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Pulitzer Center Update March 23, 2010

On Water, a Call to Action

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The majority of India's water sources are polluted. A lack of access to safe water contributes to a...

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Villagers in Bishikiltu. Image by Alex Stonehill. Ethiopia, 2008.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged Monday to put water issues on the "front burner" of U.S. foreign policy. She told an audience of specialists and water advocates gathered at the National Geographic Society that solving the global challenge of safe water and sanitation was integral to every other U.S. interest.

"For the United States water represents one of the great diplomatic and development opportunities of our time," Clinton said. "It's not every day you find an issue where effective diplomacy and development will allow you to save millions of lives, feed the hungry, empower women, advance our national security interests, protect the environment, and demonstrate to billions of people that the United States cares."

Clinton was speaking to the choir - an audience of over 400 specialists and water advocates representing dozens of non-profits, foundations and government organizations devoted to assuring clean water and sanitation to all the world. This was the 18th World Water Day since the United Nations designated March 22 as an annual day to focus on water, and it marked a new level of visibility and focus on the issue.

The Pulitzer Center gathered short video clips from Clinton, other speakers at the event, and a number of the attendees, many of them visibly moved by the endorsement of their cause by such a high-level administration official. Their voices are captured on DOWNSTREAM, the Center's interactive web portal on water.

Some of those present said they had wished for more - an explicit endorsement of the Paul Simon Water for the World Act, now pending in Congress, or a more explicit focus on sanitation, which Clarissa Brocklehurst of UNICEF, pictured left, called the most important water issue of all.

Clinton was introduced by Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, who will take the lead along with AID Administrator Rajiv Shah for making water issues an administration priority. Otero stressed in an interview after the event the burden that falls on women and girls, because they take primary responsibility for fetching water. The consequence, she said, is lost schooling, lost economic opportunities, lost lives.

Ron Denham of the Water and Sanitation Rotarian Action Group warned against forcing inappropriate technologies on communities without including them in the decision making process.

Ned Breslin of Water for People emphasized the positive side of the global water issue—the successes being seen now. "We like to celebrate groups and communities and people all around the world who are no longer waiting in huge lines to fetch dirty water," he said. "Water For People is excited today because two municipalities--one in Bolivia and one in Honduras--are about to have 100% coverage."

Grammy-nominated artist Kenna told the story of his father, who struggled with water-borne illness as a child in Ethiopia, organized the Summit on the Summit, a celebrity climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise awareness about water sanitation.

There were some more pragmatic voices. William Asiko of the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation explained that what is good for people is also good for business, intimating that more business leaders should become involved in helping to solve the water crisis.

Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of the renowned explorer Jacques Cousteau, described the innovative methods of her organization Blue Legacy efforts to "tell the story of our water planet to the world."

Hattie Babbit emceed the event. She is currently Vice Chair of the World Resources Institute and of Global Water Challenge. Babbitt took a moment to talk about the critical importance of raising awareness about a resource underpinning basic human rights.

David Winder, CEO of WaterAid of the Americas, described his extensive field experience working on water issues in developing countries—and related that to the stories shared in National Geographic's special water issue and the importance of public awareness about water sanitation. National Geographic is making a downloadable copy of the water issue available free at until April 2.

Danny Edelson of National Geographic explains water's critical role in the Society's educational focus on geo-literacy, an understanding of how the world works and our role in it.

On Tuesday, March 23, the Pulitzer Center will host DOWNSTREAM: Our Water, Our Lives, part of the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital focusing on global water issues.

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In Ethiopia and Kenya, dry seasons grow longer and tribal conflict over access to water is on the...

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