Rep. Earl Blumenauer talks to ONE about clean water, bow-ties and bikes

Representative Blumenauer on World Water Day 2012. Photo credit: http://blumenauer.house.gov/

Earlier this week, I caught up with ONE supporter and the longest congressional champion of global access to clean water and sanitation, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who represents Oregon’s third Congressional district, about the global water crisis and his unwavering support for US foreign assistance.

Photo credit: Stirling Elmendorf

What I learned about Rep. Blumenauer is that his passion for conserving energy and caring for the environment permeates both his work and personal life, and he practices what he preaches. I learned that the proud grandfather of two and primary author of the soon-to-be-reintroduced Paul Simon ‘Water for the World’ Act prefers wearing bow-ties over ties, has run 37 marathons and bikes to work. He also urges his colleagues to skip the elevators and take the stairs, and likes to say “Burn calories, not fossil fuels!” Wisdom for the ages for sure!

Perhaps the best part of this interview is that our ONE volunteers from Oregon – who have been visiting Rep. Blumenauer’s offices since 2007 – got a chance to ask their own questions to the Congressman via video.

Malaka Gharib: You’ve been a longtime leader in the House in growing and protecting the International Affairs Account (Function 150). What is your reason for championing this part of the federal budget?

Representative Earl Blumenauer: There is probably no investment that the federal government makes that has more impact for the lives and livelihood of people around the globe and at the same time, reinforces American interests.

Helping people with safe drinking water and sanitation is much less likely to end up in some Swiss Bank account. It is much less likely to be used against the host country’s people, as often happens with military assistance. It is one of the few areas where I think there is an opportunity to bring people together. My experience with our legislation, first with the ‘Water for the Poor’ Act and more recently, with the Water for the World’ Act, is this is something that doesn’t have to be fiercely divisive or bipartisan, so we’re trying to let the 150 account reflect that. It is a challenge in these times but it hits all of the bases.

Speaking of water and sanitation, you’re the longest congressional champion of access to clean water. What drew you to focus and fight to advance this particular issue above the rest? In other words, what makes the issue of water so different from some of the other issues facing our world today?

Well, there is no shortage of important issues that people can work on, and I strongly feel you ought to follow your passion. But for me, for now over a decade, it has been water. This is something that is sort of the common denominator, it touches everybody. It is something that actually does not require much investment compared to the other challenges we face, it is an opportunity to have multiple benefits.
blum-india day

Rep. Blumenauer in India. Photo credit: http://blumenauer.house.gov/

Today, what? 200 million hours will be spent by women in search of water for their family. That’s 200 million hours not spent feeding their family, or in a classroom, or involved in economic activity. The notion that all of these important health initiatives, and I’m excited about what has happened with the progress with HIV/AIDS, for instance, we’ve seen some remarkable progress. If we don’t have safe drinking water for those families to be able to take the medicine, it undercuts it. We will have more people sick today needlessly from water-borne disease than any other reason, any other source. Because it is so focused, so central, because it is kind of the building block-safe drinking water and sanitation – it seemed to me the best place to focus time and energy.

ONE has nearly 23,000 members in the state of Oregon, 6,491 of whom live in the 3rd District.  We actually have video questions from our Oregon Congressional District leaders and they were so excited to get to ask you their questions. So we’ll let them do the talking.

Carolyn Barber: Hi, I’m Carolyn Barber, the Congressional District Leader for ONE in Portland, Oregon. I had the opportunity to work at City Hall with you when I was in the international relations office, reporting to Bud Clarke at the time, and really appreciate your support for connecting Portland with the rest of the world. I’m really happy today that you’re so supportive of clean water bills. My question for you is, we know that you had introduced the Water protection and reinvestment Act of 1012 and that the goals of that act are to protect public health, restore the environment and reduce pollution for US communities and individuals that can’t afford it. Do you see value in supporting this type of legislation that accomplishes those same types of objectives in Africa? Thank you.

Absolutely. Thanks for the good question, Carolyn. Africa was one of the catalysts for the work we did early with the initial legislation in 2005. We have the vast array of people in desperate need of water assistance. But the federal government at that point was spending 7 million dollars in all of sub-Saharan Africa. We’ve diverted more of it other areas for other purposes; frankly, it wasn’t as high of a priority for meeting the needs of other people.

Money, for example, in Iraq that as opposed to what we could have done, a fraction of that money spent in sub-Saharan Africa would have made a far greater impact. Africa is, some argue, the continent for this century. It is growing rapidly, it is modernizing, economies are strengthening but there are still tremendous development challenges and it is very unequal progress. The extent to which the United States continues and enhances its work in sub-Saharan Africa, it is going to have arguably more impact than any place else in the world.

Craig Rottman: Hi Congressman. My name is Craig Rottman, I’m a CDL in Portland for the ONE campaign. I just wanted to say thank you for all you do for us in Washington. We’re really proud of our progressive leadership and its important that you know that, so thank you very much. One of the things we do, or try to do, as leaders at ONE is not just educate people about extreme poverty but give them the opportunity to take action on behalf of the people who suffer. To advocate for programs that literally save millions of lives. What advice can you give us, volunteer leaders for ONE at home and across the country, that will make us better leaders and stronger voices for the ones that we serve?

