278. Action Memorandum From the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs (Toussaint), the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Nuclear Energy and Technology Affairs (Kratzer), and the Director of the Policy Planning Staff (Lake) to Secretary of State Vance1

United Nations Water Conference

Issues for Decision

A decision must be made on the U.S. posture and level of participation in the United Nations Water Conference scheduled for March 14–25 in Mar del Plata, Argentina. The last Administration planned for the U.S. to adopt a relatively low profile at the Conference, and not to announce any major initiatives which would cast us in a leadership role.

The fact that this will be the first global forum for the new Administration requires that the strategy for our participation be re-examined. Third World countries will view the U.S. posture at the Conference (i.e., statements, commitments, level of delegation) as an early indication of how the new Administration intends to approach North-South problems. However, time is short in which to select meaningful initiatives that would enable the U.S. to assume a high profile leadership role. A decision to upgrade the nature of our substantive participation will require launching immediately an intensified interagency effort to reach agreement on U.S. initiatives; it will also require an expanded in-house staff effort.

Unusual urgency in the selection of the head of our delegation is also involved because of unique administrative and security problems connected with the Mar del Plata venue. We have been alerted to the terrorist threat in Argentina and will provide protective security for all participants. Security must be more elaborate if Cabinet-level representation is involved.

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In six weeks the U.S. will participate with some 135 other nations in the UN Water Conference, the first world economic conference to take place in this Administration. The Conference will address the fundamental policy question of how the global fixed stock of water can best be managed to satisfy mounting requirements for agriculture, domestic and industrial uses. As the next in a series of world conferences under UN sponsorship, it is expected to act on water-related recommendations which emerged from the earlier World Food Conference and the Habitat Conference and will impact on the later Desertification Conference.2

The U.S. initially opposed the convening of a UN Conference on Water. After it was approved by the UNGA, however, Secretary Kissinger, in his speech to the Fourth Ministerial Meeting of the UN Conference on Trade and Development on May 6, 1976 declared . . . “We will play an active role at the United Nations Water Conference—putting forward practical measures to share our knowledge and experience.”3 Preparations have been carried out with the support of the Water Resources Council, with the participation of a broad spectrum of U.S. Governmental and non-Governmental organizations with water resources interests and programs. We have participated actively in the international preparatory phase of the Conference, focusing on developing and presenting U.S. experiences and ideas relevant to priority water management problems confronting the international community.

Preparatory efforts under the former Administration were based on an interagency consensus that the U.S. should adopt a relatively low profile at the Conference. Unlike previous UN conferences (on Environment, Population, Food and Human Settlements),4 we have not planned to announce any new U.S. funding or program commitments or other initiatives. Rather, the strategy selected was one which would draw on and highlight the extensive U.S. water resources activities already underway and planned which have international relevance.

Recognizing that the new Administration may desire a more forthcoming U.S. role, we are now attempting to identify major U.S. initiatives—par [Page 929] ticularly those which would directly address developing country needs. Without a clear signal that such initiatives are desired, the technical agencies have been very conservative in their approach. A letter from the IO and OES Assistant Secretaries on December 24 requested AID to help develop one or two possible initiatives for consideration by the new Administration (Tab 1). The reply was non-committal (Tab 2), although subsequently an initiative in the area of community water supply has been developed by AID at the staff level and endorsed by the U.S. Preparatory Committee.5 It is now being submitted to the Acting AID Administrator, but it is of relatively modest proportions, costing approximately $15 million over the next five years.

We have identified the following as areas in which significant new initiatives might be constructed: food production; community water supply; and technology transfer. Examples of the types of initiatives which could be developed include:

—New bilateral program of loans and technical assistance to LDCs to improve irrigation system operation and related infrastructure development.

—Increased support for international research on improvement of erosion control, drainage, flood control and watershed protection in tropical areas.

—Regional demonstration program on the application of remote sensing to water management as an extension of the AIDSAT satellite program.

