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

Government of the United States ,

Comments from experts and program areas within the U.S. government on the proposed scope of the Food Security and Water report: (11 unique comments were submitted and are provided below).

1.            In the document there was discussion on ground water and mapping updates but nothing about specifics on sustainability of that ground water or ground water recharge issues.  If this is not thought about there will be a loss in capacity to provide water for food in the long run.

There is also an interesting solution for ground water recharge done by a British NGO organization where they make earthen berms for ground water recharge.  General discussions on the topic can be found via google using the search words "earthen dams for ground water recharge".

2.            While the need for metrics is mentioned, there is no discussion of methods to estimate water use. Models exist that if unified would allow for estimation of irrigation water use, but the hydro, land soil moisture models, and irrigation estimates have not yet been integrated. I would encourage that you consider rephrasing the scope to discuss methods of estimating, rather than metrics.

Also, my colleagues and I have observed instances of water resources foreign aid projects that have worked counter to overall security and sacrifice one area's water needs for those needs downstream. I would suggest including a discussion of not only what actors are responsible for which components, but how their activities can be integrated. Just simply adding a coordinate or bounding box to a project can go a long way in terms of allowing partners to integrate their data, projects, and project goals. Planning for information integration will be key to supporting better management decisions.

Finally, while I applaud the cross-sector approach at food and water, there is a lack of attention to energy and food competition for water. International water use for biofuels and regular choices between using hydropower for food or energy is a major aspect of the management of water for food security. It's mentioned in water management, but I think energy should appear more prominent in the management heading

3.            In the opening paragraph, the document states:

1)            “Water has an important role in food security through its multiple impacts on: health and nutrition (drinking water, cooking water, sanitary aspect/diseases), on agricultural production (access to water, water management, improvement of irrigation and dryland agriculture) and on food processing (water management, quality of water…).”

2)            Later on Page 4, we read: “First, the HLPE proposes to summarize the latest evidence-based information on the use of water for health and nutrition (drinking water, cooking water, sanitary aspect/diseases), and for food and agriculture…”

There is a complex interplay between unsafe water, diarrheal diseases, and malnutrition.  There is also a growing recognition that water that is microbiologically safe is an essential component of any program to protect or improve the nutritional status of children.  Water itself contains very little of nutritive value, but consumption of microbiologically unsafe water is a major cause of diarrheal diseases in children, and the nutritional consequences of diarrheal diseases in children can be devastating.  Any infection taxes the bodies stores of micronutrients (particularly zinc) and protein and calories.  Diarrheal infections are particularly troublesome because they interfere with the absorption of nutrients from food, making it difficult to replenish depleted nutritional stores.  Infections with enteropathogenic Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Cryptosporidium damage the intestinal lining causing persistent diarrhea and chronic malabsorption of nutrients, including protein and calories.  Shigellosis and other diarrheal infections cause fever, which is associated with increased caloric expenditures, and can cause bloody diarrhea which contributes to iron deficiency.  Thus, drinking water quality directly impacts food security.  Furthermore, poor hygiene is a well-documented risk factor for diarrheal diseases transmission.  Sufficient quantities of water that is microbiologically safe are needed for people to adopt regular handwashing after toileting, and before preparing our consuming food) which are key behaviors in preventing the spread of diarrheal diseases.  Additionally, to reduce the risk of foodborne diarrheal infections, safe water should always be used for food preparation, particularly for those foods that will be consumed raw, such as fruits and vegetables.

There are a number of publications about this issue, but I think the best source for those would be Dan Campbell who manages the WASH/Nutrition Library for USAID  (Dan Campbell

4.            As a general matter, this paper has an extremely ambitious scope. The data to do what is proposed does not exist and since only source countries can provide the data, it tends to be estimated without a consistent methodology.  This leads to misstatements or pronouncements without any data support.  For example, to support policy recommendation 1, the proposal calls for “Metrics on global freshwater withdrawals for food production,” a very ambitious goal.  Only a relatively small set of countries around the world have reliable data on water withdrawals by sector.  (A lot more have “data” but reflecting political forces rather than hydrologic reality.)  A careful examination of withdrawals and the quality of supporting data would be a worthy study.

