NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: Okay, welcome to The New York Foreign Press Center. Today’s briefing is with Monica Medina, U.S. Special Envoy for Biodiversity and Water Resources and Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. She’s with us today to discuss U.S. objectives at the United Nations Water Conference. My name is Melissa Waheibi. I’ll be your moderator today. This briefing is on the record and being recorded. We’ll post a video and transcript later today on our website at fpc.state.gov. And when you’re ready to ask your question, after her opening remarks, you can do that via chat or just let us know through the virtual function raising your hand, and I will call on you to ask your questions live.
Assistant Secretary Medina will offer remarks, and that’s when the Q&A will begin. So ma’am, at this time, the floor is yours.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY MEDINA: Thank you so much, Melissa. It’s delightful to be here again. It’s always an honor to represent our country here at the United Nations. It’s been nearly 50 years since the last UN water conference, 50 years in which our scientific understanding of the Earth’s water resources has expanded and deepened dramatically, but also 50 years in which global water issues have become more pressing and profound. This week’s United Nations water conference in New York is both urgent and long overdue. Billions of people around the world still lack access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene. Some of those people actually live here in the United States. Water supplies are increasingly scarce and unpredictable. And the lack of safe water poses enormous risks to human health and well-being.
Alongside this chronic lack of access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation, communities around the world are being devastated by floods and droughts linked to the climate crisis. Here in the United States, we are seeing both floods and droughts that are devastating. For example, the last three years in California were the driest in recorded history, with a 1,200-year drought. Withering crops, endangered drinking water supplies, and intensifying wildfires is what we’ve experienced. As of last week, this drought had been followed but not entirely relieved by destructive flooding, a river – an atmospheric river – with more than half of California’s 58 counties under a state of emergency due to water.
And of course, similar natural disasters are taking place around the world. Just last week, I was in Pakistan where I was able to hear about firsthand the tragic impacts of last year’s floods, which submerged nearly a third of the country. And I know we all still have the pictures, the horrible pictures, in our minds.
And so this year’s UN Water Conference is taking place at a critical moment. And I’m glad to have the opportunity to be here to focus on the use, the value, and how to protect freshwater. The work before us is enormous. And of course it ties to our work on the global biodiversity framework to preserve or protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030, including 30 percent of its freshwater resources.
Yesterday, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield announced U.S. commitments of more than 49 billion to ensure that climate-resilient water and sanitation remain a proper priority here at home and around the world. These announcements build upon President Biden’s once-in-a-generation commitment to eliminating lead pipes and delivering clean drinking water to all Americans through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and in the White House Action Plan on Global Water Security.
Tomorrow, I have the good fortune to co-chair an interactive dialogue at the conference with Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s senior minister and coordinating minister for social policies, focused on progress made under the UN’s Water Action Decade, and how we can accelerate the work of building a water-secure future, beyond this conference take action for the months and years to come.
The international community together must put water at the forefront of the agenda. It is the connector of all the sustainable development goals and the vector by which we feel and see the impacts of climate change most directly. That’s why I’m joining the call for the UN to appoint a special envoy for water this year at this conference this week, now. We need another strong voice to champion water issues across sectors and platforms.
I sincerely hope that we do not need to wait another 50 years for the next UN Water Conference, and I’m very excited to see the energy and the interest in this subject today, now. There’s so much activity across the street. It’s such a very good time for us to be looking at these issues that connect to so many of the other things that we’re working on, not just climate change but plastic pollution, ocean conservation, and of course the biodiversity crisis.
So I’m very excited to be here on behalf of the United States, and I’m very excited to say that the United States intends to ensure that we are at the forefront of fighting these issues today and in the future. Thank you so much.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY MEDINA: Happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Yes, thank you. So this is the time for Q&A. If you have a question in the room, please raise your hand and I will call on you. If you’re online, again, you can raise your digital hand, we’ll call on you then, you can then open up your camera and your microphone, ask your question, or I can – you can pose it in the chat and I’ll ask it for you. We did receive some pre-submitted questions which I will ask as well. So we’ll see who has Q&A.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY MEDINA: Thanks to all of you for being here today. It’s great to have coverage of this very important issue.
MODERATOR: Let’s start with a pre-submitted question, ma’am. We received a question from Senegal from Mr. Malick Kane from African Magazine: “Is the U.S.A. ready to help protect, safeguard Gorée Island in Senegal, which is going to disappear in less than 50 years because of climate change and maritime erosion?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY MEDINA: Thank you so much for that question. We know that climate change is causing lots of impacts. Sea level rise is devastating many places around the world, and the U.S. has a program that we are using to look at these issues and try and help places like the one in Senegal. We – it’s called PREPARE. It’s really well-named for what it does. It does aim to help countries adapt and become more resilient to climate change. And we do think island nations are particularly challenged and islands themselves are particularly challenged in a climate-stressed world with sea level rising.
