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1 May 2015

Water for food security and nutrition – HLPE preliminary findings denote water governance failures

Photo by Global Water Partnership via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Photo by Global Water Partnership via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Global Committee on Food Security (CFS) requested the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) to analyze the latest evidence-based information on the use of water for food and nutrition and synthesize it into actionable recommendations for public and private sectors as well as for civil society.

The HLPE “Water and Food Security” report will be officially launched on the 15th of May at FAO headquarters and will be further discussed at the 42nd session of the CFS Committee in October 2015 as well as during the preceding months.

The preliminary findings of the HLPE “Water for Food Security” report were presented in March 2015 in Copenhagen at the “Achieving sustainable food security and nutrition: A debate about livestock, fish, water and food losses” event jointly organized by HLPE and department of Food and Resource Economics at the University of Copenhagen.

Speed read summary:

  • Water is essential for food and nutrition security
  • Water governance at the center of the HLPE report 
  • Water metrics are context and gender indifferent
  • Improved water management is not just for rainfed agriculture
  • Good water governance for food security – multilevel troubleshooting

Water is essential for food and nutrition security

It is an essential element for all stages of agricultural production, food processing and preparation and is crucial for human health. Safe drinking water is not only a prerequisite of a healthy nutritious meal, but also contains minerals that help to form strong bones, boost metabolism and regulate hormone function. Access to safe drinking water helps to prevent many stomach infections and contributes to better nutrition.

Every ecosystem function involves water. Agricultural production relies on ecosystems and their services, hence, disturbances of water in ecosystems, such as droughts and dry-spells, ground water depletion and poor water quality, pose risks for food security and nutrition.  Despite such inseparable interlinkages water management and food production are quite often analyzed separately, and in practice are usually managed by different institutions.

Water governance at the center of the HLPE report 

The report will include a comprehensive summary of the existing national and international water governance policies and identify common grounds for policy recommendations that would take into account the diversity of perspectives.  The report includes description of all the actors involved in water governance as well as their roles and entitlements with the special focus on the role of women as food and water providers.

The HLPE framework includes considerations regarding direct and indirect impacts of water management on food security and nutrition, such as, for instance, the effect of water availability on international trade or climate change effects on water access and availability. The report will also include evaluation of the currently used metrics for water withdrawal in food production as well as different water management mechanisms and governance systems in terms of sustainability and equity.

Water metrics are context and gender indifferent

Many states lack guidance regarding water management units, this is the reason why the metrics fail to be context specific. Water flows have hydrologic boundaries. While for a hydrologist a river basin or a system of rivers would be considered as administrative unit for water management, in public administration units are defined politically. This mismatch has implications for quality and quantity of water availability, putting sticks in the wheels of effective water management which could help to produce more food with less water and reduce water related conflicts. HLPE suggests polycentric networks, including both local farmer’s organizations and water users’s associations, should play a leading role in establishment of efficient water management systems. Polycentric networks are networks where many elements are capable of making mutual adjustments for arranging their relationships with one another within a general system of rules where each element acts independently.

HLPE assessment revealed there is lack of data on use of water within households. It means that most of the currently used water metrics do not account for gender specific needs for clean water access or sanitation and do not measure costs and benefits of water privatizations for women or what public water investment mean for women. Water management systems often lack formal conditions for women to participate in water-related decision making and do not address gender perspective on water collecting or use of sanitary facilities.

Improved water management is not just for rainfed agriculture

Rainfed agriculture is severely impacted by rainfall variability and it will be exacerbated by climate change. Vulnerability of rainfed agriculture could be reduced through improved water, soil and crop management – for example by use of supplemental irrigation from water harvesting storage.

Irrigated agriculture relies on fresh water sources including groundwater. Availability of these resources and depletion threshold vary from region to region, but it is predicted that climate change in some areas could potentially increase evaporation and runoff, exacerbating the water depletion rates, in other areas it might increase the rate of glacier melt, creating too much water, requiring better water storage facilities and flood resistant infrastructure. Improving the productivity of irrigated agriculture may demand strategic investment in irrigation infrastructure, and have to take into account the full social, economic and environmental costs and benefits.

