Water Matters: New Report’s Recommendations Key for Food and Nutrition Security

Water Matters: New Report’s Recommendations Key for Food and Nutrition Security

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Tonya Rawe

Water. Tasteless. Odorless. Colorless. You can see right through it. So when you have it in abundance, it’s easy to, well, look right past it, to take it for granted, in fact. But for millions of people living in poverty – and smallscale food producers in particular – water may very well be the last thing taken for granted.

Poor, rural populations by and large earn their living in agriculture. It’s how they feed their families and maybe earn an income. We may not all farm, but we know what happens if we don’t water our houseplants. We see our gardens whither and wilt on hot, dry days. So when your livelihood is based on agriculture, water matters.

And for global food and nutrition security, smallscale food producers matter. In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, smallscale food producers are responsible for 80 percent of the food consumed in those regions. And that agriculture is largely rain-fall dependent – only 6 percent of agriculture in all of Africa is irrigated, the majority of that in just five countries.

So when water is scarce – or when smallscale food producers can’t access it – it matters, particularly in a world of almost 800 million chronically hungry people.

The High Level Panel of Experts for the Committee on World Food Security recently released its latest report: Water for Food Security and Nutrition. The report is clear: water matters for food and nutrition security, but for people living in poverty and for smallscale food producers, it isn’t as simple as turning on the tap.

Several key recommendations of the HLPE report are recommendations CARE welcomes, champions, and promotes in our own programs: prioritization of the most vulnerable, gender integration, good governance, and sustainable agricultural practices. As CARE, we believe participatory approaches are a highly effective way to deliver on each of them. CARE also urges policymakers to take these recommendations on board not only in the Committee on World Food Security but across all relevant policy processes, including the UN climate talks, which started to today in Bonn, Germany.

The report emphasizes the inequality of water access. Much like food, adequate water isn’t necessarily a question of availability but of how what is available is distributed, whether a person has access. While food or water may be available, it may NOT be accessible. Water access is often defined by power dynamics, gender, and social marginalization. Empowering local communities to manage the water resources they depend on is key – not only to protect their access but also to tap their local knowledge and perspectives; they are, after all, the best experts on their experience with water availability and access.

But participatory approaches to water governance must engage all parts of a community, as power dynamics don’t stop at the community’s border (or even the household’s front door). 

For women, accessing water is even more challenging, particularly if household power dynamics leave women out of decision-making. Women in many areas of the world are responsible for fetching water for household use. Women in Africa and Asia walk an average of 6 kilometers a day (3.7 miles) to fetch water that can weigh up to 20 kilos (40 pounds). And they often tend to household gardens or cultivate crops and small livestock intended for household consumption. Cash crops – those destined for the market – are often a male’s purview. So when water is scarce, women walk further to fetch it. When water is scarce, women’s fields may be the last to be watered. That directly impacts a family’s food consumption.

Gender must be integrated in policies and programs to address access to safe water. Women must be engaged as equals in decision-making at all levels about water access and use. And approaches to enable smallscale food producers to manage increased water scarcity must take into account women’s needs and priorities: the HLPE report points out that women have unequal access to technology and agricultural training services. If new technologies and approaches are designed without their input, it will only exacerbate that unequal access.

In the face of climate change, the issue of access to scarcer water is even more important. The FAO estimates that by 2025 – in just 10 years – two-thirds of the global population will live in water-stressed countries. Climate change dramatically impacts water: from sea level rise to increased ocean temperatures to changing rainfall patterns to rates of evaporation.

Sustainable agriculture techniques – like conservation agriculture – can improve the ability of soil to absorb and retain water and build the resilience of smallscale food producers to increasing uncertainty in rainfall patterns and water availability. Training farmers on these techniques through participatory approaches like farmer field schools not only passes on knowledge but builds farmers’ – women’s and men’s – confidence to experiment with new varieties and new techniques, shaping approaches that fit their needs and priorities.

Participatory, gender-sensitive approaches – to program design, to policy making, to planning – not only help ensure that smallscale food producers have access to information on more sustainable practices but also empower them to voice their concerns, share their perspectives and local knowledge, and advocate for adequate attention to their priorities. In short, participatory approaches mean that we make clear that the most vulnerable, women, and smallscale food producers matter.


A woman waters the crops as part of her daily chores. © 2011 Allen Clinton/CARE