Water is essential for life and integral to human health, prosperity, security, and sustainable development. Yet globally, billions of people lack access to safe drinking water and sanitation, posing a major threat to public health, economic growth, food and energy security, and political stability.
Climate change, population growth, environmental degradation, poor management, and lack of investment have created a global water crisis that demands urgent attention. The global community recognized this crisis by including dedicated targets on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, and water resources management under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, at current rates of progress, the world is not on track to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030.
To address this crisis and accelerate progress, in 2022 the White House launched an Action Plan on Global Water Security. This plan aims to mobilize U.S. government resources and galvanize partnerships to promote sustainable and integrated water resources management globally. It focuses on three key pillars:
- Providing sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation services
- Promoting more sustainable management and protection of water resources and associated ecosystems
- Reducing water-related conflict and instability
A major implementation vehicle for the White House plan is the U.S. Government Global Water Strategy (GWS) 2022-2027. The GWS aligned all U.S. government departments and agencies around a common vision and goal of achieving global water security. It outlines strategic objectives and priorities to guide planning, investments, and initiatives across diplomacy, development assistance, and technical programs.
Overview of the Global Water Strategy
The GWS was developed jointly by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of State, with contributions from over 20 U.S. government departments and agencies. It aims to marshal U.S. expertise, capacities, and partnerships to accelerate progress on drinking water, sanitation, and sustainable water resources management globally.
Vision and Goal
The vision of the GWS is to achieve a water-secure world. This means ensuring sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water to sustain livelihoods, well-being, and development for all people and countries.
To realize this vision, the goal of the GWS is to:
“Improve health, prosperity, stability, and resilience through sustainable and equitable water resources management and access to safe drinking water and sanitation services and hygiene practices.”
The GWS outlines four strategic objectives to guide U.S. government efforts from 2022-2027:
- SO1: Strengthen water and sanitation sector governance, financing, institutions, and markets
- SO2: Increase equitable access to safe, sustainable, climate-resilient drinking water and sanitation services and adoption of hygiene behaviors
- SO3: Improve climate-resilient conservation and management of freshwater resources and associated ecosystems
- SO4: Anticipate and reduce conflict and fragility related to water
SO1: Strengthen Governance, Financing, Institutions, and Markets
This objective focuses on strengthening enabling environments and local systems essential for sustainable and equitable increases in access to water and sanitation services. Activities aim to improve policies, planning, sector coordination, transparency, budgets, and mobilization of public and private financing. There is also a focus on building capable institutions and workforces and expanding markets for water and sanitation goods and services.
SO2: Increase Access to Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene
This objective prioritizes extending access to basic and higher levels of drinking water and sanitation services, with a focus on underserved groups. It includes supporting the construction and maintenance of infrastructure as well as approaches to make services more affordable, reliable, and resilient. There is also a focus on promoting the adoption of positive hygiene practices through behavior change efforts.
SO3: Improve Management of Water Resources
This objective centers on integrated and inclusive management of surface and groundwater resources to ensure adequate quantity and quality of freshwater for human and ecosystem needs. Priority areas include water use efficiency, watershed restoration, and building resilience to climate change in planning and institutions.
SO4: Reduce Water-Related Fragility and Conflict
This objective aims to mitigate how water scarcity and variability can exacerbate fragility, drive migration, and increase risks of conflict. Priorities include improving disaster preparedness, promoting cooperation on shared waters, and aligning humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding efforts.
The GWS outlines four guiding principles for planning and implementation:
- Work through and strengthen systems at global, national, and local levels
- Focus on the needs of marginalized and underserved groups
- Leverage data, research, innovation, and technology
- Incorporate resilience across all efforts
The GWS includes specific agency plans detailing the expertise, programs, and resources that over 20 U.S. departments and agencies will contribute based on their respective mandates and capabilities. These span:
- Bilateral and Multilateral Diplomacy: e.g. Department of State, U.S. Mission to the UN
- Development Assistance: e.g. USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation
- Technical Expertise: e.g. CDC, USGS, NOAA, NASA, EPA
- Defense and Security: e.g. Department of Defense
- Infrastructure and Finance: e.g. Export-Import Bank, Development Finance Corporation
USAID’s Role and Contributions
As the lead U.S. agency for international development and humanitarian assistance, USAID plays a central role in implementing the GWS and achieving its objectives.
USAID co-led the development of the GWS with the Department of State and contributed extensively to the White House Action Plan. The agency has technical experts dedicated to water, sanitation, and hygiene programs based in Washington D.C., and field missions across priority regions and countries.
