Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
July 29, 2010

Let me first thank the dynamic Elizabeth Bagley for organizing today’s important roundtable and for inviting me to say a few words about our relationship with India and ways we can help address water supply challenges there. Let me also extend a warm welcome to all the private sector and foundation representatives here. We are excited about the prospects for partnering with all of you and let me again thank Elizabeth and her team for their initiative in bringing us together.

The U.S. – India relationship has never been stronger. We recognize and want to encourage the important role that all of you here have played in creating and strengthening these ties. Indeed I have made it a priority for the South and Central Asia Bureau to expand our partnerships and engagement with the private sector and diaspora groups here in the U.S.

To lead those efforts, we were so pleased to recently welcome to the SCA team Mitul Desai, who will be our Senior Advisor for Outreach. Mitul comes from a private sector career in international finance and law, where he worked on many issues, including global health. He also has extensive experience working with diaspora communities. I hope all of you will have a chance to meet him today, I know he is very excited to work with you in his new capacity.

Let me provide a brief rundown on U.S. relations with India to help inform this discussion. In short, thanks to the leadership of President Obama and Secretary Clinton, relations have never been better, and will continue on their very promising trajectory – both in the near future and over the long-term.

That’s why President Obama has called India an “indispensable partner” and said that our relations with India will be one of the defining partnerships for the United States in the 21st century.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton elevated our relations with India by establishing a Strategic Dialogue last year which convened for the first time last month in Washington. The purpose of the Dialogue is to give senior-level strategic direction to the many working groups and dialogues already in progress, conceive new initiatives to confront the new challenges of the 21st century like climate change, and capitalize on new opportunities for cooperation in areas like food security and clean energy.

Secretary Clinton and Indian External Affairs Minister Krishna have organized the U.S.-India dialogue into five principal pillars: (1) Strategic Cooperation; (2) Energy and Climate Change; (3) Education and Development; (4) Economics, Trade and Agriculture; and finally (5) Science, Technology, Health and Innovation.

Water is an important cross-cutting issue that impacts each of these pillars, and the quality of life for of all Indians. Not only are water issues critical to the health and development of India, they are also sources of conflict and border disputes, making proper management of this scarce resource even more critical. It is important that we take the time to discuss these key issues in forums such as this, and help develop innovative solutions to the water-related challenges India will continue to face.

The magnitude of India’s water needs cuts across income levels, urban and rural populations, and all industrial sectors. Approximately 12 percent of India’s over 1 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water, and almost half of India’s 626 districts were drought stricken in 2009. Yearly monsoons supply more than 75 percent of India’s annual precipitation over a period of less than three months, making storage and transport capabilities critical.

In urban areas, provision of water can be so sporadic that families at all income levels are left to purchase water trucked in from rural areas, or water taken from other communities and re-sold by “water mafias”. Some 40 percent of households do not have reliable access to clean water and only 36 percent have sewage systems.

The health impacts are enormous. Currently, water borne diseases -- such as diarrhea, dysentery, and cholera -- are the biggest single cause of child mortality in India. Increased focus on water, sanitation and hygiene, known as the WASH sector, is critical for improving India’s public health.

The challenges go beyond drinking water and sanitation. Approximately 80 percent of India’s water is used in agriculture. However in many parts of the country farmers are still without reliable access. For example in Maharashtra only 16 percent of the state’s cultivable lands are under irrigation, leaving the remaining farm lands reliant on seasonal rains. This lack of access to water, compounded by inefficiencies in canal irrigation, can pose threats to India’s food security.

As pressing as water issues are now in India and around the world, they will become even more important in the near future. Experts predict that by 2025 nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries will be water-stressed -- which is defined as demand for water exceeding availability, or when poor quality restricts its use. India is expected to be water stressed by 2020, just 10 years from now.

India’s continuing population growth and the predicted impacts of climate change, including shifts in precipitation and glacier melt, make this challenge one that cannot be addressed by governments alone. While the Indian Government must address its own water challenges, it needs help from groups like you, working in partnership. It is through these partnerships that we will find new ways to address India’s water challenge.

The water challenges in India are clearly great and span several sectors. To direct our efforts today, however, we thought it would be useful to focus our discussion on access to water and sanitation.

My colleagues in the Oceans, Environment and Science Bureau, and USAID who you’ll hear from later today are very active in the WASH sector. USAID’s potable water and sanitation programs promotes hygiene and sanitation as a core health function, and link poor urban slum dwellers with municipal water supply and sanitation infrastructure. The Oceans Environment and Science Bureau has a long-standing program in WASH in schools around the world. Joining our efforts with your will allow us to reach thousands, if not more individuals in need of improved water and sanitation infrastructure.

Targeted investments, even very small ones, in the water and sanitation sector can have indisputable economic and public health benefits. The World Health Organization estimates that every U.S. dollar invested in water and sanitation in developing regions generates an economic benefit of $5 to $28. These benefits include increased productivity due to less time spent ill, and time savings from improved access to water supply and sanitation services.

We believe businesses, academia and civil society have a lead role to play in developing and refining technologies to improve water quality in India, and around the world.

I’m excited about what lies ahead and the potential benefit our partnership can offer. Thank you for your time. I look forward to continuing this conversation, and finding ways to partner with you on this important challenge.

[This is a mobile copy of Remarks India Donor Roundtable]

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