I was in DC last week for World Water Day celebrations, which focused on this year’s theme Water & Food Security. (The UN celebrated the first World Water Day on March 22 1993, and each year selects a theme highlighting an aspect of freshwater. Read about past themes here.) I took advantage of the beautiful weather to see the early blooming cherry blossoms and visit the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. One of MLK’s quotes from 1964 caught my eye: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
“Food security exists when all people at all times have both physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs for an active and healthy life” (1996 World Food Summit). Sadly, 48 years after MLK’s Norway speech, Water and Food Security is still a relevant theme as world headlines continue to warn of drought, malnutrition, famine, and exponentially increasing populations. While one day a year might not seem like enough to make a difference in such enormous problems, World Water Day has become a prompt for governments, foundations, charitable organizations, and individuals to come together at a variety of events around the world to raise awareness, discuss solutions, and make serious commitments.
Many of us drink a glass or two of water with each of our three meals. But how many of us think about the intimate relationship between water and food?
We need a great deal of water to grow and process our food, whether it’s plant or animal. Without water we can’t grow most food sources; and without safe water we can lose many of the vital nutrients from that food. This connection is driving concerns about the world’s food supply, particularly with increasing water scarcity and changing weather patterns, but is especially critical and pressing for people in developing countries. According to the Food Security Information for Action Practical Guides, investment in water is a key part of the strategy for addressing food security problems.
While the water-food connection sounds simple, there are many complicating issues. To understand how to help, we must explore what this means on the individual, community, and global levels.
At the individual level
Nutrition is a delicate issue for many in the developing world, especially children under five. Mothers need these children to hold onto every last calorie. Yet drinking unsafe water can lead to diarrhea, which leads to malnutrition, which can lead to diarrhea, completing the vicious cycle. Eating food contaminated by unwashed hands can also contribute, ironically, to malnutrition. A study by Luby, et al. found that children living in households where food preparers washed their hands with just water before handling food were less likely to have diarrhea than children living in households where food preparers did not wash their hands at all. This suggests that hand-washing, even without using soap, promotes health. The implication for WASH project planning is that hygiene promotion is absolutely critical, with a focus on incremental changes in behavior over time: washing with water is good, washing with soap is even better.
Women and girls are usually tasked with fetching water for their families. The water is heavy, and they may have to walk up to 6 kilometers per day, sometimes in rugged terrains. It’s estimated that, around the world, women and girls spend 200 million hours each day collecting water. Subsistence farmers or others on the edge of food insecurity shouldn’t need to use precious calories just to fetch water. Various studies show the longer it takes to fetch water, the less water people are likely to bring home and consume (see chart). If families have only a very small amount of water, they will often prioritize it for drinking and cooking, not for washing hands or watering gardens. Thus, WASH project planners need to consider the convenience of water points to help stop the cycle of malnutrition.
At the community level
In my supermarket, I can find fruit and vegetables from many countries, no matter the season. But for people living on less than $2 a day, especially in rural areas, food and water can only be obtained seasonally and locally. This leads to very limited diets, both in quantity and nutritional quality. One of the under-appreciated benefits of a water supply system is that families can use the additional water to maintain small gardens and to hydrate animals. As a result, they gain access to varied food sources, which can improve nutrition and relieve some of the dependence on a single food source. Furthermore, families might be able to supplement their incomes by growing and selling coffee, rice, or meat, which often require water for processing as well. This is why planning for water systems (capacity and distribution) should consider multiple uses of water beyond drinking. (The Multiple Use Water Services Group just published guidelines here.) Using household meters and charging fees based on the amount of water used can both encourage conservation and help identify leaks quickly.
More and more WASH implementing organizations are also thinking about how to help farmers — subsistence and commercial — avoid polluting the water sources they depend on with pesticides. Other efforts are focusing on helping farmers grow more “crop per drop” — for example, iDE’s drip irrigation — or grow drought resistant crops. Watershed protection programs also encourage communities to keep trees and plant new ones to prevent topsoil from going into streams and rivers. To ensure a sufficient and safe source of water over time, WASH project planners should consider including integrated water resource management (IWRM) (like the Global Water Initiative has) or partnering with a group familiar with the practice. According to Steph Ogden (who was the IWRM fellow with Water for People last year), organizations doing IWRM best are small, local organizations based around a watershed (large or small), such as the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization. Steph says, “They’re looking out for water access, environmental sustainability, sanitation, livelihoods of their own neighbors in the watershed region with a real understanding of how they’re all (and all of those components are) connected.” Other resources on the topic include the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), International Water and Sanitation Centre (IRC), or International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).
On the global level
Inexorably, the world’s population is growing. It is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Those people will need to eat food and drink safe water, on the order of 100 percent more globally by 2050. Meat consumption (which uses a great deal of water) is increasing in population-dense countries like China. Besides the 2-4 liters of drinking water per person, it takes 2,000-5,000 liters of water to produce one person’s daily food. “To secure food for everybody, we first need to secure water,” says the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN. The implications for all of us as individuals might be eating less meat.
Almost half a century after MLK envisioned food security, The Stockholm Statement calls on leadership at all levels of government that will participate at the Rio+20 Summit to commit to achieving “universal provisioning of safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and modern energy services by the year 2030″ and to adopt intervening targets to increase efficiency in the management of water, energy, and food. Audacious? You bet! And since we all eat, drink, and use energy, each one of us has a part to play.
For more information and educational materials, see the UN World Water Day site.