USAID’s focus under the GWS includes:
- Delivering development assistance and technical guidance aligned with the GWS
- Designating priority countries and developing country-specific investment plans
- Monitoring progress and reporting on results
- Coordinating agency efforts through working groups and processes
For the 2022-2027 GWS period, USAID aims to:
- Provide 22 million people with sustainable access to drinking water
- Provide 22 million people with sustainable access to sanitation
- Mobilize $1 billion in financing beyond USAID’s investments for water security and sanitation
- Improve the performance of over 1,000 water and sanitation institutions
To accelerate access, USAID plans to focus at least half of the people reached on gaining access to basic services for the first time.
USAID will take a systems-based approach, working across sectors and actors to strengthen enabling environments for water and sanitation. This includes:
- Policy and governance reforms
- Institutional capacity building
- Finance and market system strengthening
- Innovation and technology introduction
- Local partnerships and solutions
There is also a focus on reaching the underserved through targeted interventions, applying climate resilience across programming, and linking humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding efforts.
USAID designates priority countries annually based on detailed needs assessments and opportunity analyses. The following 25 countries are designated high-priority for 2022-2023, where USAID will concentrate its water and sanitation development investments:
- Democratic Republic of Congo
- South Sudan
In these countries, USAID will develop detailed 5-year investment plans aligned with the GWS. Missions will also report annually on results and have dedicated water and sanitation specialists.
Department of State’s Role and Efforts
As the lead U.S. foreign policy agency, the Department of State plays a vital role in implementing the GWS and engaging multilaterally.
Key efforts include:
- Bilateral engagement:
- Embassy staff advocate for water, sanitation, and hygiene with host governments
- Water and sanitation projects funded at embassies through Ambassadors’ funds
- Multilateral engagement:
- Advance U.S. priorities on water within the UN system
- Provide leadership in international processes and organizations
- Promote best practices and policies through the OECD and World Bank
State Department foreign assistance supports:
- Technical exchanges and expert deployments abroad
- Water diplomacy efforts, including around shared waters
- Water, sanitation, and hygiene projects implemented by partners
The State Department coordinates the implementation of the GWS including through:
- The Special Advisor for Water Resources
- The interagency Water Working Group, co-led with USAID
- Guidance to embassies and USAID missions
Key U.S. Government Agency Contributions
Beyond USAID and State, many U.S. government departments and agencies contribute unique expertise and capabilities toward shared GWS objectives:
Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
- Waterborne disease surveillance, prevention, and response
- Research on water, sanitation, hygiene and health
- Guidelines and training on water safety, healthcare facilities, and hygiene
Department of Defense (DoD)
- Assessments of water risks to national security
- Water vulnerability analyses at overseas installations
- Water-related disaster response capabilities
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- Fundamental water cycle research and modeling
- Flood and drought forecasting services
- Hydro-met observations and data sharing
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
- Surface and groundwater assessments and data
- Water availability forecasting and decision tools
- Capacity building on water monitoring and management
National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA)
- Remote sensing data on water resources
- Research on water cycle, drought, and climate interactions
- Data access and visualization tools
U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC)
- Debt and equity investments in private water and sanitation projects
- Funding to increase climate resilience of infrastructure
- Technical assistance to strengthen water investments
Implementing the Strategy
While the GWS provides overarching guidance and objectives, tangible progress depends on effective implementation planning and coordination.
Within priority countries, the GWS is put into action through integrated U.S. embassy country teams. These teams consist of representatives from USAID, State, and other agencies with in-country presence.
Guiding country-level implementation are:
- USAID Country Plans: 5-year costed and results-oriented water and sanitation investment plans developed for each high-priority country.
- Embassy Engagement: Embassy staff regularly engage host government counterparts to raise the profile of water, sanitation, and hygiene.
- Agency Initiatives: Individual agency projects and activities aligned with GWS objectives and coordinated across the country team.
Monitoring and Evaluation
All implementing agencies track results and progress against GWS objectives through monitoring and evaluation systems. These feed into annual GWS progress reports compiled by State and USAID.
Some specific mechanisms include:
- Results Frameworks: Standard indicators mapped to each GWS objective allow aggregation of results across agencies.
- Assessments: USAID conducts studies on whether implementation approaches are achieving the expected pivots outlined in the GWS.
- Research: Investments fill knowledge gaps around effective approaches to strengthen programming.
Several coordination mechanisms facilitate collaboration between agencies in Washington:
- Water Working Group: Convenes representatives from all agencies monthly to coordinate efforts. Chaired by State and USAID.
