332. Memorandum From the Director of the Policy Planning Staff (Lake) to the Special Representative for Economic Summits (Owen)1


  • Summit Proposal for UN Water Decade—Background and Options

The 1977 UN Water Conference resolved that by 1990 everyone in the world should have reasonable access to adequate water and sanitary facilities. The UNGA subsequently declared 1981–90 the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade.

The US strongly supports the goals of the Decade. Provision of reasonably pure and conveniently located water supplies, and of adequate sanitary facilities, can make a tangible and meaningful contribution to human well-being. It is a prerequisite of good health and is essential to the betterment of the lot of the Third World’s rural women, millions of whom must walk miles each day with heavy loads of water. Provision of potable water is consistent with our broader North-South strategy emphasizing direct efforts to meet basic needs.

The US has urged the world community to take the Decade seriously and was instrumental in arranging for a special one-day session of the General Assembly on November 15, 1980, to launch the Decade. Peter Bourne is coordinating Water Decade activities within the UN system. He is arranging for the DAC to hold a meeting of the donor community late in the summer in Geneva in order to determine (and encourage) donor commitments.

The goal of meeting the potable water needs of all by 1990 may be impractical—the capital cost of providing basic services to the 2.7 billion people who will need them (taking into account interim population growth) would be $200–$600 billion (1979 dollars), according to the World Bank. However, with strong support from donors and LDCs, it will be feasible to make a major dent in the problem. The UN calculates that one billion rural people can be provided with safe water for $44 billion (1977 prices), two-thirds of which would be provided by LDCs themselves.

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The U.S. Position

In late 1978, negotiations among State, AID and other interested agencies produced an agreement that AID should provide a total of $2.5 billion over the decade in bilateral aid for rural water supplies and sanitation, with the annual disbursements rising toward the end of the decade. This figure was contingent on commensurate support from LDCs and other donors and on future absolute increases in the AID budget. AID direct spending on water and sanitation in recent years has been in the range of $150–$180 million; if this level is maintained, expenditures over the decade will total $1.5–$1.8 billion. More than two-thirds of the current annual total is accounted for by a few large ESF projects, mainly urban, in the Middle East. Urban projects had not been counted against the original target of $2.5 billion, but, given current funding prospects, will have to be included in any future announcement of a target.

In view of the uncertain funding outlook, AID now opposes announcing any spending target for the decade. AID is committed to doing more on water, which has second priority in their health sector to the broader primary health care program (which includes water and sanitation in an integrated approach). Doug Bennet agrees that the proportion going to water should increase as the total DA health budget increases. However, AID is unwilling to vitiate the primary health care program to meet a high water spending target. Whether or not the high level of ESF going into water and sanitation can be maintained will depend on funding levels, the future mix of ESF recipients, and recipients’ desires and needs for major water and sanitation investments.

AID is currently unable to project its water and sanitation expenditures for the coming decade. Over the next two months they will conduct a water policy review and will clarify their own priorities.

Other Donors

Some multilateral agencies, especially the World Bank, are gearing up for major efforts. The World Bank already spends close to $1 billion a year on water and sanitation. Its staff has drawn up and submitted to McNamara plans that would push expenditures for the 1980s up to nearly $20 billion, and increase the share going to rural areas. (Assuming McNamara approves the new water policy, we should make sure the US director endorses it.)

European donor interest, according to Peter Bourne, is high, but the willingness to commit resources varies. The West Germans and Swedes have been leaders in this area, between them helping 37 LDCs develop national plans for the decade. The British are interested but are working with a shrinking aid budget. The French are, as usual, inter [Page 1115] ested mainly in former colonies and in linking aid to domestic commercial interests.

The Japanese have provided aid for a number of water-related projects but have not yet expressed a particular commitment to the UN Decade. In Canada, interest was high in the previous government, dropped off with the election of Clark, and will probably recover should Trudeau be reelected.

The EEC is enthusiastic about the decade and has promised to give it high priority, subject to the degree to which recipient countries request such aid. The EEC will try to promote the decade among member countries and will probably hold a two-day meeting in Brussels next fall to encourage and coordinate European donor interest.

All the main donors seem to accept the idea of the Water Decade as good as in principle. However, given the uncertain and unformed nature of many other summit countries’ commitments, the US would have to exert early leadership and pressure to achieve a significant result at the summit.

Options for the Summit

1. Announce US commitment of $2.5 billion for the Decade, encourage others to announce comparable targets

A summit initiative would have maximum impact if the countries could announce high targets. Public announcement of a US target would also be a useful lever for encouraging other donors to set such goals. However, this option faces two major obstacles: 1) it will be difficult, given the fiscal climate, to gain OMB acceptance of the requisite additional funding and advance commitment of funds; and 2) it will probably be quite difficult to persuade all the summit countries to make similar announcements.

In order to make a public commitment of $2.5 billion in bilateral aid for domestic water and sanitary projects (urban and rural) for the decade, the President and OMB would have to:

—agree to an absolute increase in AID’s budget specifically for this purpose. The exact amount of the needed increase has not been determined but may approach $1 billion spread over the decade.

—agree to an advance commitment of $2.5 billion for AID spending on water supplies and sanitation over the decade.

Option 2. Announce U.S. commitment of $2.0 billion for the decade; encourage others to announce comparable targets

AID and OMB may be more willing to make this smaller commitment, though even this level probably exceeds current AID spending expectations. Announcing a specific target, even if it is lower than that [Page 1116] agreed upon internally in 1978, provides us with greater leverage over other donors and more credibility with LDCs. A figure lower than $2.0 billion, however, might not have the same advantages, since it would represent little increase over the status quo.

Option 3. Express strong support for the Decade without announcing funding targets

The US and other summit countries could declare their strong support for the goals of the decade, and pledge to provide increased aid for water and sanitation without specifying funding levels. Some countries might be willing to say they will increase the share of their aid funds that will be devoted to these subjects.

This option would be easily achievable and would be better than nothing in terms of the decade. However, it would be a weak statement for a summit.


Because of the tangible human benefits that could result from a successful Water Decade, I feel we should do all we can to make it meaningful. I propose that we actively consider Option 1 for the Summit, while recognizing that there will be strong pressures pushing us toward Option 3.

An interagency High Level Group on the Water Decade was previously established by Lucy Benson and would now be chaired by Matt Nimetz. If you wish to pursue an initiative on potable water for the Summit, I’d be glad to suggest to Matt that he call a meeting of the HLG. It would be useful if you could attend such a meeting, but, in any case, the meeting would help to clarify the US position on the Water Decade.2

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Policy and Planning Staff????Office of the Director, Records of Anthony Lake, 1977–1981, Lot 82D298, Box 6, TL 2/1–15/80. No classification marking.
  2. The G–7 Economic Summit took place in Venice June 22–23. The Declaration issued at the end of the Summit on June 23 did not specifically mention water resources. For the full text of the Declaration, see Public Papers: Carter, 1980–81, Book II, pp. 1186–1191. Documentation on the Summit is in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, volume III, Foreign Economic Policy.