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Water for food security and nutrition

Summary of research1

Location: Global

What we know: Safe and sufficient quantities of water are central to Food Security and Nutrition (FSN).

What this article adds: A comprehensive report on water for FSN was produced by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) for the CFS in 2015. Water is needed for drinking; sanitation and hygiene; to produce, transform, and prepare food; and for livelihoods, income generation and food accessibility. Sustainable management and conservation of water resources and supporting ecosystems are necessary. Water is under increasing stress through increased demand and unsustainable management. Water for FSN is determined by multi-level social, political and economic power relations and is most challenging for the marginalised. Efficiencies and improvements to rain-fed agriculture (primary global source of food production) and to irrigated systems (accounts for 70% of all water withdrawals) are possible. Water-scarce countries are particularly dependent on international trade for the importation of food and are affected by food price volatility and export restrictions. Water governance includes policy coordination that prioritises water for food security and public and private regulation. Detailed recommendations are made regarding sustainable management and conservation; integrated policy development; the vulnerable and marginalised; agricultural water management; trade; enhanced knowledge, technologies and management tools; and governance.

In October 2013, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) requested the HLPE to prepare a report on Water and Food Security, to feed into CFS’s 42nd Plenary session in 2015. This report explores the relations between water, food security and nutrition, and ways for improved water management in agriculture and food systems and improved governance of water, for better food security and nutrition for all. The concept of water for food security and nutrition (FSN) covers safe drinking water and sanitation; water used to produce, transform, and prepare food; as well as the contribution of water uses in all sectors to livelihoods and income and as such, to food accessibility. It also covers the objective of sustainable management and conservation of water resources and of the ecosystems that sustain them, and that are necessary to ensure FSN for present and future generations.

Water is central to Food Security and Nutrition

At global level, irrigated agriculture accounts for seventy percent of all water withdrawals. Safe drinking water and sanitation are fundamental to the nutrition, health and dignity of all; inadequate access to safe drinking water, sanitation facilities and hygiene practices can undermine individual nutritional status. In most parts of the world, however, water is under increasing stress. Population growth, rising incomes, changing lifestyles and increased livestock consumption, as well as demands from mining, for energy generation and for manufacturing, are increasing pressure on limited freshwater resources. Furthermore, unsustainable use and management are reducing terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem functions from land, fisheries, forests and wetlands, including their ability to provide food and nutrition.

Access to, and use of, water for FSN is determined by social, political and economic power relations at all levels. Securing access to water can be particularly challenging for smallholders, vulnerable and marginalised populations and women. Drinking water quality and associated food safety risks are important challenges in the global south and still have adverse impacts on both human and ecosystem health. In such countries, the potential to use waste water and desalinised water is currently undervalued and underused.

Managing water scarcities in agriculture and food systems

Improving water management in agriculture and food systems can be achieved by improving both water efficiency (how water is used) and agricultural water productivity in rain-fed and irrigated systems (the ratio of output to water input). As rain-fed agriculture is the primary global source of food production, there is great potential to improve agricultural productivity through rainwater harvesting and supplemental irrigation. Livestock water productivity may be enhanced through better management of grasslands and rangelands and through livestock systems resilient to water stresses. Existing irrigation systems can be improved and revitalised to increase productivity and sustainability and cropping systems adapted to reduce the need for irrigated water. Appropriate water pricing can enable cost recovery in irrigation systems and increase efficiency.

Water-scarce countries are particularly dependent on international trade for the importation of food and are affected by food price volatility and export restrictions. Measures to improve the reliability of international trade can thus be seen as measures to cope with water scarcity and water used for agriculture in water rich countries contributes to ensure global availability of food.

Challenges of water governance for food security and nutrition

Water governance covers both water resources and water services and deals with competing policies, interests and actors coming from numerous sectors, with different degrees of political or economic power. Policy coordination between the relevant sectors is necessary, which should involve national water policies that prioritise water for food security.

Many different actors, public and private, operate in water use and management. There is often confusion, and a need for clear rules and common understanding, on their roles and functions, the way they interrelate, their different responsibilities and how they can be made accountable. Regulatory oversight is needed to govern the important role of the private sector. Decentralised governance allows a better understanding of the need of users and state of the resource, but it is important that local organisations ensure equitable water access and that the setting up of  specific institutions do not undermine existing practices that ensure access for weak and marginalised groups. Allocation systems must give adequate priority to water for food production, as well as for the basic needs of poor and marginalised populations.

