OOSKAnews Voices: How to Get Ahead of Zika – and the Next One

WASHINGTON, DC, United States

OOSKAnews Voices is a series of guest “opinion columns” on water, written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community. The columns provide a global platform for organizations and individuals to promulgate their views and messages.

John Oldfield, CEO of Water 2017, calls for the U.S. and its partners to better manage water resources to get ahead of global health and security threats.

Water 2017 is a one-year philanthropically-funded advocacy effort to encourage the next U.S. President and Congress to prioritize global water security as never before, and to position this issue as a leadership opportunity for the United States and its partners across the globe. Myriad water challenges provide Americans the opportunity to collaborate with countries across the globe to help them solve current problems, and get ahead of future water challenges before they become crises. Across the “Three Ds” of donor countries’ foreign policy - Development, Diplomacy, and Defense - there are meaningful opportunities to engage further with water. How can the U.S. and its partners best strengthen the capacity of countries across the globe to solve their own unique water challenges? What limited, yet leveraged inputs from the donor community would have the most positive, systemic impact?

Prior to Water 2017, John Oldfield led the efforts of WASH Advocates (2011 – 2015) to increase awareness of global water and sanitation challenges and solutions, and to increase the amount and effectiveness of resources devoted to those solutions throughout the developing world. John previously founded two implementing nonprofits in the water sector, and served as Executive Vice President of Water Advocates, an advocacy group in Washington, DC dedicated to increasing financial and political support for worldwide access to safe, affordable and sustainable supplies of drinking water and sanitation. 

John has been a Vice President at a private equity firm specializing in leveraged buyouts and corporate divestitures.  In previous lives, John researched science, technology, and economic policy at the National Academy of Sciences, and acquired extensive international management experience with USAID and U.S. Department of State contracts, including training programs for election officials and civil society, and civil/military communication projects in post-conflict countries.

The opinions expressed in this article represent the views of John Oldfield, and are not endorsed by OOSKAnews Inc.

At a recent forum on global development in Washington DC, the United States Deputy Homeland Security Advisor asserted that the U.S. government cannot merely react or respond to Zika. She is right. The U.S. and the entire global community must find ways to get ahead of its spread, and look for opportunities to prevent, or at least mitigate the severity of, the next such water-related infectious disease.

Increased focus on global water security provides such an opportunity.

In 2012, the United States intelligence community produced an Intelligence Community Assessment on Global Water Security. The report asserts that “during the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will experience water problems — shortages, poor water quality, or floods — that will risk instability and state failure, increase regional tensions, and distract them from working with the United States on important US policy objectives.”

Water scarcity leads to water hoarding, and families often hoard water in such a way as to facilitate the breeding of mosquitoes. More mosquitoes may lead to a more rapid transmission of Zika, malaria and the next water-related infectious disease. Importantly, as this progression holds true, so does its inverse. Headlines scream that water will cause wars, but the opposite has historically held true. Water brings parties together before conflict erupts. Headlines declare that unsafe water kills millions of people each year. What they don’t say is that safe water (and proper disposal of human waste) keeps billions alive, healthy, and in school or at work.

We can predict the future of water. We know when and where water scarcity will occur with increasingly accurate, granular, and long-term forecasts, even accounting for a changing climate and population growth and movement. Donor and developing country governments along with private sector stakeholders should combine this stronger forecasting ability with deployable assets – people, technology, money – to:

  • identify shared river basins where a lack of institutional capacity is likely to lead to conflict over water resources, then strengthen the capacity of those riparian states and subnational stakeholders to prevent conflict;
  • collaborate to identify the next several potential conflicts like Syria, where water scarcity is a causal element of conflict and where there are significant governance challenges, then build the water resilience of those countries and regions to make sure that water scarcity does not add fuel to the fire;
  • predict potential water-related infectious disease outbreaks (Zika, malaria, Ebola, etc.) and help communities and governments throughout those regions and countries to make sure that water scarcity or inadequate sanitation and hygiene measures do not lead to unsafe water hoarding or waste disposal and thus accelerate the spread of disease or disease vectors; and
  • prevent unnecessary mortality: droughts will occur; famines are optional. The global community has the opportunity and responsibility to manage water resources more effectively to prevent water scarcity from causing the next deadly famine.

All of these solutions are shovel-ready – they are doable with today’s technology and financing, and both donor countries and developing countries have important roles to play in this equation. We need to think less about how to react to water-related conflict and health challenges, and more about how we can collaborate to manage our individual and collective water resources more proactively.

The next U.S. President and Congress, and their allies across the globe, will have the opportunity to elevate and mainstream water across the “three Ds” of the foreign policy spectrum (Development, Diplomacy, and Defense) in 2017 and beyond. From the perspective of donor countries’ foreign policy, water is one of the most important - but under-utilized - tools at our disposal across the globe.

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