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Defining a rights-based approach to water for food security

Jun 14,2015

We require a rights-based approach to water management that commits states to the reliable supply of water for smallholder food production

Theib Oweis, Director of ICARDA’s Integrated Water and Land Management Program

Most of us are aware that water is an increasingly scarce resource: by 2025, for instance, the UN’s FAO estimates that some 1 800 million people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water-scarcity.  

Water is also the subject of increasing competition between different sectors – with each seeking to exploit this precious resource for its own specific interests and gain.  

Rapidly increasing urban areas require more water for domestic use; large multinational livestock producers need more water to satisfy the needs of a growing global middle class; and industrial expansion not only creates an additional demand on freshwater supplies, but depletes available resources through pollution.     

Amidst all these competing interests, what are the prospects for the world’s smallholder farmers, producers of more than 70 percent of the world’s food? 

Unfortunately, the picture looks bleak. Unlike property developers and large multinational agro-industries, smallholder farmers struggle to influence water management policies and reforms, and their needs are all too often overlooked in favor of more powerful players.  

This is worrying – not only for farmers and their families, but the billions who rely on them for their food consumption. We risk a global food crisis if we do not act soon.     

How do we avert such a crisis, ensuring equitable access to freshwater and a reliable supply of food? We need to develop, through the participation of all stakeholders, an integrated water management strategy that addresses availability, quality, and access to water for food production, food processing, drinking, and sanitation in the context of an ecosystem approach.      

On the one hand this will mean dealing with the currently unacceptable levels of waste, particularly in the agricultural sector, which remains the largest consumer of water worldwide. We at ICARDA know where our response has to be directed - at inefficient or less productive practices, introducing measures to unlock rainfed agriculture such as supplemental and deficit irrigation, and to achieve better water productivity.  

Rainwater harvesting is another proven solution – exploiting indigenous knowledge to construct small, cost-effective, and practical storage structures.

However, while these measures will help improve access, they alone cannot solve the impending crisis that now confronts the world’s poorest farmers. Alongside more efficient irrigation and more water productive and nutrient cropping patterns, we also need mechanisms that prioritize the needs of the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized; mechanisms that can effectively arbitrate between diverging interests and solve conflicts in a fair way.

Water User Associations are one potential means of achieving this, particularly at the community level, helping to strengthen the voice of farmers in managing their water who would otherwise be isolated and fail to influence decision makers.

However, beyond these small-scale solutions, we require a rights-based approach to water management at the international and national level, which commits states to equitable provision and the reliable supply of water for food production, prioritizing the needs of small farmers.     

Fortunately, we have two opportunities: the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, and the right to food, both recognized by the United Nations.

The first entitles everyone, without discrimination, access to sufficient, safe, and affordable water for drinking and sanitation; the second realizes the right to adequate food in the context of national food security.

Both are related: safe drinking water and sanitation are crucial for health and nutrition, after all, and access to water is indispensable for food production.

Yet neither right considers the productive uses of water. By combining these two commitments and building on their complementarities, we can address this shortcoming – and instead promote a right to water for food security and nutrition.    

Adopting a rights-based approach helps ensure that smallholder farmers receive their fair share of water, protecting their interests against more powerful organizations and sectors. This will mean a reliable supply of food for rural communities, and ultimately, stronger food and nutritional security.  

The thoughts expressed in this blog are reflected in a new report recently published by the UN High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, ‘Water for food security and nutrition.’