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Launch of CFS Report on Water for Food Security and Nutrition —Why it Matters

While it might seem obvious that the rights to water and food are inextricably linked, all too often policies around their use and governance are developed for one without regard to the other. To address this problem, the UN Committee on World Food Security formed a High Level Panel of Experts and charged it with weaving these two policy strands together. The resulting report provides a list of recommendations on the critical issue of Water for Food Security and Nutrition.

Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is the foremost international and intergovernmental platform trying to address global food security and nutrition challenges. Following the food crises of 2008, it initiated a reform process, increasing stakeholder participation, especially participation by those engaged in small scale food production systems. It also created a High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) mechanism to gain deeper understanding and ‘independent scientific knowledge based analysis and advice on issues related to food security and nutrition. Since its establishment HLPE has brought out nine reports. I was fortunate to serve on the most recent project team, which just completed its report on Water for Food Security and Nutrition (FSN). The launch of the report is this week.

The CFS mandated the HLPE to prepare the report in October 2013. In addition to myself, the project team included Oscar Cordeiro-Netto (University of Brasilia, Brazil), Claudia Ringler with the  International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Theib Oweis International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas and the team leader Lyla Mehta, of  Institute of Development Studies in the United Kingdom.

This is a landmark report in many ways. To begin with, it is the first comprehensive effort to bring water, food and nutrition security issues together. Many analyses conflate food security with agricultural production, and deal primarily with agricultural water use concerns, and more specifically with water withdrawals. Often they even forget the important role that domestic water uses and drinking water and sanitation have for food security and nutrition, as well as their various interlinkages and interdependencies, let alone water and food governance-related concerns.  While smallholder farmers or even consumers seldom distinguish between consumption and production uses, the two uses are clearly considered separately when it comes to policy formulation. To trace out these interdependencies, the report looks at four dimensions of water (availability, quality, stability of water resources, and access to water), as each of them relates to food security and nutrition.

Thus, one of our first tasks was to identify the multiple linkages between water and FSN, in both policy and practice. In doing this we also considered aspects such as water and sanitation for human survival and well-being, and water for maintaining various ecosystem functions. The report is comprehensive also in terms of addressing a range of technical, institutional, socio-economic, cultural and political aspects. Finally, with an explicit focus on vulnerable communities, this report is distinctly different from earlier reports on the issue.

Second, the report looks not only at existing water challenges, but also at emerging challenges in the context of increasing uncertainty. In considering future uncertainties (for example, from climate change), it critically examines several drivers of change (such as increased meat consumption and related demand for feed, and new trends in energy production such as hydro fracking) that can conflict with food security and nutrition objectives. The report emphasizes that much agricultural production is increasingly concerned with non-food crops—corn and soybeans for animal feed, corn and sugarcane for biofuels, cotton, tobacco, etc.--with water often being diverted for export markets. We conclude that water for FSN, especially for small scale food production systems, should be prioritized over export markets.

Third, the report points to two complementary options to increase water, land and agricultural productivity in a range of agroecological food production systems: the first focused on water management (for example, rainwater harvesting, supplementary irrigation etc.) and the second focused on agricultural management (agroecological practices, for example). In doing so, the report takes an integrated ecosystem approach towards managing land, water and biodiversity, an approach that IATP called for in 2009. While recognizing the role of irrigation, the HLPE report specifically calls attention to the need for making rain-fed agriculture a more resilient and reliable option, since it has the largest potential to help address FSN in the 21st century.

Fourth, the report makes some important recommendations concerning the different processes affecting water governance, allocation, access and use. The report emphasizes that inclusive water governance is crucial for ensuring sustainable, equitable and gender-just decision-making and water allocation for FSN. Moreover, the choice of allocation mechanisms and the way these are implemented can impact water for FSN. For example, market-based allocation mechanisms tend to divert water to the most economically efficient sector, not necessarily to those most important for FSN.

Fifth, the report also recognizes that both water sector reform processes and large scale land acquisitions can affect the customary access rights of poor and marginalized women and men, and thus impact their FSN. The role of trade in goods as a virtual water transfer is recognized as crucial to help address FSN needs of water scarce countries. Such approaches to FSN should not be at the cost of sustaining small scale food production systems either in food producing areas or in importing regions. Moreover, attention must be paid to ensure local ecosystem sustenance and better work environments in the food exporting economies.

The report also discusses competing governance systems—including informal systems such as policies, institutions, tools, etc. –and identifies the need to improve policy coherence at every level, from local to global, in order to prioritize water for FSN. Special attention must be given to the needs of vulnerable communities and women engaged in ensuring FSN. Given the complexity of the governance challenges (e.g., the impact of big investments on water governance systems, or that of trade on local water, food and nutrition security), the report calls for prioritizing water for FSN especially in the context of investments, and for policy coherence at national and local levels on this issue. It notes that even major global initiatives around water, land and food governance (for instance, the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT) and the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Alleviation (VG SSF)) have not adequately integrated water for FSN.

Finally, as a scientific report dealing with water for FSN, the report makes an original contribution by going well beyond technical issues to call attention to the inextricable relationship between the right to water and the right to food. In doing so, it draws on two comments from the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: General Comment 15 (on right to water) and General Comment 12 (on right of food), both of which recognize the interdependence of the right to water and right to adequate food. Most peri-urban and rural communities in developing countries employ multiple water use practices. Yet, the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation concerns itself only with access to water for drinking water, food preparation and sanitation, and does not concern itself with other home-based activities (kitchen gardening, animal care, etc.) that help communities become food and water secure. This report suggests further exploration of the inter-linkages and consequences of these two rights by relevant Special Rapporteurs, so as to enable a human rights approach to water governance that ensures water for FSN for all.  

This report will inform the Committee on World Food Security debate on water for meets in October 12-15 in Rome. Reading this report in full will certainly be informative and hopefully enjoyable —it certainly has been a pleasure for me to work on this report with my colleagues in the Project Team. Our intention was to provide as comprehensive and informed an account of the situation as possible. We think we have done that, and hope it will serve its intended purpose: to provide evidence-based analysis and expert advice on this issue of critical importance: Water for Food and Nutrition Security.