Our Impact: Law Helps Raise Priority of Clean Water, Sanitation Access

This is the fifth installment in a 12-part series highlighting the environmental policy impacts of the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability over its first decade. 

Turning on a faucet for a fresh, clean glass of water is something many in the United States wouldn’t think about twice. But for one in three people on the planet, access to a glass of water can be a full day’s work. What’s more, there is no guarantee that glass of water will be safe to drink.

Providing foreign assistance to lift billions out of this type of extreme poverty—the lack of access to basic sanitation and clean water—became a priority for United States development aid only 10 years ago.

It was the convening power of two institutes—one newly formed at Duke University and the other well established—that helped to spur this emerging emphasis with the seminal report, A Silent Tsunami.

“The report contained what some might consider fairly basic recommendations now,” said Gordon Binder, a senior fellow at the World Wildlife Fund and the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability and a co-author of the report. “At the time, however, water access and sanitation issues weren’t on the map. Though people, especially young children, were dying from diseases attributable to poor water, the connection in policy and development circles hadn’t been made; the interventions were all about treating the diseases. A Silent Tsunami served as a testament to the fact that water, sanitation, and hygiene are fundamental, a key to so much else. The report recognized that improving access was the first step in helping to prevent child deaths, keep girls in school, reduce household poverty, and advance economic opportunity.”

The report’s 10 recommendations—which emerged from a 2005 forum convened by Duke’s Nicholas Institute and the Aspen Institute—were frank:

“Clean water and sanitation must become a higher priority because they are fundamental to human health and reducing poverty.”

“For reasons of health, the economy, and environmental sustainability, governments must invest more in water infrastructure.”

These recommendations provided a material contribution to legislation aimed at dramatically improving access to clean water and sanitation around the world. The Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act was signed into law in late December 2005, making safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) a U.S. development policy priority. It introducedfor the first time in U.S. lawone of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, requiring that the United States do its part to reduce, by half, the proportion of the population living without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

The act set various benchmarks for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department to create and implement a strategy to provide affordable and equitable access to safe water and sanitation in developing countries. It also provided the framework for specific annual appropriations by Congress for WASH, such as a yearly report describing changes in U.S. strategy and charting progress in achieving the above objectives.

“I think the report illuminated the landscape of the global extent and urgency of the problem,” said David Douglas, head of the nonprofit Water Lines and former head of Water Advocates. “It suggested ways to respond to the problem very clearly and it has shown with time that many of suggestions posed have been in fact adopted.”

In the years since, the act has affected the lives of many through improved taps and toilets and other bi-lateral government efforts to meet water and sanitation needs. It has also spurred greater activity by U.S. companies, nonprofits, and universities intent on addressing the challenge.

Work on water by the Nicholas Institute and Aspen didn’t stop with A Silent Tsunami. In 2011, both organizations hosted a day-long forum to take stock of progress on WASH—a review documented in A Silent Tsunami Revisited.

The initial WASH forums gave way to the Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum, which focuses on water concerns in the United States. Held annually in May in Aspen, Colorado, this forum is guided by the understanding that water crises are not merely the result of climate change, population growth, financial constraints and new contaminants—they reflect the combined realities of undervalued water and the lack of policies to preserve underfinanced and degraded water systems.

The 2014 forum and its resulting report, Innovating for a Sustainable and Resilient Water Future, examines the challenges to increasing water sustainability and touches on priorities for a synergetic approach to novel solutions. This year’s forum will focus on water and big data, exploring how the emergence of large amounts of dispersed data in the water sector can best be utilized to improve the management and delivery of water for a more sustainable future.

“Water supplies around the world are severely stressed. Continued population and economic growth pressures, as well as climate change, will only worsen the problem,” said Martin Doyle, director of the Nicholas Institutes' Water Policy Program. “These Aspen-Nicholas Institute Water Forums, much like the WASH forums before them, are intended to drill down to get at what can be done to alleviate the challenges to achieving sustainable water with a mix of the best and most knowledgeable sector experts. Through these new forums, and the research that comes out of them, we hope to help provide a good assessment of risks and rewards going forward for policy makers and stakeholders.”


--Story by Erin McKenzie