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The United Nations 2023 Water Conference — formally known as the 2023 Conference for the Midterm Comprehensive Review of Implementation of the U.N. Decade for Action on Water and Sanitation (2018-2028) — takes place in New York this week, from March 22-24, 2023, nearly five decades after the first U.N. water conference that resulted in the Mar del Plata Action Plan in March 1977. That plan was intended to help avoid a global water crisis by 2000, but most of the issues raised then remain relevant today. This is despite having the international decade on water focused on Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation (1981-1990) and the international decade focused on Water for Life (2005-2015).

In fact, with ever increasing demands on water, combined with climate change, many other issues have been added to the challenges we need to resolve, including the promotion of false solutions, such as the financialization of water. The current international decade (2018-2028) is focused on Water Actions for Sustainable Development, and in order for these actions to be truly sustainable and effective, we must take an intersectional and integrated approach (as IATP called for a decade and a half ago) that considers the multiple challenges that communities face as they try to maintain access to safe water in adequate quantity for drinking water, sanitation, food and nutrition security, and other basic needs — a fundamental right.

IATP joins colleagues from Institute of Development Studies, International Food Policy Research Institute, Food and Agriculture Organization and other partners today on World Water Day, in a side event at the U.N. 2023 Water Conference in New York. The presentations will consider what it would take to “Harmonize Actions between the Water Decade and the Nutrition Decade.” The March 22 session comes on the heels of a 3-hour plenary that IATP co-organized earlier this month with several partners working in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) across the world, including the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), FIAN International, Groundswell International, Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE) and UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternative). Focused on the agroecological transition towards food sovereignty, the event took place in Doha, Qatar, at the civil society forum of the 5th decennial conference of the LDCs.

What is the relevance of a focus on LDCs in a global level conversation on how to harmonize actions between the Nutrition Decade and International Decade on Water?

The LDCs account for 14% of the total global population, yet they are home to more than half of world’s extremely poor (those living on less than $1.90 per day). One of the three criteria used for determining the LDC status is the Human Assets Index, which is measured in terms of nutrition indicators (along with two other indicators: health and school enrollment). In addition, of the 1.1 billion people living in LDCs in 2020, an estimated 665 million lacked access to safely managed drinking water, and 244 million were undernourished, according to the UNCTAD Report 2022. The report also adds that 466 million people had no access to electricity, and 874 million had no access to clean fuels and cooking technologies. The Doha Programme of Action for the LDCs for the Decade 2022–2031 recognizes that progress is not happening at the pace required to meet the challenges faced by LDCs. If we do not collectively address the poverty that plagues LDCs and build on these countries’ strengths, the action plans for the decade of nutrition and the water decade will fail. 

The stories told at the LDC conference were overwhelming stories about lack. As an example, the dominant story about hunger and food insecurity is that food insecurity is due to a lack of food supply, which is blamed on lack of technology, energy and other inputs, as well as low productivity and poor roads. Such a story ignores both the historical causes and the current global-economic-structural causes of those lacks. While there is some truth to many parts of the story, the overall effect is to mislead. It presents LDCs as having limited choices and proposes a solution that depends on external inputs, ignoring the knowledge and resources and diversity on which LDCs could be building. The dominant story proposes a model of agriculture that extracts wealth from farms and rural communities and that moves wealth elsewhere. 

Our organizations were in Doha to tell a different story: a story of hope and possibility, centered on investing in what LDCs (and indeed rural communities everywhere) have, on protecting and valuing that wealth and building on their contextual and complex knowledge of their land and other resources. It recognizes the fact that smallholder food systems already feed billions of people around the world today, including people who live in LDCs.

Our call is to build on smallholder agriculturists’ strengths as a pathway to food and nutrition security, to build synergies between the realization of right to food and right to water; that is the story of agroecological transitions towards food sovereignty. Investments in food systems should not aim to minimize labor and maximize profit at the cost of social and environmental resilience. Instead, investments should focus on support for production, processing and consumption of a diverse range of foods in ways that nurture the land, soil and water, and build on the diverse local food cultures to ensure the food and nutrition security of the people. Continuing to rely on propped up proprietary seed systems and imports of fossil fuel derived fertilizers, paid for by exporting unprocessed commodities in highly concentrated markets (which also results in depleted and polluted waters, lesser biodiversity and higher greenhouse gas emissions), will not help the LDCs meet their food and nutrition security. Public investment in the knowledge of smallholder producers and their resources will provide a very different and more hopeful future. 

In adopting agroecological practices, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve freshwater, protect biodiversity and increase farmer productivity by reducing input costs and building on local and shared knowledge, while reducing drudgery through innovative and locally appropriate technologies. Any agricultural model must adapt as the world around us evolves. But agroecology’s adaptations are local and specific, taking ideas and innovations from the wider world but building on contextual knowledge learned through generations of experiment and adaptation in the field. The beauty of investing in these transitions is that they can not only help harmonize actions between the Nutrition Decade and International Decade on Water, but also help meet multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), not just in LDCs but in all countries.

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