March 22, 2011

A Message on World Water Day 2011

Today marks the eighteenth annual World Water Day, an annual
UN-sponsored day to recognize the importance of water management and the role
that it plays in civil society – and as we have emphasized, foreign policy. The
focus this year is on water and urbanization, and festivities have kicked off in Cape
Town, South Africa
to recognize the importance of access to freshwater in
urban communities, especially as urbanization rates increase worldwide.

UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of
UN-HABITAT Dr. Joan Clos recently wrote that “The urban water challenge must be recognised for what it really is – a
crisis of governance, weak policies and poor management, rather than a scarcity
. We need to shore up water security against the added problems of
pollution, and climate change. We need innovative ideas and good practices to
implement.” Often, many urban societies in developing states lack the capacity
or financial capability to make investments in sustainable infrastructure or exercise good water management programs. As
Clos wrote, “Investments in infrastructure and planning have not kept up with
the rate of urbanisation…Africa
for example invests only 4% of its GDP in infrastructure compared to 14% in

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others have
acknowledged that water scarcity is just as much an opportunity as a challenge.
Indeed, in many of these places plagued
by water challenges, the United States has an opportunity to engage on these issues
and assist with investments in and development of water infrastructure and management
programs, both in an effort to develop the capacity of our partners to meet
their own sustainability needs and to provide for long-term U.S. national
security by helping lay the foundation for stability in these states. “In
the United States,” Secretary Clinton said last March on World Water Day, “water
represents one of the great diplomatic and development opportunities of our

It is clear that water – like many natural resource issues –
continues to play an increasing role in national policy and has garnered
greater attention from senior policymakers. In February, Director of National
Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress that, “The growing
pressure generated by growing populations, urbanization, economic development,
and climate change on shared
water resources may increase competition and exacerbate existing tensions over
these resources
.” And as I wrote about in a
post earlier this month
, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on
water challenges noted that, “For
the first time, the United States has elevated water-related issues in its
bilateral relationships with priority countries
, such as Afghanistan and

So as you mark World Water Day, remember that water is not
just an environmental challenge reserved for a handful of water specialists. It
is very much an issue that penetrates the broad sweeps of national policy, with
implications for civil society and foreign policy.