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Water and nutrition in a COVID-19 context: Where do we go from here?

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

Claudia Ringler is Deputy Director of IFPRI's Environment and Production Technology and a Co-Coordinator of the Working Group on Water & Nutrition of WASAG; Julienne Roux is Senior Network Officer at the Global Water Partnership and a Working Group member.

We have long known that water and nutrition security are intricately linked, yet governments and other actors continue to pursue mostly siloed, single-sector strategies. The cost of such strategies has been rising with the spread of COVID-19, as inequities in access and their impacts have grown while financial resources for more comprehensive solutions are dwindling.

A recent online workshop of the 120-actor strong Working Group on Water and Nutrition under the Global Framework of Water Scarcity in Agriculture (WASAG) brought together communities from both sectors to discuss the key linkages between water and nutrition, recent research insights, and tools and options for joint action for improved water and nutrition security. Forty-five participants from government institutions, development organizations, research and academia, and civil society participated; two thirds self-identified with the water and agricultural community and one third were from the nutrition sector.

Water is indispensable for food production and improved diets, but there are many other important linkages---for instance, from improved sanitation to nutrition, and from improved diets to growing water scarcity and pollution. Insufficient integration of the two sectors impedes achievement of both water and nutrition security.

The challenges require new approaches. Because of "growing water demand, intensifying water scarcity, increasing water pollution, overall growing water related risk, and increasing ecosystem degradation, sustainable water security will not be achieved through business-as-usual," Matthew McCartney of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) explained at the workshop.

Stineke Oenemacoordinator of the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition (UNSCN) focused on the triple burden of malnutrition: Regionally growing undernutrition, globally increasing overweight and obesity, and stagnation in micronutrient deficiencies. Trends are moving from one in three people to one in two people being malnourished worldwide, she said, and water has an important role to play in reversing that. Most freshwater resources are being withdrawn to grow food, and water also supports livestock production, food processing, preparation and consumption, and even drinking water provides important nutrients. "Neither SDG2 on zero hunger nor SDG6 on safe water and sanitation are on track," she said.

V.S. Saravanan of the Center for Development Research at Bonn University noted that access to water and nutrition are uniquely challenged in urban slum contexts and are also directly linked to health outcomes---research that leaves little doubt where pandemics such as COVID-19 will hit particularly hard. Nasser Titu of Emory University, meanwhile, focused on the conundrum of securing drinking water---which contains important micronutrients---in the rural coastal areas of Bangladesh, where high salinity in groundwater and low mineral concentrations in rainwater both result in health impacts.

Given all these challenges, what tools do we have to ensure that investments in water achieve sustainable water security while also supporting nutrition outcomes, and that investments in nutrition also support water security? Oenema proposed three key interventions that can also bring together the UN Decade on Action on Nutrition and the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development.

  1. Implement nutrition-sensitive agricultural water management---an area where water and nutrition are particularly intertwined. To further support this, Claire Chase of the World Bank presented a guidance and indicators on nutrition-sensitive irrigation and water management that can be applied by irrigation agencies and other actors interested in strengthening nutrition outcomes from irrigation investments.
  2. Ensure the environmental sustainability of diets. Francesca Harris of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSTHMH) described the state of knowledge on the water footprint of diets; one challenge is that healthier, more plant-based diets do not necessarily reduce water use. "If we want to improve both human and planetary health, a shift in both agricultural production and diets will be needed," she said. IWMI's Giriraj Amarnath discussed the possibility of identifying hotspots of water and nutrition insecurity from space---the need for remotely sensed data has become more urgent as a result of lockdowns and mobility constraints under COVID-19. "Such tools are equally important to reduce water overdraft and for the early identification of food harvests that are poor in nutrient dense crops and could help governments toward early action on fortification strategies and other nutrition interventions," Amarnath said.
  3. Address social inequities in access in water-nutrition linkages. The Household Water Insecurity Index (HWISE), presented by Joshua Miller of Northwestern University, is a recently-introduced tool that allows governments, NGOs and other actors to identify challenges around household access to adequate, safe, and reliable water supplies for well-being and a healthy life. Its application has shown a strong correlation between households' water and nutrition insecurity, and the index can be used to inform WASH (Water supply, Sanitation and Hygiene) and other interventions. The workshop also introduced two programs that address inequities in water and nutrition access: The Mi Agua Program in Bolivia supported by the Development Bank of Latin America combines improved access to WASH with nutrition education and a deep focus on sustainability. Second, Barbara van Koppen of IWMI presented the Multiple Use Systems (MUS) solution, which emphasizes support to self-supply of water services for both WASH and productive uses near the homestead, with a core focus is on women. It also emphasizes community--led water services for multiple uses from multiple sources, and seeks to end sectoral siloes between WASH and irrigation development---realizing the human rights to water, food and gender equality.

A panel discussion of development actors, including Anna LarteyFAO Director of Nutrition, Stephanie Maurissen of the Center for Water Security, Sanitation and Hygiene at USAIDAudrey Nepveu of Water and Rural Infrastructure at IFADMure Agbonlahor of the Africa Union Commission (AUC), and John Jagwe from AGRA shared their experiences and reflected what they learned from the event. Their organizations have all made important strides on the topic---USAID, for example, has a multi-sectoral strategy on nutrition. FAO's work on the promotion of healthy diets focuses in particular on small-scale irrigation and home gardens with fruit and vegetable production. FAO also supports countries in developing food-based dietary guidelines that include environmental considerations. The AUC highlights the potential of farmer-led irrigation development for horticultural production and peri-urban agriculture on the continent. AGRA works with the private sector to scale technologies, such as small-scale irrigation and sees strong positive impacts for women and girls "who have traditionally been the main providers, preparers and processors of food and water," Jagwe said. Finally, IFAD is working on mainstreaming nutrition; it has set an internal target of ensuring that 15% of its projects are nutrition-sensitive, with gradual increases after reaching the goal. The group felt that adding nutrition to traditional water and agricultural interventions provides important additional perspectives expanding the set of developmental outcomes.

Participants then discussed actions and steps that they could take together to make progress toward increased integration of water and nutrition concerns; they include the development of a series of policy briefs, a special issue drawing on workshop presentations and additional research, and continuing effective outreach for policy action on joint water and nutrition security. Such efforts are key to improving equity in access to and benefits from water and food security, a challenge heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Originally published by ifpri.org.


Thrive blog is a space for independent thought and aims to stimulate discussion among sustainable agriculture researchers and the public. Blogs are facilitated by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) but reflect the opinions and information of the authors only and not necessarily those of WLE and its donors or partners. WLE and partners are supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Contributors, including: ACIARDFIDDGISSDC, Sida and others.