The scoping paper goes on to call for estimation of water footprints (see policy recommendation 3), which are based on consumptive use volumes.  And while needed and a goal to strive toward, is beyond any current hope of completion.  Just for good measure all this occurs while considering the effects of a changing climate. We doubt a footprint analysis is possible in more than a half dozen nations with any degree of accuracy and with a climate change wrinkle added the number of nations that can do this drops to only a couple.  We do not believe the data is available to support the proposed level of analysis. 

Couple the data driven portion of the report with the social issues of governance (policy recommendation 2) and policy recommendations presumably based on the findings from the other elements and you have a condition that the policy needs data for its base but since the data is not available, and policy is needed now, recommendations are made.  While we understand that recommendations are needed now, why go through all the hand wringing and just do a good policy piece with scenarios based on likely data and governance conditions.   

In summary, the scope is too ambitious and will likely lead to an unsuccessful report as specified.  Compromises in data quality and coverage will limit the reliability of the findings.  The report would be better served with well thought out separate reports on 1) data quality, and 2) governance, and policy options given alternative scenarios on data and governance structures.   

5.            The collection of world-wide data that are evidently needed to address a number of the proposed research questions would indeed be a monumental task.  The proposal recognizes a great many facets of the challenge and potential solutions.  Better to narrow the scope considerably to a set of compelling and useful questions that can be answered fairly well with the available resources (time, funds, people).

A fundamental challenge is drawing lessons from extremely diverse food production systems. Lessons learned in one place may be of little value elsewhere.

The proposal might be strengthened if it reads more like a research proposal, presenting some actual evidence that reveals a particular set of gaps that needs to be addressed.

The concept of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) offers a way forward in addressing climate impacts on crop production and some of the CSA literature may be worth consulting in identifying a useful direction for this effort.

The words “precipitation” and “rain” are nowhere mentioned, although a substantial amount of agriculture depends on rain fed crops.  One challenge is delivering to smallholder farmers in developing countries useful information about climate, weather, drought-resistant varieties and agricultural techniques that can help reduce risk of crop loss due to drought (like increasing organic matter in soil).  This might be a direction worth focusing on.

6.            The proposed report on Water and Food Security, as outlined in the scoping paper, represents a very ambitious program of work.  Many of the issues raised have been examined at some length in earlier documents (see references below).  While critical issues may be identified in the report, the scope of analysis may not necessarily need to encompass all dimensions of the water and food security challenge. We agree that the current report could be focused more on institutional, legal and technical innovations that may help to enhance future sustainability of the global food system. 

Under topic 3, ‘Management of water for food and nutrition security’, the authors may wish to deemphasize discussion of international food trade.  The comparative trade advantage conferred by water resources operates on a completely different level from the water access, water quality, water rights issues that are the basis of other components of the scope of work.  The data sets and empirical tools for analysis are also quite different. 

The discussion of governance under topic 3 would still be relevant.  However, the breadth of the proposed objective—".. to critically analyze the impacts of different governance regimes for water management.. " is quite ambitious, particularly when considering ".. both negative and positive i) environmental impacts; ii) social and cultural impacts; iii) public health impacts; and iv) economic impacts".  A thorough treatment of these effects, given their complexity and importance, may be more appropriate as a stand-alone effort. 

The scoping paper does not explicitly account for important differences in water management perspectives at alternative scales of assessment:  farm/firm, regional/watershed, and national.  These are often quite different, involving differing stakeholders, objectives, and policy choices.

Some consideration of this may be appropriate in a discussion of water institutions and policy.

Suggested resource publications to utilize in drafting the V0:

Foresight.  The Future of Food and Farming.  2011.  The Government Office for Science, London.

IWMI, 2007.  Water for food. Water for life.  A Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture.  Molden, David, Ed.  London, Earthscan and Colombo: International Water Management Institute.

OECD,  2010.  Sustainable Management of Water Resources in Agriculture, Joint Working Party on Agriculture and the Environment, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development,  DOI 10.1787/9789264083578-en,

OECD, 2011.  Water Governance in OECD Countries: A Multi-Level Approach, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, ISBN 978-92-64-11928-4 (PDF),

Rosegrant, M.W. et al., 2014.  Food security in a world of natural resource scarcity: the role of agricultural technologies.  International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Schlosser, C.A. et al.  2014.  The Future of Global Water Stress: An Integrated Assessment.  MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change,

Strzepek, K. et al. 2012.  Modeling Water Resource Systems under Climate Change: IGSM-WRS.  MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change,

7.            This appears to be a hugely ambitious all-encompassing scope of work to complete in the time frame cited. It's hard to think of adding anything; the relevant issue may be what ends up getting prioritized and addressed effectively in order to complete the project within the available literature and time frame.