—Bilateral and multilateral technical support to LDCs for development of plans and institutions to accelerate provision of safe drinking water to rural populations (this will require pinning down and possibly strengthening AID initiative described in the previous paragraph).

If you desire the U.S. to try to develop a higher profile role in the short time available, it will be necessary to enlist AID support. Further, such a decision would require short-term reprogramming of State personnel resources to support the necessary effort, with the possible requirement for an outside consultant.

There is an outside possibility that the Conference could become a forum to debate highly politicized North-South issues (such as those involved in the New International Economic Order)6 or such strictly political issues as the Panama Canal. A constructive posture by the developed nations might limit or avoid this possibility. At present, however, our reading suggests that no other developed nation intends to make any commitment to new water programs at the Conference. With the exception of Sweden, and Canada to a limited extent, both the Western and Eastern nations have given the Water Conference relatively low pri [Page 930] ority compared to other UN conferences. We expect that posture to continue.

There has been scattered Congressional interest in the Conference thus far. On the other hand, various U.S. non-governmental organizations are pressing for the U.S. to play a leadership role.

It appears that most country delegations will be headed at the ministerial level. The U.S. Delegation might be headed by the Secretary of the Interior (who is also chairman of the interagency Water Resources Council). This would emphasize our interest in maintaining a focus on water issues and intention to avoid extraneous political matters.

The Options

1. Strong Leadership Position—U.S. would use Water Conference to set forth new directions in U.S. philosophy and intentions regarding overall relations with the Third World, and would demonstrate its commitment by announcing several significant new initiatives in the water area. A Presidential statement could be read by the Secretary of the Interior as head of Delegation.


—LDCs would react favorably to early, positive attention by Administration (which would be especially visible if other developed nations do not intend to be forthcoming).

—Chances would be enhanced to avoid politicization of conference by LDCs, who otherwise may feel that there are no other tangible benefits to be gained.

—Initiatives would offer positive proof of U.S. willingness to help solve specific LDC problems in businesslike approach.


—Very difficult to shape meaningful and supportable U.S. policy statements and major initiatives in short time available.

—This level of participation may be excessive in relation to modest expectations and intentions of other countries which will participate, and in relation to realistic overall conference results.

—Meaningful initiatives could be quite costly, and there would be insufficient time to examine and have approved budgetary proposals.

2. Medium Posture—U.S. would focus exclusively on water resources subject matter of Conference, but adopt more forthcoming stance than previously planned. This would require support by the Administration for several water-oriented initiatives. From our conversations with AID officials we gather that initiatives of this kind could be developed whose implementation would be possible within the appropriations which AID expects to obtain.

The Secretary of the Interior could head the Delegation and be backed by an alternate with extensive and recent experience in North-South meetings, and ability to advise and lead in this context.

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—Enable U.S. to play constructive, highly visible role while focusing on the specific subject matter of the agenda.

—Would ensure significant substantive role for U.S. in helping to solve LDC water problems.

—Would undercut any criticism that U.S. is not interested in solving practical LDC problems.


—Initiatives would have future funding implications and will require an immediate intensified interagency effort to identify and develop them.

—Could raise expectations that the U.S. will step forward with new commitments every time a UN conference is called.

3. Low Profile—Continue the strategy developed under the last Administration, limiting U.S. role to exchanging experiences, views and ideas on global water problems. Several modest initiatives may well emerge from the ongoing preparatory efforts and lend additional support to our role. The Secretary of the Interior might still head the Delegation; however, in the absence of an ability to present anything new at the Conference, an Assistant Secretary of Interior could serve as head, backed by a combined team of experts on water and those skilled in international diplomacy.


—It is consistent with original strategy.

—It will at least match the expected posture of other developed nations (since our preparations, though modest by previous U.S. conference standards, have been significantly ahead of other nations).

—Demonstrates U.S. intentions to be selective, rather than automatically responding with new funds and programs every time the UN calls a conference.


—Administration might be subject to criticism at home and abroad for “not caring.”

