Chris Holmes is the senior representative within USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) responsible for coordinating the implementation of key water policy initiatives, including USAID’s water strategy. He also serves as the primary spokesperson and liaison with public and private organizations, including congressional leaders, to coordinate water efforts. Since rejoining USAID in January 2010 as the Senior Adviser for Energy and Environment, he has supported the missions in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Ghana on water and food security matters. Mr. Holmes brings extensive experience in the international economic development, humanitarian assistance and environmental protection sectors. He served as the Director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (TDA), Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Refugee Programs, and Acting Director of the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). During a recent visit to Denver he took the time to talk with ICOSA about the work of USAID’s water initiatives and the astounding results of their work. ICOSA: Why and how did you get into the water business?
HOLMES: Water is, of course, the key to life. By concentrating on the water sector and other water-related sectors such as heath and food security, I believe I can help make a significant contribution to sustaining human life and the environment. I have been fascinated by water since a very young age. My awakening, so to speak, occurred as a 14-year-old at the Webb Schools of California, where a wonderful teacher took us to a small pond to collect and subsequently examine pond water under a microscope. To see the abundance of microscopic life, to learn how water both sustains life and can transmit life-threatening disease has never ceased to amaze me. And since then, so much of my work has indirectly or directly related to water. When I began my government service as an administrative assistant to a congressman from California, I helped develop a National Aquaculture Act, as well as National Wildlife Refuges in the San Francisco Bay Area. Subsequently, at USAID, in my capacity as director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, I worked on a wide range of water-related crises, including severe drought in the Sahel Region in Africa, and flooding throughout Asia. When I directed the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, we did analyses related to dam construction in China, including the well-known Three Gorges Hydropower Facility. In my work at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as the deputy assistant administrator for enforcement, I spent a great deal of time concentrating on developing new approaches for remediating polluted groundwater at the U.S. Department of Energy nuclear weapons production facilities and at various military bases. And, in industry, I served as vice president for environment, safety and health for Tenneco Energy, concentrating on groundwater remediation and the overall compliance of Tenneco Energy's natural gas pipeline transmission system with water-related environmental regulations. Now, at USAID, as the USAID Global Water Coordinator, my work in the water sector touches upon practically every possible water-related discipline, including food, health, education, conflict and climate change. I work with a wide range of wonderful, skilled and highly committed public servants at USAID, other government agencies, as well as in business, universities, nongovernmental organizations and other civil society entities.
ICOSA: What are some of the most important water projects USAID is working on right now?
HOLMES: Considering Africa—while we know we can't prevent drought, we can make real progress in ensuring that the next drought is less devastating. The 2011-2012 drought was one of the worst in 60 years, yet no famine struck rural Ethiopia last year. An important part of our work at USAID, and that of the government of Ethiopia, was to link our water efforts with other interventions from donors and others. In fact, we have been successful in several ways.
To help prevent famine, USAID supported the government of Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program—a program jointly funded with nine donors—that linked the predictable needs of 7.6 million chronically food-insecure Ethiopians; provided cash and food transfers as wages for labor on such public works as dams, gully reclamation, tree plantings, potable and multiple use of water stations, schools, health clinics, health posts and water harvesting structures. The drought’s impact was lessened by a food-and-cash-for-public-works program USAID supported. In fact, from 2010 through 2016 the agency’s Food for Peace office has budgeted $110 million per year.
Another important program that USAID supports began in 2011—the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Transformations for Enhanced Resilience Project, wherein International Rescue Committee (IRC) and CARE Ethiopia operate in the Afar, Oromia and Somali regions of Ethiopia to improve access to clean and sustainable water sources for target communities. The effort provides 146,000 people with access to water year-round at a total estimated project cost of $7 million. The program improves hygiene awareness and access to sanitation among beneficiaries, improves pastoral rangeland land management practices, and uses approaches to reduce actual or potential conflicts over natural resources. This program is slated to continue through FY2013.
