July 2006, Vol. 18, No.7

Why It Matters

Missing the Moment

Perceptive readers can see it coming. Water is becoming headline news. Recently, USA Today ran a front-page story about how the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board is grappling with post-Katrina debt. The mainstream press is starting to pay more attention to water and the complex issues associated with it.

Sometimes, as in the U.S. Southwest, the stories are about drought. In the Northwest or Gulf Coast, the stories are about floods. Nationwide, there are stories about places such as Somalia, where in the last year more than 250 lives have been lost in a single village because of conflict over scarce watering holes. And then there are stories about climate change, global warming, melting ice caps, and rising sea levels, which ultimately are about water and our relationship to it.

The United Nations and its agencies have long studied and debated water issues to no great effect. We are reminded by Sunita Narain, the 2005 Stockholm Water Laureate, that almost all of the 70,000 Indian villages that were found to be water-stressed in 1972 are still on the list 30 years later, despite millions of dollars and thousands of individual efforts. Similarly, the U.N. Millennium Goals for water and sanitation, which only called for halving the number of people in the world that lack safe water and adequate sanitation services by 2015 (rather than eliminating the need altogether) will not be met. In many parts of the world, we will not even come close.

The World Water Forum recently held in Mexico City mirrored the collective weaknesses of the global water community. It failed not for the absence of good intentions, but for our continued helplessness to improve water quality despite our best intentions and all of our rhetoric. Six thousand people still die every day from waterborne diseases. The death rate has not changed in decades.

The United States hardly casts a shadow in addressing the globe’s water problems, despite the recently enacted Water for the Poor Act. Even at $200 million, the funding is a proverbial drop in the bucket when viewed in context of the need. It is, nevertheless, an encouraging start, and one for which Congress should be duly proud.

Make no mistake: It is not just our national government that lacks a clear sense of its responsibilities for water issues; it is the not-for-profit world as well. We too have been unable to articulate a clear vision for a water future here in the United States, let alone anywhere else.

We lack a vision in part because we lack focus. We are divided between public and private; divided by parochial considerations of turf, prestige, and ownership; and divided because there is too much leadership at the same time there is not enough. This country, as dependent as we are on the careful management of our environment and its natural resources, lacks a clear and consistent voice on behalf of sound water management. That is embarrassing.

Think about it. The United States does not even have a national water policy. Arguably, the European Union does, Singapore does, but the United States does not. It does not for two reasons. First, because water is not a national priority yet (perhaps because we have too much of it and have been too successful in managing it over our history). And second, because the nongovernmental organizations that might otherwise be expected to best encourage and lead a national discussion focused on a national water policy are themselves divided into small, quarrelsome groups.

The number of organizations in the water and sanitation field grows each year while the two largest, the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) and the American Water Works Association (AWWA, Denver), grow more alike. One is gravitating toward drinking water and the other toward wastewater, both striving to justify their continuing independent existence on the basis of their differences — which are disappearing. This evolution of the two organizations into one another’s historic “turf” is as natural as it is predictable.

As the science of water has changed, as we have come to better understand the complexity of what used to be thought of as a simple water cycle, as we have come to learn how watersheds work and how one hydrologic element depends on another, both AWWA and WEF reasonably have included those elements in their considerations of their primary areas of interest, one in water and the other in wastewater. The result has been a more holistic view of water by each organization, but at the growing expense of a single credible voice either in the United States, or globally on behalf of the U.S. water community.

We are reaching a critical juncture. There is a need for not only domestic leadership, but global leadership. There is a growing need for enhanced levels of public health and environmental protection at home and abroad. The U.S. water community and its associations have served our citizens and customers well and have led the world in public health and environmental protection, but now more leadership still is required. It would be both tragic and ironic if we missed the moment.  

Bill Bertera is executive director of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.).