John Oldfield

"What was once unavoidable--millions of deaths due to waterborne diseases--is now unacceptable"

- John Oldfield, CEO WASH Advocates, Forum IV Speaker: Sustainable Water Solutions

Safe drinking water for everyone on the planet is not a controversial issue. Every political leader in every country, province, or municipality wants each of his/her constituents to have access to the safe, affordable, and sustainable drinking water they need to survive and improve their lot in life.

Yet even though the world has never been richer, smarter, or more abundant than it is in 2013, there remain over 783 million people without access to safe drinking water, and 2.5 billion people without a safe place to go to the bathroom.

So why does this fundamental global safe drinking water and sanitation challenge continue to exist, when we have known how to solve this problem for millennia? Why do hundreds of millions of women around the world continue to be exploited as water and wastewater infrastructure, and why do millions of children under the age of five die from preventable waterborne diseases each year?

My answer: a lack of political will. And that answer is typically the quickest way to end a conversation, as most people look at politics and elected officials only as part of the problem, not as a key part of the solution.

Politics are indeed problematic in many instances, yet if there are to be permanent and sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing development challenges, politics and political leaders must drive the solution, not just be invited to ribbon-cutting ceremonies to new water treatment facilities.

I had dinner a couple of years ago with a handful of other non-profit leaders and the former prime minister of a sub-Saharan African country. I asked the prime minister: “What made it possible for you to strengthen policies and increase your national budget for safe drinking water, sanitation and basic public health while you were in office?”

He told me that to do so he needed two very simple things:

  1. He needed to hear about the problem from his own people.
  2. He needed to see how the problem is solvable.

Using that as a benchmark, how can we make it possible for each government around the world to prioritize safe drinking water and sanitation? I suggest - as the prime minister said – that we in civil society, in developed and more importantly in developing countries, must let our governments know this is an important issue for us - their constituents - and that the challenge is solvable. And let’s take it one step further: to strengthen political commitments and rule of law for water, we need to show our governments not just that the problem is solvable, but that it is already being solved, and we simply need their support to solve it more quickly, equitably, and sustainably. We need politicians not so much to lead on this but simply to follow what their constituents are already doing by supporting and complementing our efforts with stronger policies and increased budgets.

Water is a non-controversial issue, and this approach to building political will and commitments has proven successful around the world and across the ages. Former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was president of the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, progressive leaders came to President Roosevelt and asked for various concessions, including new pro-worker policies as part of the effort to turn the economy around. President Roosevelt was quite progressive and pro-union, and he is reported to have said: “I want to do what you are asking me to do, but I can’t do it politically yet. I need you to go out there and make it possible for me to enact those policies.”

So the union leaders did just that:  In 1937 there were thousands of labor actions whose impact on the economy made it possible for President Roosevelt to do what he already wanted to do.

We do not need to strike for water and sanitation. I do however assert that the job of civil society – including my organization - in the developed and developing world is to demonstrate to governments that what was once unavoidable--millions of deaths due to waterborne disease--is now unacceptable. That simple equation will provide those elected officials with the political cover they need to do what they already want to do, and progressively realize the human right to water and sanitation to everyone on the planet in a tighter timeframe.

Today, the risk of making massive political commitments to water and sanitation remains for the most part too high, because water and sanitation compete with so many other important development priorities (roads, schools, hospitals, jobs) that are in many cases in higher demand.

The rule of law community and the water and sanitation community have an opportunity work together to be a highly catalytic part of the solution to the world’s water crisis. Access to safe drinking water strengthens rule of law, in that local water and sanitation committees often provide citizens in developing countries – particularly women – their first opportunity to be involved in a democratic process that concerns their own well-being. And as local leaders across the globe provide more clear guidance about water and sanitation governance and legal underpinnings, their constituents will have access to drinking water that is safe, affordable, sustainable, and equitable.

Access will be universal and equitable, pricing will be fair for all users, infrastructure will be sustainable, and the rule of law will be strengthened as governments provide services and citizens uphold their end of the social contract.

My ambition is that rule of law and water communities will find more ways to work together across a number of platforms, and that both communities will emerge stronger from those collaborative efforts.

John Oldfield

Mr. John Oldfield leads the efforts of WASH Advocates to increase awareness of the global WASH challenge and solutions, and to increase the amount and effectiveness of resources devoted to those solutions throughout the developing world. He believes strongly that the global safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene challenge is more solvable than it is difficult.

Follow the link to learn more about this Forum IV Speaker. Mr. Oldfield will be presenting at the Sustainable Water Solutions Panel Wednesday Afternoon.

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