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EPA Administrator Wheeler's Wilson Center Remarks on Global Water Issues

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As prepared for delivery: 

Thank you, Mike, for the introduction.

Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you today for this important event, and the timing couldn’t be better with World Water Day on Friday.

It’s a privilege to be here with so many distinguished speakers and guests. Thank you all for joining us.

I want to thank the Wilson Center for hosting us. And I want to recognize our colleagues at the State Department, USAID, and the U.S. Water Partnership for all the hard work that went into today’s event.

As Administrator of the U.S. EPA, I believe that water issues are the largest and most immediate environmental and public health issues affecting the world right now.

By water issues, I mean, primarily, clean and safe drinking water, marine litter, and water infrastructure.   

Right now, up to 2.5 billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water and, as a result, proper sanitation. This fact leads to anywhere from one to three million deaths every year.

And those most likely to die from a lack of safe drinking water are young children. According to the United Nations, nearly a thousand children die every day due to preventable water and sanitation-related diseases.

On the marine litter issue, billions of pounds of waste enter our oceans each year, harming marine life and coastal economies.

On infrastructure, we estimate that more than $700 billion dollars are needed to modernize U.S. water infrastructure over the next 20 years. Much of the world faces similar infrastructure challenges. 

I am here today because I believe – and President Trump believes –that we must do more to address these issues.

There will be some who say this all stems from climate change. 

But the truth is that water challenges have been around for generations and are causing immediate deaths annually.

Areas of the world have struggled with water availability for centuries, and these struggles are due to access, geography, infrastructure, and technology – or the lack thereof.

My frustration with the current dialogue around environmental issues is that water issues often take a backseat. It’s time to change that.

We need to do something about the millions of people who die each year due to a lack of clean water and sanitation. We need to do something about marine debris. And I believe we can do this while still addressing other challenges that loom on the horizon.

As we speak, there are pilot projects around the world focused on water issues. We need to get past small pilot projects to solving the problem for everyone. We need to leverage our lessons learned, step up public and private investments, and provide more effective financing and technical assistance abroad.

That is what I hope to initiate here today – and then work together to accomplish in the months and years ahead.

Between the federal departments, NGOs, corporations, and international institutions represented here today, we have the resources, technology, and expertise that many nations so desperately need. But we need to raise public awareness and unite our efforts in a manner that is effective and will stand the test of time. 

In November 2017, the U.S. published its first-ever Global Water Strategy for this very reason. The strategy lays out the U.S. government’s four key objectives: 

  1. Access to clean and safe drinking water and sanitation services
  2. Sound management and protection of freshwater resources
  3. Cooperation on shared waterways
  4. Strengthening water sector governance and financing

Of course, much of this work is a continuation of what we are already doing. The U.S. remains one of the world’s largest donors in the water sector – investing in infrastructure, technology, private sector engagement, and innovative financial instruments to mobilize local capital.

We will continue to focus our efforts on countries and regions where needs and opportunities are greatest – and where U.S. engagement can best protect our national security interests. The difference is that we are elevating this work to address global water security to a new level under President Trump.

I will explain how within the three areas of immediate concern: drinking water, marine debris, and water infrastructure.  

First, drinking water.

The foundation of water security is access to clean, reliable drinking water sources. Here in the U.S., we have made tremendous progress on this front.

In the 1970s, more than 40 percent of our nation’s drinking water systems failed to meet even the most basic health standards. Today, over 92 percent of community water systems meet all health-based standards, all the time.

There are a variety of reasons for these gains. I’ll mention two that are particularly relevant to today’s discussion.

First, forward-thinking lawmakers and private businesses understood that investments in America’s water infrastructure would pay dividends for decades to come.

Second, our laws and regulations protect our water resources while recognizing the vital role of states and the private sector.

Our federalist system is one of our strengths. Those closest to the situation are often best suited to address it. While Washington is often better suited to conduct research, establish standards, monitor progress, and intervene when the situation warrants. This approach has served us well, and we continue to see progress.

For example, EPA provides targeted grants and technical assistance to the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. We work with our federal counterparts, utilities, and the Governors to monitor drinking water and oversee waste management.

Our multi-faceted, multi-layered approach is working. Between 2003 and 2017, the percentage of people in the U.S. Pacific islands receiving safe water increased from 39 percent to 82 percent. Health-based violations that were common fifteen years ago have become a rarity.

We are committed to sharing this type of progress with developing nations throughout the world.

For example, EPA and USAID joined forces to develop the Drinking Water Laboratory Capacity Building Program in West Africa. This program helps provide clean drinking water in urban areas by building the capacity of labs for sampling, analysis, and quality assurance. EPA provides the technical assistance and know-how, while USAID provides the funding and on-the-ground presence. 

The project launched in Ghana and sparked a new focus on water quality across the country, including the development of a Quality Assurance Manual, which will improve water quality for over 500,000 consumers. This manual is now being used as a model for other labs in the region.  And labs in Ghana have already used this knowledge to mentor labs in Nigeria.

We are excited about the progress of this program and believe it holds potential for other areas around the world. 

Here in the U.S., we are blessed with an abundance of waterways scattered across our landscape. However, in parts of the American West, we still face water shortages. These problems are typical to many other arid climates around the world. And as populations and industries expand, this problem is reaching more communities. Droughts also pose a serious threat.

We are working to get ahead of these issues and provide water security for generations to come.

