Wet Diplomacy

May 11, 2012
World Water Day 2012 marks strides in global water stewardship & sustainability

About the author: Benjamin H. Grumbles is president of the Clean Water America Alliance. Views expressed in this column may not necessarily reflect those of the alliance or its members. Grumbles can be reached at [email protected].


Another World Water Day (March 22) has come and gone, but this year’s events linger in my memory more than previous ones.

For starters, this year’s special day marked measurable, though modest, progress on the Millennium Development Goal for drinking water. The number of people lacking access to safe drinking water has dipped below 1 billion to 844 million. That’s nothing to brag about, but it does show progress has been made, in contrast to previous numbers of more than 1.2 billion people. World Water Day was first designated by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993.

March 22 also saw an official launch of the U.S. Water Partnership spearheaded by the Global Environment & Technology Foundation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted the event, which featured a growing alliance of federal agencies, businesses, foundations and NGOs to serve as a network for an urgently needed and strategically shaped rescue mission to areas in most need of assistance.

I call this type of outreach and aid “wet diplomacy” as it reminds me of a water-focused version of “soft diplomacy”—a kinder, gentler, perhaps even smarter version, at times, of global relations. The partnership is designed to help people and ecosystems around the globe and businesses and NGOs on U.S. soil, as well through the strategic use of American technology, know-how and experience.

Global Outreach

“Wet diplomacy” reminds me of some of the missions undertaken by U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt in 2007 and 2008. As a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water official, I was invited to participate in one of his trips to Nicaragua to meet with President Daniel Ortega, local officials and NGOs to discuss public health, watershed protection and urban water sustainability. With local NGOs and government officials, we discussed efforts to protect Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua.

Population, pollution, deforestation and invasive species pressures were threatening the health of the fragile ecosystem of the lakes and economy of the region. While there, we connected the Nicaraguan government with U.S. ecologists, hydrologists and resource managers familiar with large-scale ecosystem restoration and protection efforts, such as the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The discussions were particularly timely as ecological warning signals for the lakes were growing louder and U.S. foreign interests were getting more concerned about the need for improved U.S.–Nicaraguan relations as regional tensions in neighboring countries escalated.

It was my first experience, up close and personal, with “soft diplomacy”—building friendships and relationships by offering technical and financial assistance to help with domestic issues ranging from medical support and food safety to watershed protection and water sustainability in rapidly urbanizing areas.

Water & World Peace

Secretary Clinton also announced on March 22 the release of an Intelligence Community Assessment, “Global Water Security,” issued by the U.S. National Intelligence Council, describing the increasing risks to world peace and ultimately U.S. Homeland security due to regional water tensions. According to the report: “Water problems will hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth.”

The only good news is that the watery tensions are not likely to lead to war for at least another 10 years, meaning political and humanitarian leaders have some time to avert water induced combat. Unfortunately, the unclassified report ends on a somber note: “As water shortages become more acute beyond the next 10 years, water in shared basins will increasingly be used as leverage; the use of water as a weapon or to further terrorist objectives also will become more likely beyond 10 years.”

The organization I work for, the Clean Water America Alliance, is proud to be a member and supporter of the U.S. Water Partnership. Wet diplomacy offers help and hope where needed most and builds opportunities for U.S. businesses and organizations. Walk softly and carry a big heart, maybe even a “big straw” or water toolkit, as sometimes the best you can do as an official or unofficial ambassador is to offer new partners and allies a new strategy or technology for water sustainability.

Food & Water Nexus

March 22 also marked the day the Stockholm International Water Institute announced the winner of its 2012 Stockholm Water Prize: the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). Headquartered in Sri Lanka, IWMI is being honored for its pioneering research to improve agricultural water management, enhance food security, protect environmental health and alleviate poverty in developing countries.

Having served as one of the nine international judges for the Stockholm Water Prize over the last four years, it is a special honor for me to see IWMI get the award. As water and food security challenges continue to rise across the globe, threatening peace and stability, it is important to recognize and celebrate the leaders and innovators who are tackling these issues head on. In fact, the overarching theme of this year’s World Water Week in Stockholm (Aug. 26 to 31), when IWMI receives its Stockholm Water Prize, is the “food and water nexus.”

May the achievements of IWMI and the future work of the U.S. Water Partnership spread the wealth of water stewardship far and wide.

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