Among the most effective ways to enhance the resilience of large numbers of people at scale in urban and rural areas is through the WASH programs. In that regard, the USAID Indonesia Urban Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (USAID IUWASH) project is supporting the government of Indonesia in their efforts to achieve Indonesia’s Millennium Development Goal targets for safe water and sanitation. The project has been active in 34 urban areas, and in the coming year will expand to 20 additional cities. To achieve the targeted outcomes, the project will bring increased access to safe water for 2 million people, and improved sanitation for 200,000 people, with a 20 percent reduction of per unit water costs paid by the poor in targeted communities. The USAID IUWASH project will work with the Indonesian government agencies—central, provincial and local—as well as local government-owned water utilities, the Association of Indonesia Water Utilities, nongovernmental organizations, communities, universities, and the private sector to achieve these goals. The project will also address the challenges water utilities face while ensuring water quality and availability, in a context of climate change and increasing demand for water.
We also have important activities underway with a number of organizations in Colorado. For example, a University of Colorado Boulder team is partnering with USAID to assess snow and glacier contributions to water resources originating in the high mountains of Asia that straddle 10 countries. This assessment will be crucial in helping to forecast the future availability and vulnerability of water resources in the region, beginning with accurate assessments of the distinct, separate contributions to river discharge from melting glacier ice and seasonal snow. Such data will ultimately provide a better understanding of the timing and volume of runoff in the face of climate change.
ICOSA: What are you doing differently from your predecessors? What has been the impact?
HOLMES: The needs in the developing world for clean water, sanitation and food security are staggering. Consider this … the lack of safe water and sanitation is the world’s single largest cause of illness. More than a billion people do not have access to safe water, and well over two billion people live without adequate sanitation. More than four billion cases of diarrhea cause 2.2 million deaths annually—mostly in children under the age of five. As immune systems are progressively compromised with each bout of diarrhea, related illnesses indirectly kill millions more each year. Moreover, almost one billion people across the globe will go to bed hungry, 200 million of them children. And, in the developing world, approximately 195 million children under five years old are growth stunted, due in great part to the impact of diarrheal disease on their nutrition.
To help meet these needs, USAID’s intent is to build on past successes and lessons learned to meet our overarching goal of avowing and improving lives. In so doing, we are paying a great deal of attention to meeting food and health needs through the water programs developed and implemented by USAID and its partners. This approach is reflective of USAID’s effort, known as USAID Forward, to make the agency more effective by changing the way we partner with others, embracing a spirit of innovation and strengthening the results of our work.
To do this we are utilizing a certain set of tools and approaches—catalysts, if you will—that we believe will provoke speed and action toward the overarching goal of saving and improving lives. These tools are derived from open source-based development, partnerships and finance, science and technology, integrated programming and resilience and scale. These all help catalyze the development and implementation of solutions. Underscoring these tools is the engagement and empowerment of women throughout our water programs. This is not to imply that these are the only set of tools utilized by USAID in meeting health and food needs through its water programs. Rather, we discuss them given their game-changing potential to strengthen our ability, as well as that of our partners, to develop and apply new solutions, which have significant scale, results and impact; secure funding; increase our understanding of the present and future magnitude of water, health and food challenges; and by creating synergies between water, food and health programs, which meet multiple needs.
ICOSA: Who are you collaborating with on the projects you just spoke about, and how are these collaborations going? What are your expected outcomes?
HOLMES: We seek partnerships that bring different perspectives and expertise, while supporting the enhanced impact of working with one or more partners, and bringing the additional funding needed to augment USAID’s limited funds. We seek to engage a wide range of partners in our efforts to meet multiple needs. Earlier this year, the United States Water Partnership (USWP), a U.S.-based public-private partnership (PPP) was established to unite American expertise, knowledge and resources to address water challenges around the globe, especially in the developing world. This includes a commitment by the Coca-Cola Company and Coca-Cola Africa to the USWP to advance sustainable water access in African countries facing the greatest clean water challenges.
In Tanzania, the Water and Development Alliance (WADA), the innovative partnership between USAID and the Coca-Cola Foundation, takes an integrated approach across natural resources management; rural development; and Water, Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (WSSH). This program employs a multiple-use services approach to meet WSSH needs, while sustainably managing watersheds.
In the Dominican Republic, Ghana and the Philippines, the International H2O Collaboration, a new worldwide alliance of Rotary International, the Rotary Foundation and USAID, is initially developing water and sanitation projects.
