At Annual Gathering of Global Leaders, Clean Water Described as “Mother of All Global Health Challenges”
By J. Carl Ganter
Circle of Blue
NEW YORK, September 28, 2009 — Ever so steadily the basic factors that make up the global freshwater crisis — pollution, disease, scarcity, and access — are making their way to the top of the list of international priorities. More evidence of the singular importance of the world’s diminishing supply of clean fresh water emerged last week when former President Bill Clinton opened the Clinton Global Initiative, his annual meeting on the world’s challenges, and described the need to address water and sanitation in order to solve many of the most important economic and social problems. This year’s conference featured an appearance by President Barack Obama, who issued a clarion call to respond to the world’s greatest challenges.
In fact safe drinking water, sanitation, deteriorating infrastructure, and water borne diseases like diarrhea were widely regarded as a subtext for nearly every CGI program, from infrastructure to improving the well-being of girls and women.
Clinton commended actor Matt Damon for co-founding Water.org a year ago to enhance access to clean water in the developing world, including in Haiti. “It bothers him that a billion people in the world have no access to clean water, and two and a half billion have no access to sanitation,” Clinton said.
“Water is still pre-critical mass,” added John Oldfield, vice president of Water Advocates, the Washington-based group that lobbies for more attention to water-related health issues. “But when’s the last time you heard a sitting or former head of state talk about waterborne diseases, even diarrhea? Very, very rarely.”
“CGI realizes that dirty water is the mother of all global health challenge. They realize it is solvable,” Oldfield said during a break in the sessions and workshops, which were often led by Clinton or a litany of experts. “Here they are leveraging this platform to bring money together with expertise.”
The statistics are grim: more than five million people, mostly children, die each year due to a lack of safe drinking water; and the UN estimates that 5.5 billion people will lack adequate access to freshwater in the next 20 years. Water scarcity and pollution are serious threats to peoples, environments and economies across the world, including the United States.
Following Clinton’s opening remarks Tuesday, Damon and water.org co-founder and director Gary White stepped onto the main stage with their commitment to provide clean water to 50,000 people in Haiti over three years. It was the first of many moments when the fresh water crisis influenced the week’s discussions.
In sessions on infrastructure, investment, health and climate, even social media, dimensions of the water crisis were described as essential to achieving solutions, particularly in the developing world. Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said bringing water to poor communities is his highest priority. “Everyone says it’s easy, it’s not very expensive. But it’s not being done,” Annan said. “We have the means and knowledge to help. I want to see that happen.”
J. Carl Ganter is co-founder and director of Circle of Blue, the internationally recognized center for original frontline reporting, research, and analysis on resource issues with a focus on the intersection between water, food, and energy.