At the global level, several international initiatives have emerged in recent years, including the Global Water Partnership (see and the World Water Council (see In addition, UN-Water (see has been created to strengthen coordination and coherence amongst the UN agencies, programmes and funds that have a significant role in tackling global water concerns. The human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation was recognised in 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly. It entitles everyone, without discrimination, to access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable drinking water and to physical and affordable access to sanitation for personal and domestic use. The right to adequate food is also internationally recognised. The human right to safe drinking water and sanitation and the human right to food have close ties because safe drinking water and sanitation are crucial for health and good nutrition, and because access to water is indispensable for food producers, and the right to food of producers. It is important that these two rights are joined up in policy and practice. There are also considerations about the extra-territorial obligations of States to regulate the activities of third parties under their jurisdiction to ensure that they do not violate the human rights of people living in other countries.


The report includes a comprehensive list of recommendations, which are summarised here:

1. Ensure sustainable management and conservation of ecosystems for the continued availability, quality and stability of water for FSN

States must ensure the conservation and sustainable management of landscapes and ecosystems and the preservation of the quality of water sources. States and other stakeholders must promote participatory mechanisms for sustainable management of ecosystems and landscapes and consider co-management of water resources.

2. Ensure an integrated approach to water and FSN related policies

States should develop a national integrated water resource management strategy that incorporates FSN concerns and is comprehensive across sectors; water must be integrated into national FSN strategies with coordinated cross-sectoral policy development and implementation. States should also undertake evidence-based assessments of actual and future water demand and plan accordingly, and use sex-disaggregated indicators on water. States and civil society organisations should strengthen the capacity of households to adopt water-saving practices and technologies.

3. Prioritise the most vulnerable and marginalised, including mainstreaming gender and addressing the specific needs of women

States and stakeholders should ensure that men have equal access to water and other resources and information to enable them to meet their FSN requirements; infrastructure and technologies should be designed and implemented to improve water availability and access at household level; women and girls must be empowered through targeted interventions; and rural women’s participation and representation in water governance strengthened. Private, public and public-private initiations are advised to ensure that no action related to water has negative impacts on water for FSN for vulnerable and marginalised peoples.

4. Improve water management in agriculture and adapt agricultural systems to improve their overall water efficiency and water productivity, and their resilience to water stresses

States and other stakeholders must develop and implement adaptive water and agricultural strategies and action plans; use water management options to reduce water scarcity risks; increase the resilience of water systems to water stress; reduce risks to make rain-fed agricultural systems a more reliable option for farmers; invest in irrigation systems to improve water efficiency; and govern the sustainable management of groundwater.

5. Improve the contribution of trade to ‘water for FSN’

States must act to restore a transparent and accountable multilateral trading system that takes into account the needs of water-scarce countries, and must strengthen trade rules of food exports.

6. Devise and share enhanced knowledge, technologies and management tools related to water for FSN

States and stakeholders must define global, national and local research agendas on water for FSN, enable innovations, and increase investments in research and innovation in key areas. They are also advised to build capacity for research, increase efforts to collect sex-disaggregated data on water for FSN, improve climate hydraulics modelling, improve monitoring systems, and facilitate knowledge exchange on best practices. International research organisations are advised to take a lead role in research and development initiatives on water for FSN.

7. Foster an inclusive and effective governance of water for FSN

States must establish governance mechanisms to strengthen policy coherence in water for FSN; coordinate agriculture, land and water governance processes; ensure participation of all relevant actors, including the vulnerable, the marginalised and women; and ensure that all parties to contracts involving large-scale investments in land are held accountable for the impacts on natural resources and protect the rights of the vulnerable and marginalised to land, fisheries and water in the fact of large-scale infrastructure development. In addition, stakeholders are advised to support communities to take ownership of water planning and management, and recognise and support community-based actors with regard to water conservation and sustainable use of water.

8. Promote a rights-based approach to governance of water

The report recommends that states comply with their obligations under international human rights treaties and ensure the full and meaningful implementation of the existing right to safe drinking water and sanitation, as well as the right to food and related rights and guidelines. The CFS is advised to provide guidance to states in support of this; to address in their work means to strengthen the realisation of the right to drinking water and sanitation; and to explore the implications of the linkages between water and FSN on the realisation of human rights.

The presented report was well received at the CFS Session, with 20 strong endorsing comments from country representatives, civil society and UN agencies. The subsequent CFS recommendations have adhered to the structure of the HLPE report’s recommendations.

The full report is available here. The presentation to the HPLE by Prof. Lyla Mehta, the Project Team leader for the HLPE study on Water for food security and nutrition, is available here.


Water for food security and nutrition. A report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security (WFS), Rome 2015.

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Editors (). Water for food security and nutrition. Field Exchange 51, January 2016. p31.



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