—Conference could be politicized by LDCs in absence of any serious developed country proposal.

—Gives initial impression of negative Administration approach to North-South problems.

Bureau Views

IO and S/P recommend that Option 2 be followed given the facts that: the Water Conference will be the new Administration’s first exposure in an international forum on a subject with North-South over [Page 932] tones; and a viable, constructive U.S. role could have significant benefits in that regard.

OES concurs in upgrading the U.S. role beyond present planning to the Option 2 level, given the above assessment that the U.S. posture is important to North-South relationships and coupled with the importance of global water problems in their own right. It is recognized, however, that the new initiatives selected to support this option will not—in the limited time available—have the benefit of being thoroughly weighed against the spectrum of development assistance needs beyond the water field, and also potential Administration initiatives in other areas.


1. That we go forward in accordance with the second “Medium Posture” option and, accordingly, select a delegation headed by the Secretary of the Interior.

Approve Disapprove

Prefer Option 1

Prefer Option 37

2. That you or Mr. Christopher orally inform Governor Gilligan of the political importance you attach to the Water Conference and request that AID promptly submit suggestions to the Department for significant water resource initiatives which the U.S. can propose at that conference.8

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Office of the Deputy Secretary: Records of Warren Christopher, 1977–1980, Lot 81D113, Box 7, Memos/Letters From WC to Bureaus. Limited Official Use. Drafted by Kahn, Long, and Blaney. Maynes initialed for Toussaint; Blaney initialed for Lake. Sent through Christopher.
  2. Reference is to the second meeting of the World Food Council in Rome, Italy, June 14–17, 1976; Habitat: UN Conference on Human Settlements in Vancouver, Canada, May 31–June 11, 1976; and the UN Conference on Desertification scheduled for late August 1977.
  3. Kissinger’s address, entitled “UNCTAD IV: Expanding Cooperation for Global Economic Development,” is printed in Department of State Bulletin, May 31, 1976, pp. 657–672. Kissinger asserted that the United States “will play a leading role in applying water resources technology to such objectives as improving the quality and productivity of agriculture and developing new industry.” (Ibid., p. 667)
  4. United Nations conferences on the environment, population, and food took place respectively in Stockholm, Sweden (June 5–16, 1972), Bucharest, Romania (August 19–30, 1974), and Rome, Italy (November 5–16, 1974).
  5. Neither tab is attached.
  6. See footnote 3, Document 207.
  7. Christopher checked this option and initialed.
  8. Christopher neither approved nor disapproved this recommendation but added a handwritten comment below the approval and disapproval lines: “Please see last paragraph of my memorandum. W.C.” Reference is to Christopher’s February 9 memorandum to Toussaint, in which Christopher indicated that he had acted for Vance in making the determination regarding U.S. participation. (National Archives, RG 59, Office of the Deputy Secretary: Records of Warren Christopher, 1977–1980, Lot 81D113, Box 7, Memos/Letters From WC to Bureaus) The last paragraph of the memorandum states: “I wish to emphasize, however, that this approach to the Conference does not imply that the U.S. delegation should take a passive or negative role. On the contrary, our delegation should be quite positive in supporting the importance of water management and receiving ideas from other delegations or the Conference secretariat on practical means of using bilateral and multilateral aid resources and U.S. technological capacities in cooperation with the water programs of interested developing countries. We should declare our determination to obtain, through this exchange of technical experience and ideas, the basis for developing new or expanded programs of U.S. assistance. Major U.S. aid initiatives would logically follow the Conference, which is, after all, a technical one, rather than an aid-pledging session.” (Ibid.) The March 29 NSC Global Issues Cluster Evening Report to Brzezinski, which references the conclusion of the water conference notes: “The U.S. Chairman reports that: A spirit of ‘harmony, accomplishment and optimism’ prevailed, and that all nations worked extremely hard to avoid confrontation on shared water resources.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Global Issues—Oplinger/Bloomfield Subject File, Box 36, Evening Reports: 2–4/77)