Re: Water and food security - E-consultation to set the track of the study

Land and Water Division FAO, Italy

HLPE – Water and Food Security

Proposed text for the FAO Corporate Response

from the Land and Water Division of FAO


The Land and Water Division of FAO welcomes the selection of the theme “Water and Food Security” by the 40th CFS and believes that the findings of the study will authoritatively contribute to the global discussion and the local solutions that take water issues in its broad context.

Having examined the scoping paper and the contributions that were offered during the online consultation process, we would like to submit the following remarks and suggestions about the paper and the subsequent work.

The literature is rich in studies on water and food security. In the recent past, major efforts have been made on the subject by large groups of researchers and practitioners, which have resulted in a good knowledge base to address the subject. Among these we would like to mention the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture (2007), the State of Land and Water Resources for Agriculture and Food Security - SOLAW (2011) and the periodic issues of the World Water Development Report. On the data side, the UN-Joint Monitoring Programme on Water Supply and Sanitation and the FAO-AQUASTAT database offer the factual information base needed to provide a global perspective on water and food security.  

Yet, the complexity of the water and food security relationship leaves a series of policy-relevant issues unsolved, and we would like to suggest that the study build on the above assessments and push forward the knowledge and understanding of major policy issues which have remained without response and deserve careful scrutiny. A series of topics are proposed below.

The relationship between water and food security is complex for several reasons. The four dimensions of food security offer four different entry points to the relationship with water, and they all need to be considered:

  • Food availability addresses the supply side of food security and is determined in large part by the level of food production. This requires an understanding of the current capacity and potential for future water use in the production, processing and distribution of food, both globally and at national level, and the related issues of food trade and geopolitics. Issues of national level food security, in particular, and its relation with water availability, have received renewed attention since the 2008 food crisis and will need to be addressed in the study.
  • Access to food is a combination of physical availability and economic capacity to purchase food. Here, water will affect different categories of people in different ways. For food producers, which represent a large part of the world’s population and a majority of the poor, water represents a critical production factor, the availability, accessibility and cost of which directly impact production, and, indirectly, food consumption and income. For the poor food consumers, price is the main vehicle through which water scarcity, and the related national and global food production capacity, is reflected.  
  • Food utilization relates to nutritional quality of food, feeding practices, and health. Here, the availability and quality of domestic water, and, to a certain extent, sanitation facilities, plays an important role in the quality of food and nutrition and in overall health status. Water availability for production and its quality are also closely connected to the capacity for the production of horticultural crops, the diversity of which plays an important role in the quality of nutrition.   
  • Finally, water plays a critical role in the stability dimension of food security, through the stability and reliability of water availability, both for domestic and production purposes, be it rainwater or irrigation water.

The multiple dimensions and scales of the water scarcity or water security issues add an additional level of complexity to the study. The three dimensions, i.e. physical, institutional and financial, of water scarcity that FAO has defined in its framework programme “Coping with water scarcity” may be an entry point to address this added complexity. It will be important to distinguish between the ‘macro’ issue of managing a limited resource (the physical scarcity), and questions related to food production potential, resource use efficiency, addressing competing sectoral claims, macroeconomics, social protection systems, virtual water, etc., and the ‘micro’ issues related to water service and access, where issues of domestic water, access, entitlement, equity, rights, etc. are predominant.

These problems are well known to the FAO Land and Water Division, and our response has usually been to acknowledge the variety of situations through a multi-dimensional programme focusing on a series of specific issues. The ‘systems at risk’ approach used in FAO’s ‘State of land and water resources for food and agriculture - SOLAW’ reflects the variety of specific situations and the need to adapt our response to these contexts.

Another consideration refers to the importance to acknowledge the driving forces guiding the use, management and governance of water. It is well established that water ‘flows’ across all the sectors of our economies and is affected by a series of external factors of which the most frequently mentioned are population growth and urbanization, economic development and consumption habits, changes in dietary habits, trade and globalization, sectoral policies and climate change. Water is known to have also been impacted by all the major crises such as those in global economy, energy, food, poverty and inequity. It therefore becomes increasingly difficult to address water issues through a sectoral lens only without considering the overall context in which water is managed. In particular, the overall weight of agriculture in national economies influences substantially the type of policy response options that can be proposed. This is striking, for instance, in countries in economic transition for which the water-food security issue is rapidly being integrated in a much more complex and multi-dimensional policy dialogue.

In summary, we believe that the main challenge of this study will be to come out with findings and recommendations that are sufficiently simple to help influencing action, while being sufficiently context-specific to ensure their relevance for decision making. Following Einstein, we would suggest that ‘Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler’. In this perspective, we would welcome an approach that focuses on what we see as critical issues for the future of the water and food security topic:

