Global Water

W hen I arrived in the White House in 1977, I inherited responsibility for a delegation that had been named by President Gerald Ford to represent the US at an upcoming UN conference on water issues. The conference was the result of tireless lobbying by anthropologist, Margaret Mead (an old friend) and British development expert Barbara Ward. They were convinced that providing clean drinking water was critical to reducing disease and advancing economic development in the Third World. The delegation was made up not of experts on water issues, but mostly of campaign contributors who were being given a free trip to Mar del Plata in Argentina as a reward for past services to Ford and the Republican Party. I fired that delegation and sought out the country’s top experts in all aspects of water, especially water and health. From among this array of relevant talent I put together a new delegation.

Although the conference focused on a broad range of issues from navigation rights, and the law of the sea to water-borne disease, a major outcome was a recommendation to the UN General Assembly that a decade long program be launched to increase the availability of clean water supplies and sanitation throughout the developing world. The General Assembly subsequently responded with a resolution creating the “International Clean Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade.” It was to begin on January 1st, 1980 and run for the next ten years. The importance of clean water in achieving global health remained an issue of concern for me. When I drafted a presidential statement for Jimmy Carter on an enhanced role for the US in international health (issued May 2nd, 1978) I carefully included mention of water as a crucial issue.

Over the subsequent year I pressured the leaders at the UN, especially Brad Morse the administrator of UNDP and Halfdan Mahler the director general of WHO to establish the secretariat and hire someone to run the Decade program. They seemed to be dragging their feet. Eventually in June, 1979 when I left the White House Brad Morse asked if I would consider coming to the UN and heading up the program myself with the rank of Assistant Secretary. General. This I agreed to do.

I had a very small budget and while I had the authority of the General Assembly and Secretary General behind me to coordinate the various UN agencies (UNDP, UNICEF, UNECO, WHO, the World Bank, FAO, UNEP) I found each agency had its own governing body and budget. There was not much enthusiasm for being coordinated. Nevertheless I put together a systemwide coordinating committee made up of the key players from each agency that would meet every three months. I also began working on a major launching event at the General Assembly and prepared a speech for Secretary General Kurt Waldheim to give. The slogan of the program was “Water and Sanitation for All by 2000," overly optimistic, but an important rallying cry and a goal to which everyone could strive. The day long celebration was one of the more memorable of my life, and while the ambassadors of developed nations (with the exception of the Scandinavians) were luke warm, those from the developed world embraced the program as a desperately needed recognition of one of the most pressing problems their nations faced..
Organizationally I was based in the UN Development Program (UNDP). But I had a modest budget (except for travel) and my clout over the Balkanized agencies of the UN system,
each with its own governing body was limited. Away from the UN and outside the US I received, as a senior UN official, enormous respect allowing me access to government officials at the highest level in orchestrating the world wide campaign. I asked each developing country to establish a cabinet level coordinating committee to develop a national plan for the Decade and oversee its implementation. I then visited a long list of countries to spur on their efforts. In India when I met with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi she fully embraced the initiative calling in her minister of planning ( Dr M..S. Swaminathen) and telling him to put the water decade agenda into the country’s next five year plan. Her action resulted in the percentage of Indians with access to clean drinking water rising from 30% to 70% by 1990. In some African countries (such as the Central African Republic) their idea of a national plan was merely the creation of a laundry list of equipment and materials they wanted the aide agencies to provide for them. As the money had to come from the developed nations I spent a good deal of time working with the international development agencies of the industrialized countries.

There were many gratifying moments such as when I was in an African village as a drilling rig finally hit water and a great jet shot into the sky. Capped and with a hand pump installed it meant the women and children of that village would no longer have to walk five miles each day to a river to get the water needed to insure their survival. It was hard to forget the sheer joy on the faces of the villagers at this life changing event. Several years after the start of the Decade I returned to a village in Africa where I had been early on and asked the people what difference the water supply had made to them. “The children don’t die any more,” one replied. I visited rural areas on every continent and apart from my direct focus on people’s water needs I developed a substantial understanding of the broader problems in third world development.

Over the full ten years of the nineteen eighties the program would result in an additional 500 million people throughout the developing world having access to clean drinking water. It left me with an enormous sense of gratification and the feeling that I had really made a difference in the world. Sadly that was also the number by which the world’s population increased during the same period of time. However, there is no doubt that the lives of millions, especially children, were saved and their conditions made much easier by the Water Decade. Early on I had made the eradication of the disease caused by guinea worm a sub-goal of the Decade (click on separate section entitled Guinea Worm). With the help of Dr Donald Hopkins and later President Jimmy Carter total global eradication of the disease is now nearing.



