U.S. Government Global Water Strategy 2017: A welcome case of ‘America first’

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, USA

Yet it should be added that the Strategy harks back to a requirement of the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2014, a re-legislation intended to strengthen the implementation of the 2005 Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act.

Assessing the Global Water Strategy

The Global Water Strategy makes a strong and coherent case for the importance of global water security, usefully pushing the boundaries of the rather WASH-focused Water for the World Act to elevate questions of governance and transboundary cooperation. Building taps and sanitation facilities is certainly important, but it is a task that many actors can undertake. Far fewer actors are able to tackle the underlying, deeply political and societal questions of improving water governance to ensure that water supply and wastewater disposal activities are also managed in the long-term. It is at that strategic level that the U.S. government will often be able to add most value. In this respect, the Strategy’s attempt to align the activities of around 20 different federal agencies under one joint, strategic approach is particularly useful, and arguably worthy of emulation elsewhere.                                         

Whether the U.S. government will collectively be able to live up to the aspiration of strategic vision and coherence is, of course, a different question. On the plus side, the Strategy contains numerous agency implementation plans (even though these were not required by the Water for the World Act) and has a coordination mechanism in place through the Interagency Water Working Group. This level of cooperation is not only progress for the U.S. government, but also a benchmark that most other governments have not yet achieved.

Yet there are aspects of the Strategy that undermine the strategic vision it sets out.  As several experts noted in a set of comments on the New Security Beat, the Strategy studiously avoids references to climate change, a key driver of water challenges in many regions, and it lacks information on the methods for prioritization and funding. Although the Strategy’s Annex B mentions a number of criteria for priority country selection, there is no transparency as to why certain countries are included (e.g. why Indonesia but not Pakistan?). And whereas there might be good reasons for these choices (as well as for not disclosing them), a presumption of strategic decision-making is hard to square with the degree of aid volatility that the country plans betray.

While water security requires consistent and long-term engagement, the President’s funding requests differ markedly from previous allocations. Not only has overall funding declined, despite the President’s rhetorical acknowledgement of water’s significance, its cross-country distribution is also changing in less than intuitive ways. For example, whereas Indonesia’s allocation is slated to rise modestly from 6.1 to 7 million USD from financial years 2017 to 2018, Afghanistan’s is slashed from 10 to 5.7 million, Ethiopia’s from 15.3 to 6.3 million and Liberia’s from 12.9 to 2.5 million. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that politics, e.g. a lack of interest in Africa, may have trumped sound policy. Such politics are all the more questionable because greater water security in host countries is an important lever for better managing migration.  

Presidential politics aside, the country plans remain very much focused on WASH activities and rarely reflect the holistic and strategic approach embraced in the Strategy’s introductory vision. In all likelihood this reflects a path dependency of USAID’s earlier engagement. There are very good reasons for focusing on WASH activities (they are very important for beneficiaries), but there are also not so good ones: while easy to define, measure and justify and hence good for evaluations and domestic political consumption, they may not make the most of the U.S. government’s potential to influence recipient countries for more long-term changes in the water sector.  


Yet, all these criticisms aside, the Global Water Strategy is a commendable achievement. At the very least, it sets out a sensible, coherent and shared vision for the entire U.S government. This is all the more important in the current context of a partly dysfunctional administration because a presidentially endorsed strategy empowers individual officials to request resources and support for a globally important challenge. Moreover, the existence of an Interagency Working Group at the very least facilitates systematic information exchange and may, in time and under the right circumstances, also enable a strategic, all-of-government approach to implementation.

The elaboration of a U.S. Government Global Water Strategy thus raises the question of whether a similar document and approach would be sensible for other countries particularly active in the issue area, not least the German government. Berlin has arguably already laid the groundwork through last year’s publication of a global water strategy of sorts, though one underwritten only by a single ministry. That strategy’s focus on the development community could usefully be complemented by a strategy backed by the entire cabinet and the establishment of cross-ministerial coordination mechanisms.

To its credit, America has done it first, but Washington’s current political leadership ensures that it should be possible to do it better. As negotiations over government formation in Germany grind on, perhaps this is an aspiration that potential government partners can share?