About the Author: Maria Otero serves as Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs. Under Secretary Otero has worked for the last year responding to the Secretary's call to elevate water issues in the U.S. foreign policy agenda and on the global stage.
Water is everywhere -- covering almost three-quarters of the earth's surface -- yet nearly one billion people in the world do not have safe water. Today, I had the opportunity to open a meeting on water issues co-organized by UNICEF, the United States, Tajikistan, and others at the Millennium Development Goals Summit. It was energizing to engage with such a dynamic group of leaders from the UN, government, NGOs, and civil society who were part of this event -- leaders like UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon, USAID Administrator Raj Shah, and UNICEF's Executive Director Anthony Lake, to name just a few.
Through my travels across the world, from the Arctic Circle to the hills of Pakistan and the headwaters of the Nile, I have seen how water issues affect every part of society. From the woman who spends five hours a day walking to fetch water for dinner to the entire city that runs on hydropower, water can be a challenge but also a blessing, when harnessed effectively.
Bringing together a high-level group of leaders to focus attention on these critical issues is an important step, but we must do more. Over the coming months the Department of State and USAID will be looking closely at how we are working on water and sanitation with the goal of identifying concrete steps we can take to both focus and strengthen our efforts.
Last year, the United States invested about $774 million for all water sector and sanitation-related activities in developing countries, and as a result, some 5.7 million people received improved access to safe drinking water and 1.3 million received improved access to sanitation. We want to continue to build on these efforts and those of our partner countries, because quite simply, this is an issue we cannot afford to ignore.
Water scarcity, lack of access to clean drinking water, and inadequate sanitation increase disease, undermine economic growth, limit food production, and threaten peace and security. By investing in improved water and sanitation, maternal and child health significantly improves, children are better able to attend school, and women have greater economic opportunity.
We must make water and sanitation a global priority and work to ensure that disagreements over water do not escalate to violent conflicts. We must also ensure that these water and sanitation challenges do not undermine development. A key part of this is achieving water security.
Simply put, this means ensuring people have the water they need, where they need it, when they need it; while at the same time mitigating the impacts of water-related disasters to both people and infrastructure. I will continue to make this a top priority in my work in the months ahead.