IWMI would appear to be a significant repository of data and research on water management issues for agriculture, but we have to assume that FAO plans to involve IWMI in the project. "The Role of Water Resources in Prospects for Indian Agriculture" is a cooperative research project between the Economic Research Service of USDA and the International Water Management Institute that was initiated in late 2013 and will begin to yield research results by late 2014 or early 2015. Under this project, IWMI will develop a hydrological model of major Indian agricultural regions to study scenarios focusing on the role of groundwater availability and policies that affect groundwater supplies on long term projections for Indian food production.  The questions to be addressed are: 1) How are water scarcity and variability developments likely to shape supply (area and yield) and demand projections for major Indian crops to 2025? And 2) What technical or policy assumptions related to water are likely to have the most impact on projected outcomes for Indian crops to 2025?  A copy of the project proposal is attached, and more details are available on request.

8.            This proposed study is envisioned to be high level without getting into the on the ground realities, and it is not clear how it will translate into the proposed policies.  We would like to see some discussion of water conservation for agriculture and improved ag methodology that reduces the need for water. 

In addition, the study mainly focuses on demand for water without much consideration of natural supply of water- sustainable water extractions both from surface and groundwater sources to preserve the natural systems.   We are concerned about overtaxing water resources especially extensive use of groundwater for agriculture without understanding the sustainable yield and management of groundwater aquifers and natural water systems.  We suggest addressing sustainable development of groundwater for agricultural use.  We would like to see close cooperation with UN Water both by UN World Meteorological Organization and UNESCO on sustainable use of water resources for food security.

Below is a list of water concerns when it comes to livestock and fisheries from our point of view in disaster response. 


Adequate supply and access for livestock populations, especially in drylands and dry periods.

  • Water hygiene at water sources for human and livestock populations
  • Water conservation in water points for livestock
  • Conservation agriculture practices in rangelands that preserve soil water accumulation and reduce / control surface water runoff.  

·                    Fisheries:

  • Dynamics of global temperature patterns and changes that affect the water climate for fish species. 
  • Loss of water bodies and stream levels that support native fish species
  • Maintenance and replacement of mangrove estuaries that provide feeding and breeding environments for aquatic species
  • Oversight and regulations that manage fishing off-take in order to preserve a sustainable fish environment
  • Conservation agriculture practices that prevent or minimize crop chemicals, silt and other residues that are detrimental to healthy streams, rivers and oceans

9.            The role of young girls in terms of providing access to water is a paramount topic, especially where it relates to their rights and responsibilities. It has further implications for the society as a whole in terms of education obtained and possibly future employability of women. It might also be beneficial to look into the connection between irrigation (especially when it comes to agricultural purposes) and land rights. Land rights are complex and vary greatly from country to country, however in some countries, the type of infrastructure that is built on land is directly dependent on who owns it. Farmers might be willing to irrigate, but without ownership of the land, it is simply not possible. Moreover ownership will also affect the future management of the infrastructure. Another key topic is science and technology (engineering) in terms of strides that have been made to access water and the quality of the water. Looking at the issue from a food security angle, the impact of climate change and how governments plan / are dealing with it (i.e. issues of cooperation/communication) is also key.

10.  Addition of sections on management of sanitization of portable water, water borne diseases in populated areas, water consumption of  ranching of cattle/livestock, and re-engineering of crops/plants to adapt changing fresh water scarcity, etc. would make the report more complete.

11. The document should briefly address that agricultural activity itself degrades water quality and affects human health and food production in both local and distant areas.  A good case in point is that increasing agricultural productivity is associated with increasing use of fertilizer over broad areas. See, for example, transport of nutrients from cropland in the US midwest to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.  The annual occurrence of a hypoxic zone in the Gulf affects fisheries in this important near shore marine environment See, for example,