- Technical Teams: Agency specialists coordinate on topics like water and conflict or water, sanitation, and climate change.
- Learning Events: Workshops, speaker series, and conferences where agencies exchange lessons and efficiencies.
Accelerating Progress through Partnerships
While the GWS focuses on coordinating U.S. government efforts, partnerships with other stakeholders are essential to accelerate progress.
Key partnerships the U.S. leverages through the GWS include:
Host Country Governments
- Direct partnerships between U.S. agencies and national/local authorities in developing countries are central to implementation.
- Efforts align behind government policies, plans, and priorities to strengthen country leadership.
- Partners like the World Bank and UN provide platforms for joint advocacy, financing, and technical collaboration with host governments.
- U.S. engagement supports the direction of billions in multilateral investments toward water security.
- Partnerships with other bilateral donors, foundations, and NGOs allow sharing of best practices and coordinated investments for greater impact.
- Collaborations with local enterprises, multinational corporations, and investors help scale market-based approaches to expand access and finance.
Measuring Progress and Outcomes
Tracking progress is essential to evaluate the GWS’s impact toward achieving global water security. The following approaches allow the assessment of outcomes:
All agencies providing development assistance report annually on shared indicator sets under the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act. These track headline results like:
- Number of people gaining access to basic and safely managed drinking water and sanitation services
- The number of water and sanitation institutions strengthened
- Amount of financing mobilized beyond U.S. funding
Select programs undergo independent impact evaluations to rigorously measure their impact on water access and use. Findings inform learning.
Targeted assessments provide qualitative insights into how well GWS approaches are achieving expected pivots in USG programming.
Global water and sanitation data tracked through the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme, GLAAS, and GEMI allows monitoring of broader country and regional progress.
Challenges and Risks
While the GWS represents unprecedented U.S. government alignment to tackle global water challenges, there are inherent challenges and limitations:
Funding Constraints: The U.S. government’s investments under the GWS still pale compared to overall global needs. Strategic focus and catalyzing partnerships are essential.
Competing Priorities: Water must compete for high-level attention within a crowded development agenda at both U.S. and country levels.
Siloed Decision-Making: Breaking down siloes between agencies and sectors at all levels remains an ongoing challenge.
Extreme Events: Climate change is increasing water-related disasters which can quickly reverse development gains.
Unpredictable Funding: Reliance on annual budget allocations can disrupt multi-year programming and partnerships.
Measuring Outcomes: It is inherently difficult to attribute direct health and development outcomes to water, sanitation, and hygiene improvements.
Political Instability: Conflicts, government turnover, and corruption can derail even the best-designed programs.
The Road Ahead
While the 2022-2027 GWS outlines an ambitious U.S. government-wide approach to accelerate progress on water security, major challenges remain.
Achieving universal access to safe water and sanitation globally by 2030, as envisioned under Sustainable Development Goal 6, will require unprecedented mobilization of resources, capacity, innovation, and partnerships between now and 2030.
The full realization of the White House Action Plan and the GWS’ vision of a water-secure world will demand bold action across all sectors and stakeholders over an even longer-term horizon. The U.S. government’s leadership can catalyze momentum, but success ultimately hinges on sustained political will, investment, and effort within developing nations themselves.
Nonetheless, the GWS represents an important step forward in U.S. government coordination and strategic focus on this vital issue. It provides a framework for maximizing life-saving impacts across U.S. diplomacy, development, and technical programs over the next five years.
Rigorous monitoring and adaptation will be essential to achieve the intended results and build the evidence base for potential adjustments when the GWS is revisited for 2028-2032. With coordinated and strategic action, the United States can deliver substantial progress this decade on the path to universal and sustainable access to water and sanitation worldwide.
Key Focus Countries and Regions
While the GWS has a global scope, U.S. investments and engagement strategically target specific priority countries and regions where needs are greatest and U.S. assistance can be most impactful and aligned with foreign policy objectives.
Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the most severe water, sanitation, and hygiene challenges globally. Over 40% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa lack a basic drinking water service and 25% practice open defecation. Key focus countries in the region based on needs and opportunities include:
- Ethiopia: Focus on WASH service delivery, watershed management, and climate resilience.
- Kenya: Targeted support in urban slums and arid regions; governance and finance partnerships.
- Liberia: Post-Ebola recovery and WASH infrastructure rehabilitation.
- Mozambique: Flood resilience and coastal city sanitation.
- Nigeria: North-South disparities, urban solutions, and monitoring systems.
- South Sudan: Humanitarian-development integration and fragility-related needs.