In the Coral Triangle, we launched a $40 million, five-year Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI) to better manage the biologically rich marine and coastal area known as the "Amazon of the Seas," in the waters surrounding Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands. The CTI seeks to regulate the management of fisheries, protect threatened species, and help residents adapt to climate change in one of the world's most populated regions. Other partners on the initiative include the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Department of State, the Australian Government, Walton Family Foundation, CTI Secretariat, Asian Development Bank and the Global Environment Facility.
There is also USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures (DIV), a grant program using staged financing to invest in game-changing ideas, rigorously test those using cutting-edge analytical methods, and scale solutions that work. DIV is an open competition for ideas in any sector, any country or any region of the world. Through DIV, we have supported WASH for Life, a $17 million partnership between USAID DIV and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to achieve cost-effective, sustained development in the water, sanitation and hygiene sectors.
In Kenya, for example, eight million people in urban areas do not have access to a simple, hygienic latrine, and instead are forced to use a pit latrine with hundreds of other people. Through WASH for Life, DIV/USAID has invested $100,000 in Sanergy, a start-up social enterprise that is building and franchising a dense network of 60 low-cost latrines to slum residents, collecting the waste daily, and processing it as fertilizer and biogas. Designed by MIT engineers and architects, these low-cost, modular hygienic latrines can be assembled in one day. These sanitation centers are franchised to local entrepreneurs and local youth groups. This effort and its profitable roll-out model have earned awards from MIT, Echoing Green, MassChallenge and others. Within five years, Sanergy plans to expand to 3,390 centers reaching 600,000 slum dwellers—further creating jobs and profit, while aiming to reduce the incidence of diarrhea by 40 percent. Sanergy’s low-cost latrines are designed to serve 77 people who will pay for the service. Important to note is that the waste from each person generates 22kWh of electricity and 40kg of fertilizer annually therefore, the 10 million people in Kenya’s slums create a potential annual market of $72 million.
Another cutting-edge project is WaterSHED, an NGO based in Cambodia that seeks to seed the commercial introduction of an innovative hand-washing solution in Vietnam. Vietnam is a country with 900,000 cases of malnutrition and 9,000 deaths per year that can be associated with improper hand-washing practices. In rural Vietnam, only 6.1 percent of people wash hands with soap before eating. Due to poor sanitation, the economic costs are estimated at $262 million per year. Effective hand-washing with soap in Vietnam could significantly reduce over 10 million cases of hygiene-related communicable diseases per year. With support from DIV, WaterSHED has commercially launched a marketable hand-washing device to encourage proper hand-washing at critical times. With a retail price of $6 per unit, this “HappyTap” device, along with behavior-change messaging, could help create a new market for attractive, aspirational, but low-cost sanitary products that encourage better hygiene practices. The device will be evaluated based on its market performance and whether uptake leads to improved hand-washing practices, and in turn, improved health outcomes.
ICOSA: There are so many exciting things going on in the water area of USAID. What are some of the results you can share?
HOLMES: There are many exciting results in this area, but two initially come to mind. In 2005 in Ethiopia, the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) invited the USAID-supported hygiene improvement program to bring at-scale approaches to the Ministry of Health’s implementation of the newly endorsed National Hygiene and Sanitation Strategy. Together they agreed to focus on the Amhara region, selected because it was a USAID and WSP priority geographic area with great Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) needs, fewer donor investments than other regions, and a committed regional leadership. More than 5.8 million people in the region have been reached by hygiene and sanitation promotion activities, and an estimated 2.8 million people have stopped the practice of open defecation and now use a basic pit latrine. Amhara’s high-involvement districts saw significant drops in open defecation and large increases in the number of households using unimproved latrines. The practice of open defecation dropped from 64 percent to 40 percent, and access to unimproved sanitation increased from 17 percent to 46 percent.
Another example was in Madagascar, where the Hygiene Improvement Program (HIP) at-scale strategy focused on four USAID priority geographic regions—Analamanga, Amoron’i Mania, Haute Matsiatra and Atsinanana—with an estimated population of 6.4 million. HIP focused on priority communes in each region based on an assessment of diarrheal disease prevalence, access to water, sanitation coverage, presence of development partners and general vulnerability. From 2007 to 2010 the practice of open defecation dropped from 38 percent to 23 percent, while access to unimproved latrines rose from 59 percent to 73 percent. It was a great success.
To learn more about USAID’s global water initiatives, go to www.usaid.gov.