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.
Many of us have happy childhood memories of our school playgrounds -- if you think back you can picture the scene: groups of friends, carefree games in the sun, perhaps a pause to grab a drink of water. All innocence and fun.
But for me, what should have been an innocent playtime turned into something much more serious. When I was nine, growing up in my native Bolivia, I paused one day from a particularly active game during recess to quench my thirst at the school tap. What I didn't know was that the water was contaminated.
The price I paid for that innocent drink of water was a serious bout of hepatitis and three months of missed school. Unfortunately, this type of story is all too common in the developing world. While I was lucky to have access to good medical care and I recovered, around the world 4,500 children die each day from water related diseases. This is something we must change.
One of the reasons I became inspired to work on water issues is because of the impact small changes can have. Just as a pebble thrown in a pond creates huge ripples, so too can small modifications in infrastructure and behavior have a tremendous impact. Providing school children access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene has a much wider effect -- children remain healthy and stay in school, more of the population is educated, communities thrive and local economies improve. This illustrates just one aspect of why water issues are so critical.
Indeed, water represents one of the great diplomatic and development opportunities and challenges of our time. At the State Department, Secretary Clinton has made water issues a top priority, and has asked USAID Administrator Shah and me to lead our efforts on “five streams of action” to approach international water issues.
First, we are helping to build capacity at the local, national, and regional levels. We encourage local and country-led water and sanitation plans. Second, we are elevating and better coordinating our diplomatic efforts. Currently, more than 24 UN agencies, development banks such as the World Bank, and financial institutions are engaged on water issues. Third, we are helping to mobilize financial support. Small investments have had large impacts on water security. In Ecuador, USAID supported the establishment of a trust fund, which now has grown to $6 million, for the future protection of Quito's watershed. Fourth, science and technology are major pieces of our strategy. For instance, research has created new methods for disinfecting and storing drinking water, waste water treatment, desalinization, predicting floods and droughts, and improving the productivity of water for food and economic growth. Fifth, we are broadening the scope of our partnerships. Just as we are reaching across the U.S. government, we also need to incorporate relationships with NGOs and nonprofits, who are vital implementers and advocates, as well as the private sector, which contributes great technical expertise and capital to face water challenges.
I am proud to be part of Blog Action Day organized by Change.org to highlight the issue of water. In the year ahead, I will be writing monthly pieces to share stories of my work on water issues.
This is just a start though -- we need to build on the ripples created by our blogs so that we can achieve a world in which no wars are fought over water, no children die from water-related diseases, and clean water is no longer a luxury but standard.