Strengthening National Security through Global Water Security
By Kelly Parsons (Guatemala 1993-96)
How would your day go without drinking water? How safe would you feel if you knew every day meant having to find water and coping with no toilet?
A country’s ability to effectively provide and manage water and sanitation services profoundly shapes its communities, socio-economic and political stability and national security. However, as shared water resources between countries and communities become scarce, competition for water increases, raising tensions and the likelihood of conflict while contributing to poverty, infectious disease outbreaks and malnutrition. And there is growing evidence suggesting that climate change is playing an ever-increasing role in the global resurgence and spread of cholera and other waterborne diseases.
In June, the White House announced the Action Plan on Global Water Security. For the first time, this plan directly links access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) around the world to U.S. national security. It also harnesses the resources of the U.S. government to advance gender equity, food security, and economic growth through global water security and safe sanitation. In addition, the recently updated U.S. Global Water Strategy 2022-2027, co-led by the Department of State and USAID, coordinates U.S. efforts across 14 agencies and ambitiously seeks to operationalize the Action Plan and works towards a water secure world.
While this news is encouraging, it’s only the beginning. In the face of unprecedented global health and climate threats, the U.S. government must increase its leadership role in the next five years to protect global water security and, as a result, national security.
We know that 2 billion people still lack safely managed drinking water in their homes. And the percentage of those living in severely water-scarce areas is predicted to more than double by 2050 to nearly half the global population. What’s more, 47 percent of health care facilities in the least developed countries lack clean water on site, 79 percent lack basic sanitation services and 68 percent lack basic hygiene services according to WHO/UNICEF. Global pandemics, like the continued spread of COVID-19 and new outbreaks of cholera and Ebola, are exacerbated by inadequate sanitation and a lack of soap and basic handwashing access in developing countries. This especially endangers frontline health and sanitation workers, mothers and newborns, and makes it difficult to control outbreaks at their source.
We also know that climate impacts are among the most substantial threats to water security in our nation and abroad. Worldwide, people feel the impact of a changing climate largely through water—there’s either too much or not enough. Ground and surface water levels are depleted, and seasonal rainfall patterns have changed, forcing people to live and work in extreme conditions. Without access to clean water, it’s impossible to stay healthy, have enough food to eat or time for work and school.
These challenges require stronger systems for WASH, putting in place the governance and financial structures that lead to sustainable and reliable services. The Strategy lays out how USAID will strengthen its work with local and national governments, the private sector and civil society, and create programming that is accessible for all genders, disabilities and ages, relevant for people in different socio-economic settings and integrated into health care facilities, schools and workplaces.
At WaterAid, we know that water is life, but WASH is our future. More than just laying pipes and installing toilets and sinks, WASH is crucial to health, livelihoods and security. The US Global Water Strategy, together with the Action Plan, are critical components of U.S. development and diplomatic policy. They lay the foundation to build the social, financial, and technical capacity and accountability mechanisms for WASH services globally. The U.S. must use this opportunity help close the inequality gap in health, education, prosperity and gender, and build healthier and more productive communities.
Kelly Parsons is the CEO of WaterAid America. She started her career as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Guatemala. Before joining WaterAid, Parsons led the Corporate Partnerships and Philanthropy team at Population Services International (PSI).