  • Getting the facts right: we observe that many water-related decisions are based on wrong assumptions and misconceptions about water, hydrology and the water balance, with subsequent sub-optimal or even counter-productive results in terms of economic return, social impact and environmental sustainability. It is important that the study ‘gets the facts right’, in particular in relation with consumptive and non-consumptive uses of water.
  • Governance of water: agriculture represents 70% of all water use in the world, and more than 90% in many developing countries and is therefore both under pressure, given the increasing competition with other sectors, and under scrutiny for its environmental footprint which, in an increasing number of places, leads to unsustainable water use patterns. Water governance models are needed that acknowledge the complex inter-relationships and sometimes conflicting societal goals. The need to address trade-offs will become increasingly frequent, and this study may want to assess implications of these trade-offs in terms of food security. The Water-Food-Energy nexus approach which is being promoted for the last few years claims that it offers a way to address these concerns, and guidance on the potential of such an approach would be welcome. (Some of these fundamental governance issues are mentioned in the scoping document but very late in the text, in the section on management. They should appear much earlier as they shape all the water-food security debate).
  • Groundwater exploitation: we see the systematic overexploitation of groundwater in most agricultural regions as one of the most alarming challenges for the water community. With the advent of cheap drilling and pumping technologies, an increasingly large percentage of the world’s farmers are putting in practice, day by day, the tragedy of the commons,  and contribute to what looks very much like a time bomb in most water scarce areas.
  • Environmental impact of water use: the combined pressure from all water users on the environment put unprecedented burden on key aquatic ecosystems, with direct threat on the services they provide, both today and in the future, including that of food production, in particular inland fisheries. Issues of water pollution from agriculture, and wastewater discharge from cities and industries directly affect food production and health, both at producer and consumer level. New, more sustainable models of water development are urgently needed, and the political will to adopt them needs to be strengthened, possibly beyond basin or national boundaries.
  • Access, entitlement and tenure: with the growing pressure on water in river basins and aquifers, interferences between users and impacts of new developments on earlier users are increasing, with new challenges and implications for traditional users, in particular small and vulnerable users, with potentially significant impact on food security of large parts of rural populations. The land grab-water grab question is part of this problem, as well as the linkage between water and land tenure. This new trend is often ignored or underestimated, because of the difficulty in measuring and reporting about it, and its little political relevance. Yet, we believe that the dimension of the problem requires a much more careful attention than in the past, and we would be interested to hear from the Panel on this issue. It would also be interesting to assess how water prices and costs for water supply and treatment services impact food security. The sub-section on equity in the scoping document indicates that the report will look at implications on different gender and social groups. But the report also indicates that it intends to take a long term perspective. In a world in rapid transformation, some of the most vulnerable groups will hopefully evolve towards more favourable conditions, and this needs to be considered. 
  • Right to water - right to food: the right to water and the right to food are both recognized as fundamental rights. In the case of the right to water, this is confined to the right for sufficient water for drinking and basic domestic functions. However, there are claims that a much closer linkage could be made between the right to water and the right to food, considering also the water needed for food production. This right-based approach to water and food security has not been the subject of much attention so far.
  • Investments, technologies and modernisation: Investments in irrigation have for long represented a large percentage of agricultural investments and are still an important element of current agricultural policies in many countries. For the last 20 years, efforts have been made to develop better models of water management in irrigation, with mixed results, in terms of productivity, environmental sustainability and equity. Corruption and vested interests are rarely addressed, yet they influence decisions both in investments and in management, and impact on the overall performance of the sector. With ageing infrastructure, and the need for improved productivity, investments and improved management will remain important, and need to become more responsible. The role of innovation and technology trends must be investigated carefully: can technology change some of the fundamentals ? Where do we stand with management models ? What is the situation with water pricing and irrigation management transfer ? The cost of poor investments and management and implication for food security deserve careful attention.
  • Climate change adaptation and disasters (floods and droughts): the scoping paper suggests to addresses the question of climate change and its impact on water availability for food security. We concur, and stress the potentially devastating effect of climate change on water resources and, through water, on food production in several parts of the developing world, including the Near East and North Africa, all the semi-arid tropics, small islands and delta areas, and the necessity to provide a response now. The increasing occurrence and intensity of floods and droughts in densely populated rural areas as a result of climate change are to receive special attention. Variability and risks will be important to consider.
  • Health and nutrition: the scoping paper rightly stresses the importance of water for health and nutrition, of which safe drinking water and sanitation are a key element. This element of the discussion also bears an important gender dimension. It also brings the issue of diet and diversification, including fresh food, fish and livestock/dairy products, and feed production. The Division welcomes this broad approach to the water-food security debate, and is looking forward for recommendations in this sense.
  • Local problems in a globalized world: In a growingly interconnected world, consumption patterns in one part of the world can affect food security in another part. In past 10-20 years, attempts have been made to address this complex issue through the concept of water footprint, with some success in measuring the impact of consumption patterns in terms of water use. The concept has remained mostly a research topic, with little implications in terms of policy decision. On the other side, growing scarcity of water in an increasingly large number of regions affects national food security, and the increasing reliance on international trade to compensate for production deficit, with substantial geopolitical implications. The question arises now whether water issues can continue to be considered local issues, or whether they have now taken such a dimension that they deserve attention as a global problem.

Finally, we would like to offer a few comments and suggestions on the scope and structure of the report:

  • Scope of the study: the scope of the study should be kept as broad as possible, and cover health and nutrition, agricultural production, livestock and feed production, fisheries, and aquaculture, the agro-food chain and ecosystem services for water and food security.
  • Policy recommendations: We know that policy recommendations in water for food are not new but that some of them have not resulted in substantial changes. In drafting its last section, the Panel may want to acknowledge the difficulty associated with these recommendations and discuss how to make them happen, and how to manage transition towards models of water management in agriculture which are more effective in terms of food security, today and in the future.
  • Response options: A passage added to the scope will be useful requesting the inclusion of response options in the report and on how response options are key for decision-makers, politicians and chief executives in complementing policy recommendations that set the ground for, inter alia, reforms, legislation, regulation, enabling environments, leveling playing fields, and protecting the unprivileged. Response options make these applicable (specific) to varying contexts, defined by combinations of economic conditions, governance systems, social make-up, physical and physiological circumstances. It would also be worthwhile to establish linkages to important policy tracks and processes (e.g. post-2015, global governance, climate change) as well as to contextualize for some of the key actors such as finance sector, investors, development partners, and philanthropy.