Thanks, Craig. Initiatives to help improve access to safe drinking water and sanitation, share an interesting characteristic in that they are so imminently scale-able. This is something that there can be a major initiative for a big NGO, a government program like USAID, like I saw in Mozambique, or it is something that a Girl Scout troop or a Rotary Club or the students at Riverdale High School, in my district, in southwest Portland, who have been able to invest their resources to be able to help an individual village have access to safe drinking water.

So, this doesn’t require a huge array of people, vast sums of money and technical expertise, but it is being able to share this notion that people can come together. In Portland, there are churches and civic organization, as you well know, that are doing their part. Such a rich array of people in our little corner of the world has found a way to make a difference.

The extent to which you can help, communicate the range of options, from large to small, sophisticated to more direct and fundamental so that everyone can pick something they want to do. They can adopt a village, they can partner with another church, parish or synagogue, they can deal with NGOs we have in Portland, as little or as much as they want to invest, there is a role for them. Even in our community.

Mike: Hello Congressman Blumenauer, my name is Mike and I am a volunteer leader with ONE and I live in Beaverton, Oregon. As a member of ONE and a supporter of basic rights and protecting our natural resources, I support everything you’ve done for these causes. So my question comes more from the point of a less passionate lay person.  Most recently, you’ve introduced bills to address water issues internationally. My question is, why? What are you hoping to do with these bills? What are you hoping to accomplish that hasn’t already been done? More important, do we as Americans have to worry about this on an international scale when we have plenty of problems at home?

You raise some important points, Mike.  It is important for us to recognize that these are all part of a continuum of issues; they are all interrelated. Dealing with, for example, safe drinking water and sanitation is a global problem. If we can reduce disease and pollution anywhere in the world, where frankly, probably, there is 99.9 percent of the world’s population is 36 hours away from any exotic disease, we are really together in a way that we have never been in human history.

The techniques we develop for safe drinking water and sanitation actually have applications not just in poor, less developed countries, but techniques that we can use at home. The extent to which we are able to strengthen the human family, to reduce unnecessary suffering and disease, enhance their productive capacities, this ends up benefitting us all.

It saves the federal government money if we have stronger relationships around the globe and these other countries are more self-sufficient. It saves us dealing with disease, hunger or social discontent. We’re proposing and have been working on legislation now for a decade, and back at it again in this Congress, to try to develop a federal partnership, getting the most out of the money we have already been spending and frankly, I think this progress is going to make it possible for other members of Congress and the broader community to understand what an important investment it is.

If we do this right, it is easier to get the investments we need. It accelerates the progress and we need, as a country, to be more careful and strategic about our investments. The fact is, we probably spend more on take-out pizza in a week than would be necessary to achieve our goals for a year for the United States – but by the same token, resources matter. If we can spend this more strategically, if the federal government could get more bang for the buck, we’ll make sure we’re doing the highest priority projects, that we’ll focus on what is needed where it is needed, then we’ll have more impact and the legislation we’re working on is a step in the right direction.

It’s World Water Day on Friday. What is your one wish for World Water Day?

Well, I hope that we are able to have broader realization of how we are all united by this fundamental issue. Less than 3 percent of the world’s water supply is fresh water, and that is increasingly threatened, if we can get people to understand how we are connected with the issue, how we can work together to extend these resources.

I think it is an extraordinarily positive experience for people to see other people share this goal, that they are part of a broader coalition. Too much of what happens here in Washington is why we can’t do something or people are pretty cranky and are pointing fingers and it gets ideological and it gets partisan and it gets confused. I hope on World Water Day, that this is a time that we can reflect on something that doesn’t have to be complex, expensive, confusing or partisan. I don’t know anybody who works in this field who doesn’t feel better about what they do. I hope on World Water Day, we can reflect that message and have others take it up.

blum-bikeinesRepresentative Blumenauer, champion of both water and bicycles. Photo credit: http://blumenauer.house.gov/

Why are your bills named after the late Senator Paul Simon (Illinois)? What influence did he have on you?

The late Senator Simon is actually an honorary Oregonian, he had Oregon roots as well, though he was a senator from Illinois, was somebody who was profoundly influenced by this issue. He had a book called, “Running Dry,” he worked on it after he left the senate. He was somebody I respected and worked with. My partners in this legislation, including Henry Hyde, a Republican from Illinois, felt that commemorating his early leadership, as one of the first, loudest, clearest voices about the need for being thoughtful, generous and aggressive in our water policies, that it was a fitting commemoration with his name. He was also somebody who wore a bow tie every day. His widow, Patty gave me one of his bow-ties, so often times, when I do events that relate to water, I dig out my Paul Simon Water for the World bow-tie.

Our last question, why do you love bow-ties and bicycles?

Bow-ties because they are convenient, they are efficient-you can make three bow-ties out of one long tie – you’re not cleaning them as frequently because they are harder to spill on. Bicycles are in keeping with the theme that we’re talking about here. Water is a simple concept and much of what we need to do is simple and low-tech. The bicycle is the most efficient form of urban transportation ever designed but it is not just for cities. In fact, I have a friend in Chicago, F.K Day, who is involved with international cycling, gives bicycles to communities that are emerging because a bicycle can make a huge difference in terms of a kid being able to get to school in 10 minutes rather than two hours. It’s able to serve transportation needs, and you’re burning calories rather than fossil fuel. So we think it is a good symbol at home and abroad.

Thank you Rep. Earl Blumenauer for taking the time to talk to ONE.

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Don’t forget to take action for World Water Day today by donating your voice. Here’s how.