Just last month, we announced that EPA will lead the development of a national Water Reuse Action Plan. From recycling treated wastewater to finding new applications for water produced from oil and gas extraction, there is innovative work happening across the water sector. We want to accelerate that work through coordinated federal leadership. Our Water Reuse Action Plan is the first initiative of this magnitude that is coordinated across the water sector.

The next dimension of our water challenges is protecting our oceans, bays, rivers, and watersheds. That brings me to the issue of marine litter, which has become a topic of global concern.

Before we dive into the specifics, we must provide some important context. Every year, an estimated 11 to 28 billion pounds of waste ends up in the ocean. And nearly 60 percent of it comes from six Asian nations. Most of the trash that ends up in the ocean originates on land. Approximately 80 percent of ocean trash comes from land-based sources, including plastics.

To be most effective, we must address the problem before it gets to our oceans. This means improving waste management and recycling. The U.S. is taking a leadership role in these areas. 

At EPA, we held our first-ever Recycling Summit this past November. The summit brought together leaders from all levels of the recycling value chain to discuss ways we can strengthen the recycling industry and markets. We will reconvene the Summit this year and assess our progress.

I’m also proud to report that EPA and the U.S. Trade Representative led the U.S. negotiating team for the environmental chapter of the USMCA – the new NAFTA – which contains the most comprehensive set of enforceable environmental obligations of any trade agreement to date, including first-time provisions to address marine litter and debris.

One of EPA’s key programs in this space is our Trash Free Waters program. We work directly with states, municipalities, and businesses to reduce litter, prevent trash from entering waterways, and capture trash that is already in our waters.

For example, we are directly supporting the instillation of trash traps in the Mobile Bay estuary. We also track and measure the effectives of other trash mitigation techniques and compile them in a compendium of Great Practices.

One of the more cost-effective solutions is a litter trap installed on a tributary to the Anacostia River, not far from here. One of the most innovative examples is the world’s first-ever solar-powered trash water wheel, which was created and installed in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Between May 2014 and June 2015, the Water Wheel collected 278 tons of trash.

We’ve taken what we’ve learned through the Trash Free Waters program and expanded it to communities in Central America, the Caribbean, and South America.

In Panama, we helped stakeholders install the country’s first-ever trash boom to control the flow of trash in a highly polluted Panama City river before it reaches the ocean.

In Jamaica, we joined stakeholders together with Peace Corps Jamaica and the Sandals Foundation to improve solid waste management practices. As a result, we helped the Sandals Foundation establish a program for better waste collection and separation.

Similarly, we helped the government of Peru expand the number of communities that collect and separate recyclable materials. We also assisted local governments in identifying and removing waste “hotspots” in and around waterways.

Looking ahead, we will focus on expanding these efforts with our European and Japanese counterparts to the six Asian countries that contribute nearly 60 percent of the world’s marine waste.

This summer, we are slated to finalize a new partnership with the State Department to help Sri Lanka improve its waste management. EPA will provide technical assistance to develop a comprehensive solid waste management program that will prevent land-based sources of trash from reaching the ocean. When I travel to the G7 in France and the G20 in Japan, I will make marine litter a top priority.

Let’s move on to the third and final area: water infrastructure

The unfortunate reality is that many projects around the world never get off the ground due to a lack of funding – not a lack of ambition or necessity.  Due to budget realities and the scale of our challenges, we’ve had to develop creative ways to finance these projects and modernize our nation’s water infrastructure.

My Agency oversees the implementation of the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), which established a federal credit program to accelerate investment in water infrastructure. We provide borrowers long-term, low-cost supplemental loans, which are not readily available in capital markets.

To date, we have issued seven loans through the WIFIA program totaling over $1.8 billion dollars. Combined, these projects will help finance over $3.8 billion dollars in infrastructure investments while creating over 6,000 jobs. 

This is just the beginning. This past year, we invited an additional 39 projects across the nation to apply for WIFIA loans that would help finance over $10 billion dollars in water infrastructure and create up to 183,000 jobs.

WIFIA could be the ideal model for other nations or international institutions, like the U.N., or the World Bank, to use to advance major water projects.

There are also examples of innovative financing for environmental projects in the private sector, such as Circulate Capital.

Nine large companies, including Proctor & Gamble, PepsiCo, 3M and Coca-Cola, have committed between five and ten million dollars each to provide no- and low-interest loans to cities and companies to build and scale recycling infrastructure and sustainable manufacturing technologies. They also launched an initiative to prevent marine litter.  They aim to raise $150 million dollars to fund waste infrastructure solutions in Southeast Asia. We are ready and willing to assist these efforts.

Across the government and across the globe, there is tremendous work being done. My hope today is to draw more attention to it and to bolster it. But my ultimate goal is to see us move from a patchwork of pilot projects to comprehensive solutions.

This will take time, but it can be done. The U.S. is living and breathing proof.

In less than a century, we transformed our rivers, bays, and oceans from dumping grounds to meccas of tourism and economic activity. And today, the science and systems behind our drinking water can – and should – serve as a model for other countries.

Millions around the world are suffering from a lack of clean water. I believe – as does President Trump – that they deserve our immediate attention.

It is our hope that we can elevate these issues to global priority and generate the urgency and unity needed to address them.

Thank you for your time, thank you for your attention, and I look forward to working with you to advance global water security.