Good water governance for food security – multilevel troubleshooting

Water for food security governance starts from proper and fair water allocation policy design. Water allocation has various challenges: setting mechanisms for determining who is allowed to take how much water, where, when, and for what purpose is a challenging task. In its turn, water allocation mechanisms span across scales (e.g. local to global), and depend on legal frameworks and customary rights. Water is often re-allocated toward higher value water uses (e.g. industrial or urban areas) since these sectors produce higher economic return than food production.

Controversies exist around different allocation instruments (e.g. pricing, permits and licensing, etc). For example, water pricing ensures efficient usage of water and discourages wastage of water. Even if water pricing could be an effective tool of demand management, getting the prices right for effective water management to the level that results in efficient allocation of water is a challenging task. In some countries water price does not reflect its relatively low supply and cost of implementation, which includes water metering and monitoring costs. It usually happens because public administrators are concerned that this may impose high prices on consumers. In Jordan, for instance, irrigation water is under-priced for the reasons of social welfare and equity.

The existing water policies have problems at different scales. Local water governance, in some countries, is often characterized by existence of different types of water rights or entitlements for water use and allocation, presence of both informal and formal institutions regulating water access and discrimination of water access based on social and economic status.

National policies reflect sectoral biases and lack integration. For instance,  policies at the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development make emphasis on water for small scale agriculture, and policies at the Ministry of Water, Energy and Irrigation manage water for water supply, energy generation, and medium and large scale irrigated agriculture. National policies should integrate relevant sectors and take into account local realities, rights frameworks, ensuring elaborated legal outline for regulating water access for women.

Water management at global scale can be accounted through trade, climate, energy, finance and development policies since water is involved in these sectors directly or indirectly. For example, trade policies can affect the virtual water (the total volume of water needed to produce and process a commodity or service) transported from one country or region into another. A policy that limits the export of water intensive commodity affects the water availability and quality at the area of production. The same is with climate related policies. For example, climate change will obviously affect the global water cycle. Thus, a global policy on climate change will affect the availability of water at local scale anywhere in the world.

Dr. Yihun Dile, SEI Research Fellow, who specializes on water management, points out that: “Large amount of water are transported from one country to another country through traded commodities. Water scarce countries can solve their water problems by importing intensive water consuming crop commodities. They should also refrain from exporting intensive water consuming crop commodities from their countries since it aggravates their water situation. In fact water stressed countries are advised to cultivate less water consuming crops. Thus, trade can contribute towards achieving water for food security and nutrition in water scarce countries.”

Dile added, “Achieving food security is the product of management of many variables, including land, aquatic resources, crops and livestock. Water for food security and nutrition is involved in management of all these variables. Thus, it is vital to establish an integrated perspective on water for food security and nutrition related policies”.

“The preliminary HLPE findings report covers a broad range of water issues for food security and nutrition. This report can provide policy makers with a general overview of the complex and intertwined links between water, food security and nutrition. However, water for food security and nutrition is largely an issue for developing countries with high rates of people suffering from hunger. The majority of the food in these countries comes from rainfed agriculture, which gets shallow attention with the HLPE report. Due emphasis should have been given on water and land management solutions that will help to improve the food security and nutrition in this part of the world.”

HLPE preliminary findings put forward eight recommendations for improved management of water for food security and nutrition

  1. Ensure sustainable management and conservation of ecosystems for the continued availability, quality and stability of water for food security and nutrition;
  2. Establish an integrated perspective on water and food security and nutrition related policies;
  3. Prioritize the most vulnerable and marginalized, including mainstreaming gender and addressing the specific needs of women;
  4. Improve water management in agriculture and adapt agricultural systems to improve their water efficiency and their resilience to water stresses;
  5. Facilitate the contribution of trade to water for food security and nutrition in contexts of water scarcities;
  6. Make enhanced knowledge, technologies and management a priority  for water for food security and nutrition;
  7. Establish good water governance; and
  8. Adopt a rights-based approach to governance of water.