WASHINGTON – Vice President Kamala Harris said Wednesday the U.S. is safer if people in other countries have sufficient water to drink, grow food and safely dispose of sewage, emphasizing that water access is a foreign policy priority.
Harris said making sure that every country has enough water will prevent conflicts, improve health outcomes and boost local economies. Working towards those goals will make the world more stable and secure, according to a newly released White House plan to address issues facing global water supplies and quality.
The Biden administration said it will support investments in water infrastructure abroad and provide technical expertise to help other countries manage their water resources.
More than two billion people around the world live in “water stressed” countries where demand for water exceeds supplies, the World Health Organization estimates. Harris said that reality will have a “profound impact on America’s interests around the globe.”
“Water insecurity makes our world less stable,” she said, adding that it can lead to “mass migration, which can put significant pressure on neighboring communities.”
Republicans have criticized the Biden administration over the number of migrants arriving at the Southern border. Harris has frequently said tackling migration requires addressing “root causes," and previously proposed providing short-term relief to some Central American countries dealing with extreme weather events.
Wednesday's plan states that gaps in access to basic sanitation in Central America “contribute to inequality, drive migration, and foment civil unrest.”
Climate change will increase temperatures and drive extreme weather, making water access in some regions worse. So far, the world has made modest, uneven progress towards improving sanitation and drinking water services, the White House said.
Inadequate water access has the most effect on women, who need water for menstrual hygiene and are often responsible for transporting water, the plan said.
The WHO estimates that 2 billion people worldwide drink from a water source contaminated with feces, which can cause diarrhea and other diseases. The problem kills an estimated 485,000 people a year, according to the organization.
U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Samantha Power said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has deprived millions in that country of clean water.
“Some leaders are taking advantage of water insecurity and actually wielding it as a weapon of war,” said Power, who also spoke at the event.
The White House said it would use existing resources to implement the plan, but was thin on specifics about how deadlines or goals would be met. Those goals include improving clean water access without increasing greenhouse gas emissions, helping other countries sustainably manage resources, and getting international organizations to address water security issues.
Harris spoke at the White House alongside Power and Kathleen Hicks, deputy secretary at the Department of Defense. Other speakers included Alice Albright, CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the daughter of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“Many of our most fundamental national security interests depend on water security,” Harris said.
The Biden administration also released a one-year report on its efforts to combat drought, a significant, stubborn problem impacting much of the western United States. Harris said the infrastructure bill passed last year directed billions toward water infrastructure, including the replacement of toxic lead pipes.
Harris' home state of California has been especially hard hit by dry conditions. Less water has increased the risk of wildfires and forced water restrictions on millions of Californians.
“Across the West, we have seen the terrible cost of the climate crisis,” Harris said.
Phillis reported from St. Louis.
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