Water Philanthropy's New Focus Country: The United States

Ensuring access to safe, clean water is a big challenge in the developing world, which is why foundations like Gates, Hilton, and Dell have poured lots of money into water and sanitation projects. Now, a new trend is emerging in water philanthropy, one that wasn't on the radar even a few years ago: strengthening water infrastructure in a surprising place, the United States of America.

Water infrastructure in the U.S. is in a state of decline. The United States experiences about 240,000 water main breaks a year; the American Water Works Association estimates that we need to invest more $1 trillion over 20 years to fix our aging pipes. In the meantime, Congress has resisted legislation that would fund water system improvements; it hasn't passed the Water Resources Development Act, which would provide for major water infrastructure upgrades, since 2007. Historically, Congress passed such legislation every two years to sustain and improve on U.S. water systems in the face of aging pipes, a growing population, and the demands of economic development.

The government's refusal to adequately invest in clean water has contributed to some alarming domestic water emergencies. In 2010, a Boston water main break famously sparked a public order to boil water before use, affecting two million people. But more often, water boils are small, localized, and—despite their frequency—minimally discussed in the national media. In the last month alone, there have been water boil orders in scattered places throughout the country, including Arkansas, Oklahoma, Washington state, and Indiana. Boiling your water before consuming it has become a semi-routine occurrence in the United States.

Beyond the sanitation and public health problems that stem from water main breaks and failing pipes, the United States' clean water supply is also under threat from chemical contamination. The West Virginia chemical spill earlier this year exposed 300,000 people to toxic running water that boiling could not fix, sickening hundreds of people. Supermarket shelves in affected areas ran out of bottled water, and the National Guard had to distribute water to people in need.

The New York Times reported last week that the U.S. is in 34th place globally for access to safe water and sanitation. Oxfam considered a lack of safe water access when it gave the United States a 21st place country ranking in a best/worst places to eat report this year. 

Once concerned almost exclusively with water infrastructure abroad, funders are focusing their energies on U.S. water challenges as well. The Johnson Family Foundation, which awards nearly $1 million annually to international environmental and water efforts, added a U.S. component last year to its "Charting New Waters" program. The initiative aims to promote sustainable and resilient water infrastructure in the United States. Also in 2013, the MacArthur Foundation funded a report by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a policy group out of Chicago, on the economic effects of failing U.S. water infrastructure. "The Case for Fixing the Leaks" warns (correctly) that there are serious financial costs to having bad water systems. An intuitive conclusion, perhaps, but one that many policymakers have yet to appreciate. And notable among recent U.S. water grants, for reasons of size: The Clinton Global Initiative announced last September that it plans to put $130 million in New Jersey water infrastructure work over several years. 

Smaller or purely domestic foundations are investing in improving the U.S. potable water supply, too. Philadelphia's William Penn Foundation, which seeks to sustain a high quality of life in its home region, recently announced a new $35 million initiative to protect and restore the Delaware River watershed, which 15 million Americans rely on for their drinking water. (See IP's coverage here.) Pittsburgh's Brother's Brother Foundation, which reports it has spent more than $4 billion on humanitarian aid in over 140 countries, shipped six tractor trailer loads of water to West Virginia in response to its recent chemical spill, and donated 130,000 bottles of water to FEMA and faith-based distribution sites in affected areas. Other U.S. foundations, including Chicago's Joyce Foundation and New York's Grace Communications Foundation, are working on U.S. water supply issues too, albeit in more niche ways.

And adding credibility to CNT's argument that the health of water infrastructure and the economy are positively correlated, even the private sector is pitching in to subsidize American water systems. Some major multinational companies, including Siemans and Coca Cola, have teamed up with environmental groups and a slew of local wastewater authorities to form the U.S. Water Alliance, an advocacy group calling for better safe water availability in the United States. 

This new philanthropy focused on U.S. water infrastructure does present some policy challenges: Is an ad hoc, multi-actor approach to bolstering the U.S. water supply preferable to a coordinated federal policy? Probably not. Countries that invest in their infrastructure in a strategic way tend to fare better economically than those that don't. But in the absence of other funding, growing philanthropic spending on U.S. water infrastructure is at least better than the alternative, which I guess would be increasingly frequent water boils and more dependence on water bottle distribution centers.