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From the Field: Clean water and sanitation can save lives: the launch of U.S. Water Partnership at Rio+20. Kate Wilkins

By Kate Wilkins

Rio de Janeiro, June 20, 2012-

My drink of choice? I love a tall glass of tap water, often straight up, and occasionally on the rocks. People in the developed world (including myself) do not think twice about how easily they can access drinking water. However, for 780 MILLION people around the world (mostly in developing countries), drinking water is a scarce resource that often is an intense challenge to collect or even find. In light of this staggering injustice, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton created the U.S. Water Partnership in March 2012. The partnership states that their mission entails uniting the private and public sectors to “address global water challenges, with a special focus on developing countries.” The U.S. Water Partnership had the perfect setting for a global launch, the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

I had the privilege of attending this year’s Rio+20 UN conference, hosted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (a.k.a. Rio+20, since the first sustainability conference was held in Rio de Janeiro 20 years ago). I attended the conference as part of a group called the Global Women Scholars Network, which promotes the involvement of women in developing countries in science related to sustainability. In addition to meeting people and exchanging ideas for the Global Women Scholars Network at the conference, I was also invited to participate as a “student ambassador” for the official launch event of U.S. Water Partnership.

The official launch took place at the U.S. pavilion. The U.S. “home base” was nestled amongst pavilions from other countries in what I would describe as an international village. The U.S. launch event attracted a wide variety of people, from UN delegates to random passersby. Although this was a high-profile event for the U.S., the presentations were somewhat informal. The panelists, many of whom represented organizations that recently joined the partnership, delivered brief speeches so as to allow for an open discussion with the audience. The excitement in the room was palpable as the panelists and delegates for the U.S. Water Partnership collectively pledged over half a billion dollars to solve the challenges of providing access to drinking water and sanitation.

This was clearly one of the highlights for the U.S.’s participation in Rio+20; but, what is the issue with water and why is it so important in sustainable development? Many organizations, from the United Nations (UN) to the World Health Organization (WHO), believe that addressing global water challenges can save millions of lives, feed the hungry, and improve gender equity.  According to United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and WHO’s 2012 progress report, 2.5 billion live without sanitation facilities, such as plumbing for human waste disposal and clean water for agriculture. Another 925 million people around the globe are undernourished, often due to drought and lack of agricultural infrastructure (Food and Agriculture Organization). As for gender discrepancies, women comprise 43% of the agricultural workforce in developing countries, but lack of access to water can hinder their production abilities (UN Women fact sheet).

The U.S. Water Partnership plans to provide synthesized information on various projects through the web by 2013. I look forward to seeing how the partnership can begin providing sustainable drinking water sources to the 780 million people who struggle daily to access clean water. This partnership highlights the United States’ commitment to improving access to fresh water, sanitation, and solving the myriad of issues associated with water challenges around the world.

Titles for the panelists from the group picture at the USWP:

1 President of the World Resources Institute

2 Senior Advisor to TPG Global Private Investment firm

3 Director for Climate change at Skoll Global Threats Fund

4 Vice President for Investment Policy at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation

5 Senior Vice President for International Programs at World Vision

6 Chief External Affairs Officer

7 Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer for Coca-Cola

8 Director of the SERVIR program at NASA

9 Philadelphia Water Commissioner

10 Associate Director for International Development at the Rockefeller Foundation 

11 Deputy Administrator for USAID

12 General Counsel for the Environmental Protection Agency

13 Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, Environmental & Scientific Affairs

14 Endowed  Wirth Chair for Sustainability, University of Colorado & Global Women Scholars Network