Peter Sawyer, Pulitzer Center

The Obama Administration has added water to its list of diplomatic priorities. In a conference call Thursday morning, Under Secretary of State Maria Otero identified water as a central U.S. foreign policy concern, touching everything from health and economic development to global security. Otero discussed water issues on the eve of World Water Day next Monday, in a year when activists are working harder than ever to engage the public and policy-makers.

In the conference call Thursday Otero ticked off some of the reasons that action on water is so compelling now:

  • Water related disease is the second leading cause of death in children under five.
  • Worldwide, there are 260 major river basins that span international boundaries.
  • By 2025, two thirds of the world will live in water-stressed areas. One billion will face outright water scarcity.

Otero noted that as rising populations face dwindling resources, the probability of conflict will increase. The State Department has pledged to integrate water into its diplomatic and development efforts, and to acknowledge water's central role in food security and global health.

Otero also stressed the growing challenge from global warming. Changes in weather patterns will cause some regions to see intensified drought while leaving others drenched in rain. The State Department intends to work with other governments to ensure fair distribution of water within the parameters set by the environment and improvements in water storage and conservation.

So far, USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation have put one billion dollars into water related projects. The Paul Simon Water for the World Act, which has been in committee for approximately a year, would add to that commitment and bring first-time water access to 100 million people. Otero cited the legislation as a step in the right direction.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will also address the State Department's new approach on water, in remarks scheduled for a special Water Day event next Monday at National Geographic's Washington, DC headquarters. The event is co-hosted by Water Advocates.

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The majority of India's water sources are polluted. A lack of access to safe water contributes to a fifth of its communicable diseases. Each day in the booming, nuclear-armed nation, diarrhea alone kills more than 1,600 people.

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