a strategic, all-of-government approach to implementation.

The elaboration of a U.S. Government Global Water Strategy thus raises the question of whether a similar document and approach would be sensible for other countries particularly active in the issue area, not least the German government. Berlin has arguably already laid the groundwork through last year’s publication of a global water strategy of sorts, though one underwritten only by a single ministry. That strategy’s focus on the development community could usefully be complemented by a strategy backed by the entire cabinet and the establishment of cross-ministerial coordination mechanisms.

To its credit, America has done it first, but Washington’s current political leadership ensures that it should be possible to do it better. As negotiations over government formation in Germany grind on, perhaps this is an aspiration that potential government partners can share?

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Topic
Development
Security
Technology & Innovation
Water

Region
North America

Topics

Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Cities

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Co-Benefits

Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Development

Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Energy

The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Finance

Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.

Forests

Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender

Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Security

Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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