We also had a very exciting Africa Leaders Summit last December in Washington where we announced other initiatives to help African countries deal with climate change. So we are very interested in doing everything that we can to help, and our PREPARE challenge is to try to help 500 million people by the end of the decade deal with climate change around the world. So we have set an ambitious goal for ourselves.
MODERATOR: We’re going to pivot to a question that came into the chat that’s still regarding Africa. The question is from The Nation, Nigeria. The question is: “How serious is the water challenge in Nigeria?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY MEDINA: Oh goodness, the water challenge is very serious in lots of places around the world, and it’s hard for me to judge how serious it is in one place versus another. What I can tell you is we in the United States are seeing it ourselves, so we know how challenging it is firsthand. And we know that’s why this conference is being held now, because we are seeing these devastating impacts either of lack of water or too much water or both in the same place at the same time. And our California stress is an example of that, but we know we’re not alone. It was the same in Pakistan and in so many other parts of the world.
So the time is now to start to bring resources and focus to these challenges. We have UN bodies and agreements that deal with drought and that deal with wetlands and – but we need to bring them together and have them work more closely together, which is one reason why we support the UN special envoy on water.
MODERATOR: Along the same lines about water, we received a question which is similar – it’s very region-specific, but I’ll ask it on behalf of the journalists, but your previous comments also apply. “The Caspian Sea in Eurasia and Lake Urmia” – sorry, this is from Free Eurasia. “The Caspian Sea in Eurasia and Lake Urmia in Iran are shrinking rapidly. This is a disaster for the region. What is the U.S. Government plans to support environmental disasters in those regions?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY MEDINA: Again, we’ve seen this kind of devastation in our own country. We have something called the Great Salt – Salton Sea in the southern part of California, which is a lake that used to exist and is shrinking, so we know how devastating that is for local communities and populations.
Again, our big program on this is called PREPARE and it is an effort to help not only adapt and respond to these issues, but also to help forecast them so that places that are climate-stressed can get ahead of these problems. If we work to predict some of the worst and most devastating impacts and help countries prepare for them, it’s much better than trying to deal with the effects after they – after the devastation.
So again, we’re looking to try to get ahead of these climate stressors now, and we appreciate how challenging they are.
MODERATOR: A pre-submitted question from Egypt: “Egypt is one of the countries most affected by climate change and one of the driest countries of the world. With a significant population increase and the start of the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam at the headwaters of the Nile River, Egypt is expected to face major problems in the water supply. The first question is: Is GERD on the agenda for the UN Water Conference? And the second question is: How can the United States help Egypt overcome long-term water shortage problems?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY MEDINA: Thank you for that question. I know that Egypt has led one of the strategic dialogues here at the conference, and it is important to look and to hear from countries that are experiencing these challenges firsthand.
As for our U.S. activities around the dam in Egypt – or the dam and the impacts on Egypt, we are working with all three governments involved. We have a special envoy who’s dedicated to helping all countries in the region solve this challenge, this problem, and we hope that they’ll find a solution and can work through it together.
MODERATOR: A question came in from German National Radio: “What kind of self-commitments the U.S. Government pretends to agree at the UN Water Conference?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY MEDINA: I think a lot of governments have come here – and thank you for the question. I think a lot of governments have come here to talk about what they are doing domestically, and that’s really important because we can very much learn from each other.
One of the things that would be worse than the devastating impacts of too much or too little water is spending the precious resources that the government has on things that aren’t going to work. So one of the most important parts about this conference and one of the things that the U.S. Government really hopes to be able to do is to lend our expertise to other countries, so that when we come in with additional financial assistance it’s spent in ways that are effective and that make the most of the dollars that we have to help other countries with their challenges, and that we learn from that experience so that we can improve everyone’s ability and we can share that knowledge at conferences like this one so that we can all do a better job of preparing for and adapting to climate change.
MODERATOR: That’s great. Is there any other questions, primarily online? Or in the room? Well, very good. Well, this concludes our briefing today. Thank you, everybody, for participating.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY MEDINA: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Ma’am, thank you for your time.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY MEDINA: No, my pleasure.
MODERATOR: And for those participating online, just know that our transcript and video will be available at fcp.state.gov when it’s concluded. At this point, that’s the end. Thank you so much for joining us.