Traditionally once a person was appointed as an international civil servant with the UN they were immune from interference from their own government. The Reagan administration ignored that convention and began immediately to pressure the organization to terminate my contract. Eliot Abrams a Reagan appointee in the State Department, who would later be convicted of criminal activity in connection with the Iran/Contra scandal, made hounding me his particular mission. Actually I was not unhappy to leave the UN. The logistical difficulties of traveling constantly between Washington and New York not to mention other stops around the world had become tiresome. I felt I had done my job in setting up the Decade program and seen it through its first few years. I was eager to return to the independence and flexibility of being my own boss.

I set up a not-for-profit charity in Washington called Global Water that was dedicated to achieving the same goals as my UN program. Although raising money was a constant struggle I was able to implement a number of small water projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America. These included the drilling of bore holes in remote villages, rainwater harvesting programs that involved constructing large concrete water storage tanks, and gravity fed water systems that required the laying of pipes to bring water from mountain streams to distant villages in the plains below. We worked collaboratively with UNICEF and other NGOs that were committed to integrated rural development projects. Running my own organization also gave me the flexibility to pursue my role as a board member for Save the Children, the Hunger Project and the American Association for World Health, as well as spending time in Cuba to write my book on Fidel Castro.

I also served as a consultant on third world water and development projects for non-profit and commercial organizations. One of these was the British engineering consulting firm, Halcrow-Balfour. One project I worked on for them was particularly memorable. They had received a substantial contract from the British overseas development agency to construct water supply systems along the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka from Galle to Tangalla. The project involved laying pipes, fed from a large reservoir, through all the small villages along the coast for close to a hundred miles. In each community an array of standpipes then made clean drinking water immediately accessible to the population for the first time. To the credit of the planners in London who intended that the project should impact the health of the community they were concerned that the beneficiaries not just have new access to sufficient water but that they also understood how to use it to improve their hygiene and cleanliness. I was hired to develop a plan to see that happened. There was a limited budget and hiring a significant number of public health professionals was out of the question.

Sri Lanka has a uniquely high level of basic education for a developing country with close to one hundred per cent literacy. Job opportunities and openings for higher education were, however, extremely limited, especially for women. As a result in most of the little villagers in which I was working there was a sizable population of young women who were high-school graduates. For most their aspiration was to get into nursing school because it was the one certain route to gainful employment. I decided to recruit several dozen of these women for my project. Although they would be paid a pittance there was intense competition to be hired and I was able to select the best. Several saw it, perhaps correctly, as an added qualification to add to their nursing school applications. Together with the one public health professional I was able to hire, I conducted a week long course on the basic principles of hygiene, the transmission of infectious diseases, and how to use water for personal cleanliness, the washing of babies, clothes, dishes and other effects. People who for generations have had to carry water from a distant river or other source, not surprisingly, use it sparingly and need to be taught how to use a sudden copious supply effectively. They have to learn how to live a new water infused life style.

When the week long training period was over each girl was assigned up to 150 families in her community. She was asked to visit each of them and pass on the knowledge she had received in class. At the end of each week we spent Friday afternoons reviewing their experience and answering questions that had come up. After I departed my Sri Lankan colleague continued their supervision. I returned for a month in each of the three succeeding years to monitor the progress of the program and to provide additional teaching on public health. Over time some of the women moved on to other opportunities and we hired new recruits to replace them. And as the initial families became fully conversant with the hygienic life style new ones were added. Over the three years we reached several thousand families scattered along the entire South coast of Sri Lanka. Because one family then educated another we felt this constituted a critical mass in changing the behavior of the entire population in how they used their new water supply.

This was one of the most gratifying projects I have ever been involved in. It was highly cost effective, everyone involved was a winner, it was relatively simple to implement and the several months I spent there living along the coastal shores of Sri Lanka were extremely pleasant.

Although I moved on from water as a full-time activity I have continued to maintain an active interest in the field and still regard it as a critical issue for the future of humanity. I was particularly pleased to see the provision of clean drinking water, somewhat neglected through the 1990s included as one of the new Millennium Development Goals by the United Nations.

© Peter G. Bourne - 2009