- Uganda: Sustainable services and sanitation market development.
Many of these countries share transboundary basins (e.g. Nile, Niger), providing opportunities for riparian cooperation. Multilaterally, the U.S. collaborates through platforms like the Africa Ministers’ Council on Water.
With over half the world’s population, Asia faces severe pressures on water resources alongside gaps in water and sanitation access. Priority countries include:
- Bangladesh: Water-related disaster resilience and climate adaptation.
- India: Urban and industrial pollution, equity gaps, and service delivery innovations.
- Indonesia: Coastal resilience, municipal water security, and urban sanitation.
- Nepal: Hydropower and hills-plains water sharing dynamics. Partnership opportunities.
- Philippines: City-level service delivery partnerships and governance.
Regional platforms like the Lower Mekong Initiative provide opportunities to promote cooperation on shared waters.
Latin America and the Caribbean
While access to improved water sources is high in Latin America and the Caribbean, unsafe management and gaps in sanitation and hygiene persist. Challenges also include climate vulnerability, pollution, and inequity. Priorities include:
- Guatemala: Inequity, sustainability, and reaching the underserved.
- Haiti: Post-earthquake recovery and massive investment needs across WASH.
- Colombia: Post-conflict development and Venezuelan refugee impacts.
- Peru: Watershed conservation and indigenous community engagement.
Regionally, the U.S. works through mechanisms like the Inter-American Water Resources Network.
Middle East and North Africa
Water scarcity, high vulnerability to climate change, transboundary tensions, and instability shape U.S. engagement:
- Iraq: Post-ISIS stabilization, disputed dam management, and marshes restoration.
- Lebanon: Water access for Syrian refugees and vulnerable host communities.
- Morocco: Partnership opportunities around desalination and reuse.
- Tunisia: Local water conflict mediation and marginalized community engagement.
- West Bank/Gaza: Water access, infrastructure, and partnership projects.
Multilaterally, the Middle East Desalination Research Center based in Oman provides an engagement platform.
Key Initiatives and Partnerships
In addition to bilateral efforts in focus countries, the U.S. government collaborates on major regional initiatives and multistakeholder partnerships under the GWS aligned with priority transboundary basins and development challenges.
The Mekong Water Data Initiative
In partnership with the Mekong River Commission (MRC), this initiative strengthens regional cooperation and decision-making around water management in the Mekong Basin. With the State Department’s support, NASA, USGS, and U.S. universities are helping build an open data platform and tools to inform planning.
The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement
Supported by EPA, NOAA, and State, this historic agreement facilitates coordinated action by the U.S. and Canada to improve water quality in the Great Lakes. The initiative engages federal, state, tribal, local, and industry partners.
The U.S. Water Partnership
Led by the State Department, this public-private platform mobilizes U.S. expertise for water security solutions abroad. Initiatives like WaterSmart engage municipal water utilities in partnerships.
This USAID initiative works to increase electricity access across Sub-Saharan Africa. Expanding hydropower capacity while balancing ecosystem needs is among the focus areas.
The Water, Peace, and Security (WPS) Partnership
USAID supports this partnership that develops tools and evidence for transboundary water cooperation and diplomacy. Partners include SIWI, IHE-Delft, and Deltares.
The World Bank Water Global Practice
USAID and the State Department engage closely with the World Bank’s water team on analytics, financing, country platforms, and initiatives like the City Water Resilience Approach.
The UN-Water Security Initiative
The U.S. collaborates on this initiative co-led by UNEP, GWP, and SIWI that empowers UN country teams to address water-related conflicts and disasters.
In closing, effective implementation of the U.S. Government’s Global Water Strategy can significantly accelerate progress in ensuring equitable and sustainable access to water and sanitation worldwide. However, realizing the bold vision of water security for all will ultimately require sustained effort across public and private actors both internationally and within developing countries themselves.
The U.S. government’s contributions under the GWS include strategic investments, capacity building, technology and innovation, convening power, and influence on better policies and governance. However, local leadership and financing are essential to create lasting change on the ground.
This underscores the importance of partnerships between U.S. government agencies and developing country institutions, civil society, communities, and diverse stakeholders across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Listening to and empowering marginalized groups must be at the center of these collaborative efforts.
While the path to universal access by 2030 is extremely challenging, the costs of inadequate progress are unacceptable. A shared commitment to evidence-based and systems-oriented solutions can help countries climb this ambitious ladder one sustainable rung at a time. The lives and life opportunities of hundreds of millions of people across the world hang in the balance.