In March, the United Nations held its first meeting in almost 50 years to build support for global action to advance water security – arguably one of the most important and most under-appreciated natural resources. Amazingly, the planet has the same amount of fresh water to sustain all life as it had when Earth first formed. What’s changed? We have. The number of people drawing on that finite supply of fresh water has more than doubled to 8 billion people in the fifty years since the first conference. In addition, climate change is impacting the Earth’s water cycle. With areas of the globe facing floods and droughts, alongside a chronic lack of access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation, the world is clearly facing a growing water crisis. This Earth Day, which has as its theme “Invest in our Planet,” we must push for greater public and private funding to help build resilience and advocate that everyone everywhere has the water they need to live. Indeed, we cannot afford to ignore this crisis any longer.
Today, billions of people around the world have no access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene. In February, the World Health Organization reported cholera outbreaks in 18 countries, with 43 others at risk. And we’ve also faced challenges in the United States. For example, residents of Jackson, Mississippi have struggled to find sufficient safe water for their families after floods incapacitated the city’s fragile water system. Water insecurity contributes not only to these public health risks, but also increases food insecurity and instability; compromises women’s and girls’ safety, education, and participation in the workforce; and worsens the impacts of climate change. Poor and marginalized communities suffer disproportionately as a result. Worldwide, UNICEF has estimated that women and girls spend an estimated 200 million hours each day collecting water.
Last month, I visited Pakistan and discussed the tragic impacts of last year’s floods and the country’s recovery efforts. Thousands of people lost their lives or were injured in the floods, which submerged nearly a third of the country. The floods also damaged drinking water and sanitation systems, led to outbreaks of waterborne diseases, ruined school infrastructure, disrupted the educations of millions of children, and destroyed agricultural land, pushing millions into poverty and food insecurity. They are still suffering the effects, with many people unable to return to their homes.
The U.S. has committed to spend nearly $49 billion to help solve water issues, and to lend our considerable expertise, as well. Similarly, thanks to the White House Action Plan on Global Water Security, the U.S. Global Water Strategy, and the President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (PREPARE), we’re investing in water security around the world. These actions will work towards our vision of a water secure world while accounting for and managing the risks posed by climate change.
The United States is hardly immune to water-related natural disasters. The residents of California suffered years of unprecedented droughts, only recently relieved by rains that started to refill reservoirs, but also triggered catastrophic flooding. Under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, as well as the Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden-Harris Administration has made a once-in-a-generation investment in equitable, safe, climate-resilient water and sanitation at home.
While our local actions bring new technology and funding to solve water challenges, we know that changing the way we all think about water is key to our national and global security. It is a shared resource. We know that we cannot take water security for granted. We must take every opportunity to strengthen our international partnerships, to change course and build a water-secure future for our children and grandchildren to realize that vision.
About the Author: Monica P. Medina was confirmed as Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs on September 28, 2021.